Student loans discharged because debtor has Asperger's

A Baltimore County woman had about $340,000 in student loan debt discharged by a federal bankruptcy judge this month because Asperger's syndrome prevents her from holding a job.

Carol Todd of Nottingham pursued college degrees "as a stepping stone toward a measure of liberation … and perhaps to help her achieve something closer to a normal life," according to the May 17 opinion of Judge Robert A. Gordon, a bankruptcy judge for the District of Maryland. Asperger's is an autism-spectrum disorder that is typified by problems with social interaction.

But the debt Todd racked up ended up complicating her life, Gordon said. He took a rare judicial step by deciding that the loans Todd took on were an "undue hardship."

"It's very difficult to discharge a student loan," said Lawrence D. Coppel, a Baltimore attorney and founder of Maryland's Bankruptcy Bar Association.

"The courts have applied a very strict standard to that exception," said Coppel. "Most of the decisions that are published deny the discharge and refuse to find a hardship exception, even in cases where there's clearly hardship — so the decision by Judge Gordon … is unique."

Todd, who was 63 at the time of her student loan discharge trial in Nov. 2010, received a GED at 39 and began pursuing higher education.

She received an associate degree at Villa Julie College, now Stevenson University, and a bachelor's degree at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, now Notre Dame of Maryland University. At Towson University, she obtained two master's degrees.

She also enrolled at the University of Baltimore School of Law and Regent University, and took classes online at an unaccredited school. But after all that education, Todd was never able to keep a steady job.

"The thing to understand about Asperger's is that it can impact people so differently," said Barbara A. Bissonnette, a Massachusetts-based workplace coach for people with Asperger's syndrome.

Some people with the syndrome can make six-figure salaries, she said, but many more have difficulty being successful in even entry-level positions.

It's not uncommon for people with Asperger's to be in financial straits, she said. Indeed, there seems to be an increasing number of educated people with Asperger's syndrome who are having trouble finding work, Bissonnette said.

"Lately I've been seeing in my coaching practice many more young people, because there's so much more awareness now and Asperger's is diagnosed at a much younger age," Bissonnette said.

When people are diagnosed at a younger age, they're more likely to receive counseling and graduate from high school and college, she said. But those degrees don't wipe away the social difficulties that people with Asperger's face, which can be detrimental when they try to join the workforce, she said.

Todd could not be reached for comment. Frank E. Turney, a Catonsville-based attorney who represented Todd in her bankruptcy petition, did not respond to inquiries.

Marc E. Shach, a Baltimore-based attorney who represented one of Todd's lenders, Access Group Inc., said his client is still reviewing the decision. He would not comment on whether Access Group intends to appeal the ruling.

Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for Maryland's U.S. attorney's office, which represented the U.S. Department of Education in the case, declined to comment on the judge's ruling.

An attorney for Educational Credit Management Corp., a student loan guarantor that services loans during bankruptcy and that was also named as a defendant in Todd's case, did not respond to requests for comment.