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Judge discharges autistic student’s loans

A Maryland woman with Asperger syndrome will not have to pay almost $340,000 in student loans she accumulated over the course of her almost 20-year pursuit of higher education, a judge has ruled in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Maryland.

Asperger, a disorder considered on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, makes it impossible for Carol Todd to hold a job and therefore pay back her loans, Judge Robert A. Gordon found last week in a May 17 decision.

“It quickly became evident, from the vantage point of the bench, that Ms. Todd’s reality is very different from the norm,” Gordon wrote. “Autism tunnels her perception to a very fine point and that is reflected by her eerie disconnectedness from a comprehensive life experience.”

Todd and her attorney, Frank E. Turney of the Law Offices of Frank E. Turney P.A. in Catonsville, filed a petition November 2009 to discharge student loans of $339,361 owed to several lenders. Turney did not return calls for comment on Tuesday.

Todd, 63 at the time of the trial in November 2010, did not attend school while growing up, according to court documents. She received her GED at age 39 and, starting in 1989, pursued higher education as part of a rehabilitation program.

Todd obtained an Associate of Arts degree from Villa Julie College, now Stevenson University, in 1992. She received a full scholarship to the University of Baltimore School of Law that year but did not complete the program. She got her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore in 1996, then went to Towson University and received two master’s degrees in 1999.

She was in a doctoral program at Regent University in Virginia from 2001 to 2007, but never received that degree. She did receive a doctoral degree from an unaccredited online university in 2007.

“As Ms. Todd explained it, she continued her academic odyssey, and the government-sponsored rehabilitation program, for almost twenty years in part because each time she obtained a degree she found herself still unable to obtain employment that would allow her to earn a living, support herself and, moreover, repay the student loan debt,” Gordon wrote.

Todd’s education was funded through student loans and disability payments. Todd testified that she made payments while attending school, but that could not be verified, Gordon wrote.

The only job she has ever held was as an adjunct professor for three public universities in West Virginia from 1999 to 2003. She taught one two-credit course per semester, was paid $1,200 per semester and was allowed to live in university-subsidized housing. Todd moved back to Baltimore in 2007.

“While Ms. Todd can focus with intensity academically, Autism will not allow her to function in a normal job setting and generate meaningful income,” Gordon wrote, citing deposition testimony from Todd’s doctor, Ramana Gopalan.

Sandy D’Erasmo, who founded the Anne Arundel County Asperger Support Group, said it is often difficult for people with Asperger syndrome to hold jobs because they struggle with social cues, sometimes talk too much, give too much information or can’t follow step-by-step directions.

D’Erasmo, who was not involved in Todd’s case, is a teaching assistant at Hanna More School, a program to help students with autism spectrum disorders at Severna Park High School. While she thinks more people with Asperger are getting hired than in the past, “it’s very hard for them,” D’Erasmo said. “They don’t understand body language and they see things very black and white. There is no gray area, so sometimes they have trouble on the job.”

Gordon noted that “there were several times during her testimony when Ms. Todd became overwhelmed in the face of seemingly innocuous questions and for no apparent reason folded into a fearful shell. None of this was contrived; instead it all found its source in Ms. Todd’s incurable ailment.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is representing the U.S. Department of Education, and Rand L. Gelber, attorney for Educational Credit Management Corp., declined to comment. The attorney for Access Group Inc., Marc E. Shach with Weinstock, Friedman & Friedman P.A., declined to comment and said he and his client were still deciding on whether they would appeal the decision.

The law provides that student loan debt can be waived if the debtor can prove undue hardship — a standard that Gordon said is established if the debtor cannot maintain a minimal standard of living if forced to repay loans, additional circumstances exist that indicate this will persist while the loans are paid off and the debtor made good faith efforts to repay loans. The judge found Todd met all these requirements.

Todd lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment in Baltimore where she uses one bedroom as an office, the opinion says. She receives $768 in Social Security Disability Income payments and $200 in food stamps every month. She has a monthly deficit of about $900, Gordon wrote.

“Because of Autism Ms. Todd has not been able, for the vast majority of her life, to gain or hold a job, let alone fashion a career, and there is no chance that state of affairs will ever change,” the judge concluded.