Ninth Circuit holds that the Higher Education Act (HEA), and its Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), preempt state law claims for unfair billing practices

The Higher Education Act (HEA) was passed “to keep the college door open to all students of ability, regardless of socioeconomic background.” Rowe v. Educ. Credit Mgmt. Corp., 559 F.3d 1028, 1030 (9th Cir. 2009).  Congress also Congress established the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), a system of loan guarantees meant to encourage lenders to loan money to students and their parents on favorable terms. See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1071-1087-4; Rowe, 559 F.3d at 1030.  In Chae, et al. v. SLM Corporation, dba Sallie Mae, et al. (9th Cir. January 25, 2010), the Ninth Circuit considered whether the HEA and FFELP preempted state law consumer protection claims in a putative class action alleging false and misleading disclosures about billing practices.

The Court excluded field preemption from its analysis, noting: "Turning now to the issues before us, we have previously held that field preemption does not apply to the HEA."  Chae, at 1382.  With that, the Court analyzed whether "express preemption" or "conflict preemption" were present.

The Ninth Circuit found that express preemption applied to the claims in Chae:

Congress has enacted several express preemption provisions applicable to FFELP participants. See, e.g., 20 U.S.C. §§ 1078(d), 1091a(a)(2)(B), 1091a(b)(1)-(3), 1095a(a), 1098g. These provisions expressly preempt the operation of state usury laws, statutes of limitations, limitations on recovering the costs of debt collection, infancy defenses to contract liability, wage garnishment limitations, and disclosure requirements. This last provision, 20 U.S.C. § 1098g, is entitled, “Exemption from State disclosure requirements.” The text of the statute reads: “Loans made, insured, or guaranteed pursuant to a program authorized by Title IV of the Higher Education Act . . . shall not be subject to any disclosure requirements of any State law.” Id. The FFELP falls within Title IV of the HEA, and is thus subject to its express preemption provision. 

Chae, at 1383.  The Court then explained its disagreement with the plaintiffs' characterization of their claims as misrepresentation claims, not disclosure claims:

At bottom, the plaintiffs’ misrepresentation claims are improper-disclosure claims. The plaintiffs do not contend that California law prevents Sallie Mae from employing any of the three loan-servicing practices at issue. We consider these allegations in substance to be a challenge to the allegedly misleading method Sallie Mae used to communicate with the plaintiffs about its practices. In this context, the state-law prohibition on misrepresenting a business practice “is merely the converse” of a state-law requirement that alternate disclosures be made. See Cipollone, 505 U.S. at 527. 

Chae, at 1384.  The Court was not sympathetic to the plaintiffs' argument that a finding of preemption would eliminate any recourse for unfair practices by Sallie Mae.  The Court, in a footnote, suggested that the plaintiffs' only remedy was to complain to the Department of Education.  Chae, at 1384-85, n. 6.

Finally, the Court concluded, after a lengthy discussion, that application of state consumer protection laws would directly conflict with the uniformity and stability goal behind the FFELP.