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News10NBC Investigates: SUNY, NYS Attorney General sue hundreds of SUNY students over tuition

Berkeley Brean
Updated: February 04, 2020 11:25 PM
Created: February 04, 2020 10:04 PM

NEW YORK (WHEC) — Since the start of the school year, News10NBC has been investigating how and why colleges are suing students over tuition. 

Now we can tell you that New York State is suing hundreds of former SUNY students. 

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And that's not hundreds over the course of several years. That's hundreds in the past two months

News10NBC can show you why the state makes it harder for the students to fight those cases. 

"Just because SUNY says you owe a bill doesn't necessarily mean that's true," attorney Anna Anderson said. 

Anderson is with the non-profit legal office in Rochester called Law NY. Some of her clients are former SUNY students getting sued.

With her help, I was able to find the SUNY lawsuits.

Since Nov. 25, the State of New York, on behalf of SUNY, has sued 625 students.

14 lawsuits were filed this week alone.

The lawsuits demand as little as $578 dollars to as much as $12,000 plus interest.

"It's always tough learning that the State of New York is suing you," said a former SUNY student named John. "Like, hold on. What did I do to the State of New York? I mean the State of New York."

John is from Rochester. 

He was sued for tuition from The College at Brockport.

Because of his work and the lawsuit, he asked us not to show his face and use a different name.

He was sued for more than $3,000 in outstanding tuition after his financial aid ran out. The state kept his tax refunds and garnished his wages. 

Brean: "And how much did they take out of your wages?"

John, sued for SUNY tuition: "About, again, $185 per pay period, bi-weekly."

Brean: "So we're almost looking at $400 a month."

John: "Yes."  

John's debt is paid off. Even though he lives in Rochester and went to The College at Brockport, he was sued in Albany County.

And so is every other former SUNY student and that's what Anderson has a problem with.

"It's an access to justice issue," she said. "If you live in Rochester and you went to SUNY Brockport and SUNY Brockport says you owe them money, I don't believe it's fair that you have to go all the way to Albany to challenge that."

Anna Anderson, Supervising Attorney at Law NY: "If a court hearing ever occurs that means they're going to have to travel to Albany."

Brean: "They'll have to get on the Thruway and drive the four hours to get there."

Anderson: "Yes."

Our first investigation into lawsuits over tuition looked at every single college in New York. 

Virtually none of them sue. Nazareth, Fisher, the UofR, Roberts Wesleyan have no lawsuits registered in the state's online database. 

We did find RIT filed 159 lawsuits in two years, by far the most of any private college or university in the state. But we also found, in multiple cases, that at least RIT filed the lawsuits in the counties where their former students live.

I contacted the State Attorney General's office and SUNY. 

In a statement, the AG's office said:

"After SUNY chooses to refer a case to the Attorney General's Office, we have an obligation to collect on debts to the state and ensure taxpayer dollars are protected." 

It says lawsuits are the "absolute last resort."

But why only sue in Albany? 

The AG's office didn't answer that specific question. The lawsuits say it's because that's where "the plaintiffs reside."

"I understand they have to bring their lawsuits if they think the money is owed," Anderson said. "What I would say is there should be a way for those students, if they believe they have defenses, to raise those and to challenge those and to have their day in court which is not happening currently."

In a statement, SUNY said: 

"While we do not comment on pending legal proceedings, we firmly believe in making every effort to keep members of the SUNY community actively engaged and enrolled in classes in order to accomplish their ultimate ambition of advancing their education."

Since Thanksgiving, I found about five cases already settled including one where a student agreed to pay $200 a month for three and a half years. 

According to the court filing, the student owed $5,854. By the end of the payoff, he will have paid the state of New York $8,400. So, that student will pay approximately $2,546 just in interest and fees. 

Click here for the state's student loan borrowers Bill of Rights.

Click here for information about the state's excelsior scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition at SUNY as long as you qualify financially.

Click here to go to Law NY, in case you are a former SUNY student who is being sued for unpaid tuition.


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