News10NBC Investigates: NYS changes policy on suing SUNY students and now sues where they live

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – After investigations by News10NBC and then the New York Times, the state has changed its policy when it sues students over SUNY tuition.

The state is still filing lawsuits. Only instead of filing them in Albany, it’s filing them in the counties where the students live. That’s a major change. And the advocates say this will help students make arrangements to pay the money or fight it.

Carlotta Summers spent one year at SUNY Fredonia. The state sued her for one semester of tuition and she had no idea.

Carlotta Summers: “I believe it was 2011.”
Brean: “Oh my! Okay.”
Summers: “So, I found out about it in 2019 when my return was garnished. I had no idea that anything had even happened.”
Brean: “Wow.”

Summers is still appealing the default judgment against her.
One reason Summers says she didn’t know she was sued is because the lawsuit was filed in Albany County.

Brean: “Where were you living at the time you found out you had been sued?”
Summers: “I was living in New York City.”

Three years ago I started digging into the state’s practice of suing students. I found more than 600 lawsuits filed in a two month period. That’s when I first showed you every lawsuit was filed in Albany, no matter where the students lived or went to SUNY. Attorney Anna Anderson was trying to defend students who came to her for help.

Anna Anderson, staff attorney, National Consumer Law Center: “The problem was no one could actually make it to Albany, so what we were seeing is that the state attorney general’s office was getting default judgments against thousands of New York State residents and students, even if they did not owe the bills in the first place.”

Brean: “Why is this going to help these students who may or may not owe SUNY the money?”
Anderson: “If you owe the money, you can actually show up in court and try to work something out with the attorney general’s office.”

And if students don’t owe the money?

Anderson: “Now the students will be able to physically show up in court in Rochester, in Buffalo, wherever they are living to raise those defenses properly and have a judge hear them out fairly.”

Brean: “Would that have helped you at all if the lawsuit was filed where you lived?”
Summers: “That’s a tough question because I honestly don’t think they should be suing anyone. Um, it would have made it easier? Yes.”

The state attorney general’s office is obligated to sue on behalf of SUNY. In a statement, the NYSAG’s office wrote, “While the Office of Attorney General has a legal obligation to collect student debt referred by SUNY, we have taken significant steps to reform the office’s role and ease the burden on people. We suspended SUNY debt collection entirely during the pandemic, worked with the governor and legislature to remove collection fees, and proactively changed the locations for legal filings to make it easier and more convenient for thousands of people. We will continue to do all we can to reform student debt collection practices in New York, so that all students can achieve the goal of higher education without the crushing burden of debt.” 

I counted 33 lawsuits filed in Monroe County this year by the AG’s office on behalf of SUNY over tuition.

As part of her appeal, Summers filed a freedom of information with the state attorney general. She learned the NYSAG’s office sued 20,000 students on behalf of SUNY.