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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

6th Circuit: TCPA robocall claims not invalidated by severance of 2015 amendment in AAPC

Courts Appellate Sixth Circuit TCPA Robocalls U.S. Supreme Court Class Action

Courts

On September 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc. (AAPC) (covered by InfoBytes here, which held that the government-debt exception in Section 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) of the TCPA is an unconstitutional content-based speech restriction and severed the provision from the statute) does not invalidate a plaintiff’s TCPA claims concerning robocalls he received prior to the Court issuing its decision. In the current matter, the plaintiff filed a proposed class action alleging violations of the TCPA’s robocall restriction after he received two robocalls from the defendant in late 2019 and early 2020 advertising its electricity services. Following the Court’s decision in AAPC, the district court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that because severance of the exception in AAPC only operates prospectively, “the robocall restriction was unconstitutional and therefore ‘void’ for the period the exception was on the books.” As such, the district court concluded that because the robocall restriction was void, it could not provide a basis for federal-question jurisdiction for alleged TCPA robocall violations arising before the Court severed the exception.

On appeal, the 6th Circuit conducted a severability analysis, holding that the district court erred in concluding that the court, in AAPC, offered “‘a remedy in the form of eliminating the content-based restriction' from the TCPA.” Rather, the appellate court pointed out that “the Court recognized only that the Constitution had ‘automatically displace[d]’ the government-debt-collector exception from the start, then interpreted what the statute has always meant in its absence,” adding that the legal determination in AAPC applied retroactively and did not render the entire TCPA robocall restriction void until the exception was severed by the court. A First Amendment defense presented by the defendant premised on the argument that “government-debt collectors have a due-process defense to liability because they did not have fair notice of their actions’ unlawfulness” for robocalls placed before AAPC was also rejected. The 6th Circuit opinion emphasized that “[w]hether a debt collector had fair notice that it faced punishment for making robocalls turns on whether it reasonably believed that the statute expressly permitted its conduct. That, in turn, will likely depend in part on whether the debt collector used robocalls to collect government debt or non-government debt. But applying the speech-neutral fair-notice defense in the speech context does not transform it into a speech restriction.”

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