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On July 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs in a TCPA action, holding that a device used by a student loan servicer that only dials from a stored list of numbers qualifies as an automatic telephone dialing system (“autodialer”). According to the opinion, a borrower and co-signer sued the student loan servicer alleging the servicer violated the TCPA by using an autodialer to place calls to their cell phones without consent. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded over $176,000 in damages. On appeal, the servicer argued that the equipment used did not qualify as an autodialer under the TCPA’s definition, because the calls are placed from a stored list of numbers and are not “randomly or sequentially” generated. The 6th Circuit rejected this argument, joining the 2nd and 9th Circuits, holding that under the TCPA, an autodialer is defined as “equipment which has the capacity—(A) to store [telephone numbers to be called]; or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.” This decision is in conflict with holdings by the 3rd, 7th, and 11th Circuits, which have held that autodialers require the use of randomly or sequentially generated phone numbers, consistent with the D.C. Circuit’s holding that struck down the FCC’s definition of an autodialer in ACA International v. FCC (covered by a Buckley Special Alert).
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to address the definition of an autodialer under the TCPA, which will resolve the split among the circuits.
On June 25, the FCC narrowed the Commission’s definition of an “autodialer,” providing that “if a calling platform is not capable of originating a call or sending a text without a person actively and affirmatively manually dialing each one, that platform is not an autodialer and calls or texts made using it are not subject to the TCPA’s restrictions on calls and texts to wireless phones.” The FCC reiterated that only sequential number generators or other systems that can store or produce numbers to be called or texted at random are the only technologies considered to be autodialers. The FCC further noted that whether a system can make a large number of calls in a short period of time does not factor into whether the system is considered an autodialer, and that message senders may avoid TCPA liability by obtaining prior express consent from recipients. The FCC issued the ruling in response to an alliance’s 2018 petition, which asked the FCC to clarify whether the definition of an autodialer applied to peer-to-peer messaging (P2P) platforms that, among other things, allow organizations to text a large number of individuals and require a person to manually send each text message one at a time. The FCC declined to rule on whether any particular P2P text platform is an autodialer due to the lack of sufficient factual basis.
The FCC issued a separate declaratory ruling the same day reiterating that the TCPA requires autodialer or robocall senders to obtain prior express consent before making any texts or robocalls, stressing that the “mere existence of a caller-consumer relationship does not satisfy the prior-express-consent requirement for calls to wireless numbers, nor does it create an exception to this requirement.” The ruling was issued in response to a health benefit company’s 2015 petition, which asked the FCC to exempt health plans and providers, as well as certain non-emergency, urgent health care-related calls, from the prior consent requirement as long as the company permitted consumers to opt out after the fact.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, several appellate courts have issued conflicting decisions with respect to the definition of an autodialer.
On April 7, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated a district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of a defendant in a TCPA action. The decision results from a lawsuit filed by a plaintiff who claimed to have received more than 300 unsolicited text messages from the defendant through the use of an autodialer after the plaintiff texted a code to receive free admission to a party. The defendant countered that the programs used to send the text messages were not autodialers because they “required too much human intervention when dialing,” and therefore did not fall under the TCPA. The district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, agreeing that the defendant’s programs were not autodialers because a human being determined when the text messages are sent.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit concluded that while human beings do play some role in the defendant’s systems, “[c]licking ‘send’ does not require enough human intervention to turn an automatic dialing system into an non-automatic one.” According to the appellate court, “[a]s the FCC additionally clarified in 2012, the statutory definition of an [autodialer] ‘covers any equipment that has the specified capacity to generate numbers and dial them without human intervention regardless of whether the numbers called are randomly or sequentially generated or come from calling lists.’” (Emphasis in the original.) “The FCC’s interpretation of the statute is consistent with our own, for only an interpretation that permits an [autodialer] to store numbers—no matter how produced—will also allow for the [autodialer] to dial from non-random, non-sequential ‘calling lists.’ . . . What matters is that the system can store those numbers and make calls using them.”
The 2nd Circuit’s opinion is consistent with the 9th Circuit’s holding in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC (covered by InfoBytes here). However, these two opinions conflict with holdings by the 3rd, 7th, and 11th Circuits, which have held that autodialers require the use of randomly or sequentially generated phone numbers, consistent with the D.C. Circuit’s holding that struck down the FCC’s definition of an autodialer in ACA International v. FCC (covered by a Buckley Special Alert).
On January 10, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it had granted a petition for a writ of certiorari filed by the U.S. government in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc.—a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) case concerning an exemption that allows debt collectors to use an autodialer to contact individuals on their cell phones without obtaining prior consent to do so when collecting debts guaranteed by the federal government. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 4th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs (a group of several political consultants) that the government-debt exemption contravenes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, and found that the challenged exemption was a content-based restriction on free speech that did not hold up to strict scrutiny review. “Under the debt-collection exemption, the relationship between the federal government and the debtor is only relevant to the subject matter of the call. In other words, the debt-collection exemption applies to a phone call made to the debtor because the call is about the debt, not because of any relationship between the federal government and the debtor,” the appellate court opined. However, the panel sided with the FCC to sever the debt collection exemption from the automated call ban instead of rendering the entire ban unconstitutional, as requested by the plaintiffs. “First and foremost, the explicit directives of the Supreme Court and Congress strongly support a severance of the debt-collection exemption from the automated call ban,” the panel stated. “Furthermore, the ban can operate effectively in the absence of the debt-collection exemption, which is clearly an outlier among the statutory exemptions.” The petitioners—Attorney General William Barr and the FCC—now ask the Court to review whether the government-debt exception to the TCPA’s automated-call restriction is a violation of the First Amendment. Oral arguments are set for April 22.
On April 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit vacated a district court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the FCC, concluding that an exemption under the TCPA that allows debt collectors to use an autodialer to contact individuals on their cell phones when collecting debts guaranteed by the federal government violates the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause. According to the opinion, several political consultant groups (plaintiffs) argued that a statutory exemption enacted by Congress as a means of allowing automated calls to be placed to individuals’ cell phones “that relate to the collection of debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government” is “facially unconstitutional under the Free Speech Clause” of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs argued that the debt-collection exemption to the automated call ban contravenes their free speech rights. Moreover, the plaintiffs claimed that “the free speech infirmity of the debt-collection exemption is not severable from the automated call ban and renders the entire ban unconstitutional.” The FCC, however, argued that the applicability of the exemption depended on the relationship between the government and the debtor and not on the content. The district court awarded summary judgment in favor of the FCC after applying a “strict scrutiny review,” ruling that the exemption does not violate the Free Speech Clause.
On appeal the 4th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs that the exemption contravenes the Free Speech Clause, and found that the challenged exemption was a content-based restriction on free speech that did not hold up to strict scrutiny review. “Under the debt-collection exemption, the relationship between the federal government and the debtor is only relevant to the subject matter of the call. In other words, the debt-collection exemption applies to a phone call made to the debtor because the call is about the debt, not because of any relationship between the federal government and the debtor.” And because the exemption is a content-based restriction on speech, it must satisfy strict scrutiny review to be constitutional, which it fails to do, the 4th Circuit opined. “The exemption thus cannot be said to advance the purpose of privacy protection, in that it actually authorizes a broad swath of intrusive calls. . . [and] therefore erodes the privacy protections that the automated call ban was intended to further.” However, the appellate court sided with the FCC to sever the debt collection exemption from the automated call ban. “First and foremost, the explicit directives of the Supreme Court and Congress strongly support a severance of the debt-collection exemption from the automated call ban,” the panel stated. “Furthermore, the ban can operate effectively in the absence of the debt-collection exemption, which is clearly an outlier among the statutory exemptions.”
District court orders TCPA suit to mediation, states FCC’s interpretation of autodialer may take years
On February 1, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri issued an order referring the parties in a putative TCPA class action to mediation. The plaintiff’s complaint alleges that the defendant’s insurance company sent her text messages without her consent using an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer). In response, the defendant argued that the software it used to send the text messages does not qualify as an autodialer because it calls numbers from a pre-set list, instead of one that is randomly or sequentially generated. The defendant further argued that the case should be stayed because the FCC is currently considering whether systems such as the one at issue qualify as autodialers under the TCPA following the D.C. Circuit’s March 2018 ruling in ACA International v. FCC, which set aside the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of an autodialer as “unreasonably expansive.” (Covered by a Buckley Special Alert.) The decision to refer the case to mediation comes after the court’s August 2018 order denying the defendant’s motion to stay the proceeding. In that order the court explained that, although the FCC issued a notice in May 2018 (covered by InfoBytes here) seeking comments on the interpretation of the TCPA, the rulemaking process would likely take years and may not even resolve the issue in the case.
District Court allows TCPA action to proceed, citing 9th Circuit autodialer definition as binding law
On January 17, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona denied a cable company’s motion to stay a TCPA action, disagreeing with the company’s arguments that the court should wait until the FCC releases new guidance on what constitutes an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer) before reviewing the case. A consumer filed a proposed class action against the company, arguing that the company violated the TCPA by autodialing wrong or reassigned telephone numbers without express consent. The company moved to stay the case, citing the FCC’s May 2018 notice (covered by InfoBytes here), which sought comments on the interpretation of the TCPA following the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC (setting aside the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of an autodialer as “unreasonably expansive”). The company argued that the FCC would “soon rule on what constitutes an [autodialer], a ‘called party,’ in terms of reassigned number liability, and a possible good faith defense pursuant to the TCPA,” all of which would affect the company’s liability in the proposed class action. The court rejected these arguments, citing as binding law Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, a September 2018 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that broadly defined what constitutes an autodialer under the statute (covered by InfoBytes here), and therefore, determining there was nothing to inhibit the court from proceeding with the case. As for the FCC’s possible future guidance on the subject, the court concluded, “there seems little chance that any guidance from the FCC, at some unknown, speculative, future date, would affect this case.”
On December 12, the FCC adopted new rules to establish a single, comprehensive database designed to reduce the number of calls inadvertently made to reassigned numbers as part of its strategy to help stop unwanted calls. According to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the database would enable callers to verify—prior to placing a call—whether a number has been permanently disconnected and is therefore eligible for reassignment. Currently, callers may be held liable under the TCPA should they call a reassigned number where the new party did not consent to receiving calls. The FCC also announced it will (i) add a safeguard requiring a “minimum ‘aging’ period of 45 days before permanently disconnected telephone numbers can be reassigned”; and (ii) provide a safe harbor from TCPA liability for any calls to reassigned numbers due to database error. However, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly stated that while he supported the creation of the database, he expressed reservations about both the cost and effectiveness, stating “only the honest and legitimate callers will consult the reassigned numbers database—not the criminals and scammers.” O’Reilly suggested developing better, more logical interpretations of the TCPA, asserting that “much more work remains, particularly on narrowing the prior Commission’s ludicrous definition of ‘autodialer,’ and eliminating the lawless revocation of consent rule.”
Additionally, the FCC announced a ruling (see FCC 18-178) denying requests from mass-texting companies and other parties for text messages to be classified as ‘“telecommunications services’ subject to common carrier regulations under the Communication Act.” If the request had been granted, the FCC stated, the classification would have limited wireless providers’ efforts to effectively combat spam and scam robotexts. Rather, the FCC classified SMS and Multimedia Messaging Services as “information services” under the Communications Act, which allows wireless providers the ability to take action to stop unwanted text messages, such as applying filtering technologies to block messages that are likely spam.
FCC seeks comments on interpretation of TCPA definition of autodialer following 9th Circuit decision
On October 3, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau released a notice seeking comment on the interpretation of the TCPA in light of a recent 9th Circuit decision, which broadened the definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer) under the TCPA. As previously covered in InfoBytes, on September 20, the 9th Circuit held that the TCPA’s definition of an autodialer includes equipment with the capacity to store numbers to be called and to automatically dial such numbers whether or not those numbers have been generated by a random or sequential number generator. The court, however, declared the statutory definition of an autodialer to be “ambiguous on its face” and, thus, it looked to the context and structure of the TCPA in reaching its conclusion regarding the scope of the definition.
The FCC issued the notice “to supplement the record developed in response” to a prior notice issued last May, which sought comments on the interpretation of the TCPA following the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC. (See previous InfoBytes coverage on the May 2018 notice here.) Specifically, the FCC seeks comments on the following issues relevant to developing an interpretation of the TCPA’s definition of autodialer: (i) To the extent the definition of an autodialer is ambiguous, how should the FCC exercise its discretion to interpret such ambiguities? (ii) Does the 9th Circuit’s interpretation mean that any device with the capacity to dial stored numbers automatically qualifies as an autodialer? (iii) What devices have the capacity to store numbers, and do smartphones have such capacity? and (iv) What devices that have the capacity to dial stored numbers also have the capacity to automatically dial such numbers and do smartphones have such capacity?
Comments are due October 17 with reply comments due October 24.
On June 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed summary judgment for a global internet media company holding that the plaintiff failed to show the equipment the company used fell within the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” (autodialer) based the recent holding by the D.C. Circuit in ACA International v. FCC. (Covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert.) The decision results from a lawsuit filed by a consumer alleging the company’s email SMS service, which sent a text message every time a user received an email, was an “autodialer” and violated the TCPA. The consumer had not signed up for the service, but had purchased a cellphone with a reassigned number and the previous owner had elected to use the SMS service. Ultimately, the consumer received almost 28,000 text messages over 17 months. In 2014, the district court granted summary judgment for the company concluding that the email service did not qualify as an autodialer. In light of the FCC’s 2015 Declaratory Ruling—which concluded that an autodialer is not limited to its current functions but also its potential functions—the 3rd Circuit vacated the lower court’s judgment. On remand, the lower court again granted summary judgment in favor of the company.
In reaching the latest decision, the 3rd Circuit interpreted the definition of an autodialer as it would prior to the 2015 Declaratory Ruling in light of the D.C. Circuit’s recent holding, which struck down the part of the FCC’s 2015 Ruling expanding the definition to potential capacity. The appellate court held that the consumer failed to show that the email SMS service had the present capacity to function as an autodialer.
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