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On March 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit partially reversed a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit against several defendants for alleged violations of the FDCPA, the FCRA, and the TCPA, holding that the plaintiff’s third amended complaint was not filled with “shotgun pleadings.” The matter revolves around several statutory and common-law claims arising from the defendants’ allegedly-unlawful debt collection attempts, which were dismissed multiple times by the district court as “shotgun pleadings.” In her third amended complaint—which alleged 10 causes of action—the plaintiff contended, among other things, that the defendants failed to respond to letters she sent to dispute the alleged debt and failed to notify credit reporting agencies (CRA) of the dispute. The plaintiff also alleged that certain defendants called her cell phone multiple times using an automatic telephone dialing system. The district court entered final judgment in favor of all the defendants, minus the CRA defendant, stating, among other things, that the plaintiff continued to “‘lump the defendants together. . .and provide generic and general factual allegations as if they applied to all defendants.’”
On appeal, the 11th Circuit concluded that the district court erred in dismissing six of the 10 counts as shotgun pleadings. “While not at all times a model of clarity, [the third amended complaint] is reasonably concise, alleges concrete actions and omissions undertaken by specific defendants, and clarifies which defendants are responsible for those alleged acts or omissions,” the appellate court wrote. However, the appellate court agreed that the district court correctly dismissed two counts for failing to state a claim related to claims concerning one of the defendant’s alleged attempts to collect delinquent tax payments owed to the IRS. According to the appellate court, since “tax obligations do not arise from business dealings or other consumer transactions they are not ‘debts’ under the FDCPA.’”
7th Circuit: Dialing system that cannot generate random or sequential numbers is not an autodialer under the TCPA
On February 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that a dialing system that lacks the capacity to generate random or sequential numbers does not meet the definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer) under the TCPA. According to the 7th Circuit, an autodialer must both store and produce phone numbers “using a random or sequential number generator.” The decision results from a lawsuit filed by a consumer alleging a company sent text messages without first receiving his prior consent as required by the TCPA. However, according to the 7th Circuit, the company’s system—the autodialer in this case—failed to meet the TCPA’s statutory definition of an autodialer because it “exclusively dials numbers stored in a customer database” and not numbers obtained from a number generator. As such, the company did not violate the TCPA when it sent unwanted text messages to the consumer, the appellate court wrote.
Though the appellate court admitted that the wording of the provision “is enough to make a grammarian throw down her pen” as there are at least four possible ways to read the definition of an autodialer in the TCPA, the court concluded that while its adopted interpretation—that “using a random or sequential number generator” describes how the numbers are “stored” or “produced”—is “admittedly imperfect,” it “lacks the more significant problems” of other interpretations and is thus the “best reading of a thorny statutory provision.”
The 7th Circuit’s opinion is consistent with similar holdings by the 11th and 3rd Circuits (covered by InfoBytes here and here), which have held that autodialers require the use of randomly or sequentially generated phone numbers, as well as the D.C. Circuit’s holding in ACA International v. FCC, which struck down the FCC’s definition of an autodialer (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here). However, these opinions conflict with the 9th Circuit’s holding in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, (covered by InfoBytes here), which broadened the definition of an autodialer to cover all devices with the capacity to automatically dial numbers that are stored in a list.
On February 14, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied the approval of a proposed $4 million class action settlement in a TCPA case based on a “confluence of a number of negative factors,” including that the court believed the defendant—a subprime auto lender—would be able to withstand a significantly higher judgement to compensate consumers allegedly harmed by its use of an automatic telephone dialing system. The complaint alleged that the defendant allegedly placed automated and prerecorded phone calls to class members on their cellphones in violation of the TCPA. In 2018, the parties reached a preliminary settlement that would give each of the 67,255 class members who opted into the settlement roughly $35.
In denying the approval, the court cited three primary concerns with the proposed settlement: “first, the lack of information available to counsel to inform their view and advise the class of the strengths and weaknesses of the case given the early posture in which the parties reached agreement; second, the emphasis on [the defendant’s] inability to pay more than $4 million when no underlying financial information was provided to the class members, compounded by the [c]ourt’s belief, after in camera review of the financials, that this statement is inaccurate; and third, the [c]ourt’s skepticism that $4 million is a fair settlement in this case, given that it will result in a de minimis per claimant recovery of $35.30.” Arguing that “de minimis class action recoveries, such as TCPA recoveries, may not be worth the costs they impose on our judicial system,” the court also noted that the TCPA provides for a private right of action and statutory damages of $500 for each violation (or actual monetary loss—whichever is greater), and does not impose a cap on statutory damages in class actions. Moreover, the court argued that the $35.30 that each class member would receive would likely not even cover the cell phone bill for one class member for one month and is, among other things, “simply trivial in light of a possible recovery of $500.”
On January 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a split opinion on the definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer) within the context of the TCPA. The TCPA defines an autodialer as “equipment which has the capacity—(A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.” According to the 11th Circuit, “to be an auto-dialer, the equipment must (1) store telephone numbers using a random or sequential number generator and dial them or (2) produce such numbers using a random or sequential number generator and dial them.”
In the first case, a Florida plaintiff filed the putative class action complaint alleging a hotel chain used an autodialer to call her cell phone without her consent. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) The hotel moved for summary judgment, arguing that the system did not qualify as an autodialer under the TCPA because it required a hotel agent to click “Make Call” before the system dialed the number. The court agreed, concluding that the defining characteristic of an autodialer is “the capacity to dial numbers without human intervention,” which the court noted remains unchanged even in light of the D.C. Circuit decision in ACA International v. FCC (covered by a Buckley Special Alert here). In the second case, a plaintiff contended a loan servicer placed 35 calls to her cell phone about unpaid student loans. However, in this instance, the district court ruled that the company used an autodialer because the system did not require human intervention and had the capacity to automatically dial a stored list of numbers. Additionally, the court ruled that 13 of the 35 calls were willful violations of the TCPA.
On appeal, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s ruling in the first case, concluding that the hotel calling system, which required human intervention before a call was placed and “used randomly or sequentially generated numbers,” did not qualify as an autodialer under the TCPA. The appellate court, however, partially affirmed and partially reversed the district court’s ruling in the second case, holding that while 13 of the calls received by the plaintiff were placed using an artificial or prerecorded voice (a separate violation of the TCPA), the phone system used in this case did not qualify as an autodialer because it did not use random or sequentially generated numbers. One of the judges stated in a partial dissent, however, that she read the TCPA to cover equipment that only has the capacity to dial and not produce random numbers, similar to the phone system used by the loan servicer. The 11th Circuit’s opinion is consistent with the D.C. Circuit’s holding in ACA International, which struck down the FCC’s definition of an autodialer; however it conflicts with the 9th Circuit’s holding in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC (InfoBytes coverage here), which broadened the definition of an autodialer to cover all devices with the capacity to automatically dial numbers that are stored in a list.
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 October 28, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted final approval of a $12.5 million TCPA class action settlement between a group of consumers and three cruise lines and their marketing group (collectively, “defendants”). According to the opinion, a consumer filed the action against the defendants alleging they violated the TCPA’s prohibition of the use of an autodialer without prior consent. While the motion for class certification was pending, the parties reached an agreement-in-principle for a class-wide settlement. The settlement requires the defendants to, among other things, set up a common fund of $12.5 million to permit each claimant to “recover for up to three calls per telephone number, with a maximum value for each call set at $300.” The court noted that after deducting attorneys’ fees, other costs, and an incentive award for the principal plaintiff, the nearly 275,000 class members will be eligible to receive an average of about $22 per claim. The court noted that while $22 is “significantly below the $500 recovery available under the statute for each call… a settlement does not need to provide the class with the maximum possible damages in order to be reasonable.” The court went on to state that the settlement “still serves the purpose of punishing [the cruise lines] for their role in the controversy,” and the total settlement fund is a “deterrent to potential future defendants who might think twice about violating the TCPA in an effort to boost business.”
On September 27, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida denied class certification in an action alleging violations of the TCPA, the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act, and the FDCPA brought against two companies. The action alleged that defendants used an automated telephone dialing system (autodialer) to call the plaintiff’s cell phone using a “prerecorded voice” while trying to contact a different individual to collect an unpaid debt. The defendants allegedly called the plaintiff’s cell phone number—which was listed as the other individual’s home phone number but had been reassigned to the plaintiff—multiple times even after the plaintiff informed the defendants that they had the wrong phone number. The plaintiff alleged violations of the TCPA, claiming the defendants placed the calls without first obtaining prior express consent.
Among other arguments, the defendants challenged the proposed class definition, which included more than 9,000 non-customers who allegedly received calls from the defendants and were identified by a code that the plaintiff contended is assigned to calls made to “bad phone” numbers. According to the defendants, the plaintiff’s expert developed a process for “identify[ing] calls where [autodialed] calls and prerecorded messages were made to cell phones after a record documenting an event consistent with a wrong number and/or a request to stop calling.” However, the defendants argued, among other things, that there are many different reasons why a “bad phone” code could be assigned to an account, and that the plaintiff’s assertions do not “satisfy the clearly ascertainable standard,” which must be met for class certification.
“Indeed, when presented with similar evidence regarding ‘wrong number’ call log designations, this [c]ourt recognized that ‘in the debt collection industry ‘wrong number’ oftentimes does not mean non-consent because many customers tell agents they have reached the wrong number, though the correct number was called, as a way to avoid further debt collection,’” the court stated. “The difficulty in ascertaining this information is compounded by the fact that the phone numbers at issue were initially provided to [the defendants] by consenting customers.”
On September 9, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California entered a final judgment against a debt collection agency that was found guilty of violating the TCPA by making more than 500,000 unsolicited robocalls using autodialers. The court’s final judgment is consistent with the jury’s verdict from last May, which identified four classes of individuals: two involving consumers who received skip-tracing calls or pre-recorded messages, and two involving non-debtor consumers who never had debt collection accounts with the defendant but received calls on their cell phones. In a February 2018 order, the court resolved cross motions for summary judgment, affirming that the dialers used by the defendant to place the calls constituted autodialers within the meaning of the TCPA and that the defendant lacked prior express consent to place the calls. Under the more than $267 million final judgment, class members will each receive $500 per call, with one of the named plaintiffs receiving $7,000 for his individual TCPA claim.
On September 3, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey denied a medical laboratory’s motion to dismiss, ruling that the company cannot use a Supreme Court ruling to avoid a proposed TCPA class action suit concerning allegations that it made unsolicited calls using an “autodialer.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, the court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss last December after it concluded that the plaintiff sufficiently alleged the equipment used to make unsolicited calls qualified as an “autodialer.” The defendant argued, however, that the court should reconsider its decision in light of a 2019 Supreme Court ruling in which separate concurring opinions written by Justices Kavanaugh and Thomas concluded that district courts are not bound by the FCC’s interpretation of the term “autodialer” under the TCPA. According to the defendant, because of these concurring opinions, the court “was not bound by the FCC’s 2003 and 2008 guidance on the definition of an ‘autodialer,’” and should therefore revisit its prior opinion. However, the court stated that the Supreme Court’s case does not change any of the “controlling law” dealing with the TCPA issue in the current lawsuit. “Because defendant’s arguments are not based on any actual change in controlling law,” its motion for reconsideration is denied, the court stated, noting that concurring opinions “do not change ‘controlling law.’”
On August 27, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California denied a car manufacturer’s motion to dismiss a class action alleging that it violated the TCPA by sending unwanted automated text messages. According to the opinion, after a consumer visited a car dealership, she allegedly received unsolicited text messages to her cell phone from the dealership. The consumer filed a proposed class action alleging the corporate car manufacturer “directed, encouraged, and authorized its dealerships  to send text messages promoting the sale of [the] automobiles to [the consumer] and other members of the proposed Class, pursuant to a common marketing scheme” and that the text messages were transmitted using an automated telephone dialing system (autodialer) in violation of the TCPA. The manufacturer moved to dismiss the action, arguing that the plaintiff failed to allege (i) that the manufacturer sent the text messages or that the dealership sent the text messages as the manufacturer’s agent; and (ii) that the text messages were sent using an autodialer.
The court first determined that the plaintiff plausibly alleged that the manufacturer directly sent the text messages, or, in the alternative, that the dealership was acting as the manufacturer’s agent when the texts were sent. Furthermore, the plaintiff alleged that the manufacturer used hardware and software programs with the requisite capabilities to qualify as an autodialer pursuant to the 9th Circuit’s decision in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC (covered by InfoBytes here).
- Daniel R. Alonso to discuss "The international compliance situation and new challenges" at the World Compliance Association Covid Compliance Conference
- Benjamin W. Hutten to discuss "Understanding OFAC sanctions" at a NAFCU webinar
- Garylene D. Javier to discuss "Navigating workplace culture in 2020" at the DC Bar Conference