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Special Alert: Supreme Court narrows TCPA autodialer definition

Buckley Special Alert

On April 1, the United States Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Facebook Inc. v. Duguid. The 9-0 decision narrows the definition of what type of equipment qualifies as an autodialer under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a federal statute that generally prohibits calls or texts placed by autodialers without the prior express consent of the called party.

The TCPA defines an autodialer as equipment with the capacity both “to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator,” and to dial those numbers. The question before the Supreme Court in Facebook was whether that definition encompasses equipment that can “store” and dial telephone numbers, even if the device does not use “a random or sequential number generator.” The Court held it does not. Rather, to qualify as an “automatic telephone dialing system,” the Court held that a device must have the capacity either to store or produce a telephone number using a random or sequential generator. In other words, the modifier “using a random or sequential number generator” applied to both terms “store” and “produce.”

Background

In 2014, Noah Duguid received text messages from Facebook alerting him that someone attempted to access his Facebook account. However, Duguid alleged that he never provided Facebook his phone number and did not have a Facebook account.

Duguid was unable to stop the notifications and eventually brought a putative class action against Facebook, alleging that Facebook violated the TCPA by maintaining technology that stored phone numbers, and sent automated texts to those numbers each time the associated account was accessed by an unrecognized device or web browser.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed Duguid’s amended complaint with prejudice, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding Duguid stated a claim under the TCPA by alleging Facebook’s notification system automatically dialed stored numbers. The Ninth Circuit held that an autodialer as defined under the TCPA, need not have the capacity to use a random or sequential number generator, but that it need only have the capacity to store number to be called and to dial those numbers automatically.

Holding

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, holding that to “qualify as an ‘automatic telephone dialing system,’ a device must have the capacity either to store a telephone number using a random or sequential generator or to produce a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator.”

In reaching this decision, the Court explained that “expanding the definition of an autodialer to encompass any equipment that merely stores and dials telephone numbers would take a chainsaw” to the nuanced problems Congress sought to address with the TCPA. It further explained that Duguid’s interpretation of an autodialer — the one that adopted by the Ninth Circuit — “would capture virtually all modern cell phones, which have the capacity to store telephone numbers to be called” and “dial such numbers.” “TCPA’s liability provisions, then, could affect ordinary cell phone owners in the course of commonplace usage, such as speed dialing or sending automated text message responses.”

And while the Court acknowledged that interpreting the statute in the manner it did may limit its application, the Court reasoned that it “cannot rewrite the TCPA to update it for modern technology,” and that its holding reflected the best reading of the statute.

If you have any questions regarding the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the TCPA, please visit our Class Actions practice page, or contact a Buckley attorney with whom you have worked in the past.

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