A district court in Illinois recently dismissed a lawsuit against Yahoo!, Inc. (“Yahoo”) alleging violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), reversing its previous decision denying summary judgment. In Johnson v. Yahoo! Inc., Case No. 14-cv-2028 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 29, 2018), the court granted Yahoo’s motion for reconsideration based on recent interpretations of the definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”) under the TCPA, particularly the decision in ACA Int’l v. FCC, 885 F.3d 687, 695 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (previously discussed here). In its ruling, the district court rejected prior Federal Communication Commission (“FCC”) pronouncements and adopted a narrow interpretation of ATDS, holding that only a system that actually dials randomly or sequentially generated numbers can be an ATDS.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), a member of the Committee and author of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), recently introduced S. 3655, the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (the TRACED Act), to prevent illegal robocall scams. In brief, the bill would extend the statute of limitations for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to pursue robocall scammers and others who intentionally violate the law, impose additional penalties on such violators, require call authentication and blocking technologies, and establish an interagency working group to explore further ways to prosecute robocallers who intentionally violate the law.
On November 13, 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) case in which the Fourth Circuit vacated the district court’s holding that an unsolicited fax sent by a health information provider offering a free e-book must have a commercial goal to be considered an advertisement under the TCPA. This case presents important questions as to the scope of judicial deference to the Federal Communication Commission’s (“FCC”) rules under the Hobbs Act, which limits the ability of TCPA litigants to challenge FCC rules in private civil litigation.
In February of this year, the Fourth Circuit held that faxes that offer goods and services, even if the goods and services are free, are “advertisements” under the TCPA, and reversed the district court’s dismissal of the suit. See Carlton & Harris Chiropractic, Inc. v. PDR Network, LLC, 883 F.3d 459, 469 (4th Cir. 2018). In so ruling, the Fourth Circuit took issue with the district court treatment of a 2006 Rule promulgated by the Federal Communications Commission the FCC interpreting certain provisions of the TCPA. Pursuant to its statutory authority to “prescribe regulations to implement the requirements” of the TCPA, see 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(2), the FCC promulgated a rule providing that “facsimile messages that promote goods or services even at no cost . . . are unsolicited advertisements under the TCPA’s definition.” See Rules and Regulations Implementing the Tel. Consumer Prot. Act of 1991; Junk Fax Prevention Act of 2005, 71 Fed. Reg. 25,967, 25,973 (May 3, 2006) (the “2006 Order”). In the district court, plaintiff Carlton & Harris argued that the fax it received was an unsolicited advertisement as defined in the 2006 Order because it promoted a good at no cost. Carlton & Harris Chiropractic, Inc. v. PDR Network, LLC, No. 3:15-14887, 2016 WL 5799301, at *4 (S.D. W. Va. Sept. 30, 2016). The district court declined to defer to the 2006 Order, holding that the Hobbs Act did not compel the court to defer to “the FCC’s interpretation of an unambiguous statute.” Id. The district court further held that even under the 2006 FCC Rule, PDR Network’s fax was still not an advertisement because the rule requires an advertisement to have a “commercial aim,” and no such aim existed. Id. Accordingly, it granted PDR Network’s motion to dismiss.
The Fourth Circuit disagreed, holding that the jurisdictional command of the Hobbs Act requires a district court to apply FCC interpretations of the TCPA. See Carlton & Harris Chiropractic, 883 F.3d at 469. The district court therefore erred by engaging in Chevron analysis and “declin[ing] to defer” to the FCC rule and issuing a ruling “at odds with the plaining meaning” of the 2006 Order’s text. Id. at 462. Thereafter, PDR Network appealed to the Supreme Court asserting that the Fourth Circuit opinion created a circuit split with the Second, Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits, all of which require a “commercial” nexus for faxes promoting free goods or services to be considered “advertisements” under the TCPA.
PDR Network’s petition for a writ of certiorari asks the Supreme Court to resolve the Circuit split regarding whether the Hobbs Act prevents courts from engaging in a typical Chevron analysis of FCC Orders interpreting the TCPA and requires automatic deference to the agency’s order where there has been no challenge to the validity of the order. It also asks the Court to resolve whether the FCC’s 2006 Order creates a per se rule that faxes that “promote goods and services even at no costs” are “advertisements” under the TCPA or whether courts can require a commercial nexus to a firms’ business in order for such a fax to fall within the definition of “advertisement.” In granting certiorari, the Supreme Court said it is limiting the certiorari to the question of whether the Hobbs Act required the lower court to accept the FCC’s legal interpretation of the TCPA.
The Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC”) recently issued a public notice seeking comment on issues related to interpretation and implementation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (the “TCPA”). The notice followed the recent decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in ACA International v. FCC, in which the Circuit Court affirmed and vacated in part a rule previously issued by the FCC. Our prior coverage of ACA International can be found here.
First, the FCC seeks comment on the TCPA definition of “automatic telephone dialing system.” The TCPA defines an automatic telephone dialing system 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.” The FCC had previously interpreted the term “capacity” to include a device “even if, for example, it requires the addition of software to actually perform the functions described in the definition.” The ACA International Court set that definition aside—finding that the agency’s “capacious understanding of a device’s ‘capacity’ lies considerably beyond the agency’s zone of delegated authority” and that it would have “the apparent effect of embracing any and all smartphones.” The FCC seeks comment on how to interpret “capacity” in light of the guidance provided in ACA International, specifically seeking comment on how to more narrowly interpret the word “capacity” to better comport with congressional findings and the intended reach of the statute.
The FCC further seeks comment on the functions a device must be able to perform to qualify as an automatic telephone dialing system. The FCC seeks comment on whether equipment can be considered an automatic telephone dialing system if the equipment cannot itself dial random or sequential numbers. And the FCC seeks comment on whether the prohibition on making certain calls using an automatic telephone dialing system should apply to equipment that has the ability to use such technology but does not actually use it in making the call.
Second, the FCC seeks comment on how to treat calls to reassigned wireless numbers under the TCPA where the statute carves out calls “made with the prior express consent of the called party” from its prohibitions. The FCC seeks comment specifically on the definition of “called party:” does it refer to the person the caller expected to reach (or reasonably expected to reach) or the person that the caller actually reached, i.e., the wireless number’s present-day subscriber? Further, does it include the “customary user” (e.g., the close relative on a subscriber’s family calling plan)?
Third, the FCC seeks comment on how a called party may revoke prior express consent to receive robocalls. The ACA International Court found that (1) “a party may revoke her consent through any reasonable means clearly expressing a desire to receive no further messages from the caller,” and (2) such a standard means “callers . . . have no need to train every retail employee on the finer points of revocation” and have “every incentive to avoid TCPA liability by making available clearly-defined and easy-to-use opt-out methods.” The FCC now seeks input on what, if any, opt-out methods exist that would be sufficiently clearly defined and easy to use such that “any effort to sidestep the available methods in favor of idiosyncratic or imaginative revocation requests might well be seen as unreasonable” for unwanted calls (i.e., saying “stop calling” in response to a live caller, offering opt-out through a website, or responding with “stop” to unwanted texts; and whether callers must offer all or some combination of such methods to qualify).
Fourth, the FCC seeks renewed comment on two pending petitions for reconsideration of the FCC’s Broadnet Declaratory Ruling, in which the FCC determined that the TCPA does not apply to calls made by or on behalf of the federal government in the conduct of official government business, except when a call made by a contractor does not comply with the government’s instructions. The petitions seek reconsideration of the FCC’s interpretation of “persons” under the TCPA, and clarification of whether federal government contractors, regardless of their status as common-law agents, are “persons” under the TCPA. The FCC now seeks comment on whether contractors acting on behalf of federal, state, and local governments are “persons” for purposes of the TCPA.
Fifth, the FCC seeks renewed comment on the pending petition for reconsideration of its 2016 Federal Debt Collection Rules, which seeks reconsideration of several aspects of the rules, including the applicability of the TCPA limits on calls to reassigned wireless numbers. Referring to the holding in ACA International, the FCC seeks renewed comment on “this and other issues” raised by the petition.
Comments are due by June 13, 2018 and reply comments are due by June 28, 2018.
This public notice, along with recent congressional hearings considering legislation applicable to telephone calls (previously discussed here), demonstrates that in the wake of ACA International, the laws and regulations applicable to outbound calling will continue to evolve.
The Senate Commerce Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee held back-to-back hearings late last month on abusive robocalls and caller ID spoofing and how to combat them. Committee members and witnesses both highlighted the fact that robocalls and ID spoofing have “exploded in recent years” and several noted that “over 3 billion calls were placed [in March] alone” and “about a quarter of these calls are scam calls.” Further, because the technology used to place robocalls and to spoof are evolving technically, the number of calls continues to grow. There was broad agreement on both committees that consumer education, aggressive Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) and Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) enforcement actions, and the use of new ID verification and robocall-blocking technologies are important tools in combating these calls. However, Republicans and Democrats and business and consumer witnesses are generally split on the question of whether legitimate businesses are part of the problem and whether the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) needs to be reformed or conversely expanded through new legislation and regulations. This focus on abusive/illegal robocalls and split on the TCPA presents both risks and potential opportunities for businesses and, consequently, requires close watch.
A coalition of trade groups recently petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (the “Commission”), urging it to adopt a narrow interpretation of “Automated Telephone Dialing System” (“ATDS” or, commonly, “autodialers”) under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). The petition, filed on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other trade associations, follows the March 2018 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that vacated several key elements of the Commission’s 2015 TCPA Order. ACA Int’l v. Fed. Comm. Comm’n, 885 F.3d 687, 692, 701 (D.C. Cir. 2018). Among other things, the D.C. Circuit set aside the Commission’s 2015 interpretation of what constitutes an ATDS. The court held that the Commission’s interpretation of the term ATDS was “unreasonably expansive” and “‘offer[ed] no meaningful guidance’ to affected parties in material respects on whether their equipment is subject to the statute’s autodialer restrictions.” Because of the limited scope of the matter before it, the D.C. Circuit did not itself interpret the term ATDS, but instead provided guidance for the Commission as to how the term should be defined.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina recently rejected a First Amendment challenge to a portion of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). In American Association of Political Consultants, Inc., et al. v. Sessions, et al., Case No. 5:16-cv-00252-D (E.D.N.C.), a bi-partisan coalition of political groups sued the federal government. The coalition asserted that the TCPA’s prohibition on making auto-dialed calls or texts to cell phones without the requisite consent (the “cell phone ban”) imposes a content-based restriction on speech that does not pass strict scrutiny and is unconstitutionally under-inclusive. (The plaintiffs’ complaint was previously discussed here.) The government defended the TCPA’s constitutionality.
In a recent decision, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that the host of an automobile website did not violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227 (“TCPA”), by providing its users a platform to send automated text messages regarding car listings. In Serban v. CarGurus, Inc., Case No. 1:16-cv-02531 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 12, 2018), a user of the defendant’s website mistyped her telephone number when attempting to send herself a car listing. In doing so, the user performed a multi-step process—including selecting the “Send to Phone” option, entering the telephone number, and clicking a “Send” button—to generate a text message automatically created by CarGurus based on the car selected. As a result of the mistyped telephone number, the text message was transmitted to the plaintiff rather than the user.
On March 16, 2018, in a long-awaited decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated key provisions of the 2015 Federal Communications Commission order regarding the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227, including provisions regarding the definition of an autodialer and calls to reassigned wireless numbers. Click here for a full discussion of the decision.