In Duran v. La Boom Disco, Inc., the Second Circuit adopted a broad definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”) under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). The Second Circuit joined the Ninth Circuit, further deepening the circuit split on the definition of ATDS with the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuit.Read More
UPDATE: Since our original publication, the Federal Communication Commission issued interpretive guidance on applicability of the emergency purpose exclusion, discussed below.
In the current environment, companies face a need to communicate with customers and patients about the impact that coronavirus (“COVID-19”) will have on their ability to provide goods and services. Companies should be aware of how the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 42 U.S.C. §. 447 et seq. (the “TCPA”) may impact their calling and texting practices. This alert discusses certain exemptions to the TCPA that may allow companies to continue to contact clients and customers through automated and prerecorded phone calls and texts regarding the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses can and should continue to contact clients as needed, with carefully tailored messages, to provide necessary updates regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.Read More
On Saturday, March 7, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a disaster state of emergency in the State of New York based on the COVID-19 outbreak. One significant consequence is that under a newly-enacted law, unsolicited telemarketing calls to New York residents are now prohibited during a state of emergency.Read More
The Seventh Circuit recently acted to limit the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” (“ATDS”) under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). In Gadelhak v. AT&T Services, Inc.,  the court ruled that a dialing system that “neither stores nor produces numbers using a random or sequential number generator,” but rather “exclusively dials numbers stored in a customer database,” “is not an ‘automatic telephone dialing system’ as defined by the Act.” In construing the definition of ATDS narrowly, the Seventh Circuit joined the interpretation adopted by the Third and Eleventh Circuits and rejected the Ninth Circuit’s differing interpretation.
In Gadelhak, the plaintiff asserted that the defendant impermissibly used an automatic telephone dialing system to text him without his prior express consent. The defendant had texted the plaintiff using a system that drew on a database containing the numbers of existing customers. The district court entered summary judgment for the defendant, ruling that the defendant’s system did not constitute an ATDS under the TCPA.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit first concluded (as the Second and Ninth Circuits had done)  that receipt of unwanted text messages can constitute a concrete injury-in-fact for Article III standing purposes. The Seventh Circuit then proceeded to examine the statutory definition of an ATDS to determine whether the definition encompassed defendant’s system, concluding that it did not. 
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 defendant asserted that as a grammatical matter, the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” modifies both the terms “store” and “produce.” The defendant then outlined how a different form of equipment from its system could store numbers using a random or sequential number generator such that the defendant’s interpretation would not render the term “store” mere surplusage.  Under the defendant’s interpretation, dialing systems that draw numbers from an existing database neither store nor produce numbers using a random or sequential number generator and thus cannot constitute an ATDS for TCPA purposes. 
After methodically considering the various grammatical interpretations of the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system,” the Seventh Circuit agreed with the defendant, rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of ATDS urged by the plaintiff.  The Ninth Circuit had previously read the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” as modifying only a system’s capacity to “produce” telephone numbers.  But the Seventh Circuit noted that such a broad interpretation would sweep into the definition of ATDS all equipment with the capacity to store and dial telephone numbers, including “[e]very iPhone today [which] has … capacity [to store telephone numbers and call or text them automatically] right out of the box.”  The Seventh Circuit found that this far-reaching result was well outside the intended plain-meaning of the statute.
The emerging trend narrowing the definition of an ATDS follows in the wake the D.C. Circuit’s 2018 decision rejecting the Federal Communications Commission’s broad definition of an ATDS.  The FCC issued notices in May and October 2018 inviting public comment concerning the interpretation of an ATDS but has yet to issue a revised definition.
The Seventh Circuit’s decision that a system which places calls using an existing database of numbers does not qualify as an ATDS will be of assistance to businesses operating within the Seventh Circuit in defending against TCPA lawsuits. And the split between the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits, on the one hand, and the Ninth Circuit, on the other, may eventually spur the Supreme Court to provide its own interpretation of the definition of ATDS.
NOTES — F.3d —, 2020 WL 808270, at *1 (7th Cir. Feb. 19, 2020).  Melito v. Experian Mktg. Sols., Inc., 923 F.3d 85, 92-93 (2d Cir.); Van Patten v. Vertical Fitness Grp., LLC, 847 F.3d 1037, 1042-43 (9th Cir. 2017).  Gadelhak, 2020 WL 808270, at *3.  47 U.S.C. § 227(a)(1).  Gadelhak, 2020 WL 808270, at *4-5.  Id. at *4.  See Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, 904 F.3d 1041, 1050 (9th Cir. 2018), cert. dismissed, 139 S. Ct. 1289, 203 L. Ed. 2d 300 (2019).  See id.; Gadelhak, 2020 WL 808270, at *5-6. The Ninth Circuit was recently asked to reconsider the Marks decision to bring its interpretation of an ATDS under the TCPA into accord with the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits. See Lamkin v. Portfolio Recovery Assocs., No. 19-16947 (9th Cir.).  Gadelhak, 2020 WL 808270, at *6.  ACA Int’l v. FCC, 885 F.3d 687, 695 (D.C. Cir. 2018).
In Golan v. FreeEats.com d/b/a ccAdvertising et al., the Eighth Circuit recently affirmed a trial court’s decision to reduce a TCPA judgment by approximately 98% on the grounds that an aggregate award of approximately $1.6 billion was unreasonable and disproportionate to the offense, and therefore unconstitutional. In so holding, the Eighth Circuit deviated from long-standing case law rejecting constitutional challenges to the amount of statutory damages allowed under the TCPA. If the Eighth Circuit’s analysis is adopted more widely, it could bring a needed measure of rationality to awards under the TCPA.Read More
Last week, in PDR Network, LLC v. Carlton & Harris Chiropractic, Inc., Case No. 17-1705 (2019), the Supreme Court declined to decide the level of deference that courts must afford the Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC”), finding that the answer may depend on resolution of two preliminary issues that had not been decided by the lower courts. The matter has been remanded to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In declining to reach the issues presented, the Supreme Court leaves open the crucial question of whether courts are bound by the FCC’s interpretation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”).Read More
Sen. John Thune (R-SD), member of the Senate Commerce Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), also a member of the Commerce Committee and author of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), recently reintroduced the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (“TRACED”) Act, S. 151. The TRACED Act is identical to the version as originally introduced in November 2018 (and previously discussed here). The bill seeks to prevent illegal robocall scams and other intentional violations of the TCPA.Read More
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.