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.
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.
A federal district court recently dismissed a putative Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) class action against CVS Health Corporation (“CVS”) Lindenbaum v. CVS Health Corp., Case No. 17-CV-1863 (N.D. Ohio Jan. 22, 2018), because the reminder calls to renew prescriptions fell within the “emergency purposes” exception of the TCPA.
Plaintiff Shari Lindenbaum alleged that CVS made at least six prerecorded prescription reminder calls to her cellphone in early 2017. She claimed that she received these calls because she had a “recycled” cell phone number — a number that once was used by an individual from whom the caller obtained consent but had since been reassigned to a different individual — and that she had never provided “prior express written consent” to receive the calls. CVS asked the court to dismiss Lindenbaum’s claims, primarily arguing that the calls fell within the TCPA exception for “emergency purposes.”
Caller ID spoofing—the act of using commercially-available technology or services to alter the name and telephone number that appear on the called party’s caller ID display—is pervasive. It presents significant risk not only to recipients (of being duped into thinking a call is from someone it is not) but also to the person or business whose name and telephone number the spoofer appropriates. An unknowing recipient of a spoofed call could initiate legal proceedings against a completely innocent person or business whose information has been spoofed, causing that party unwarranted reputational harm. Although federal and state governments have attempted to legislate against illegitimate caller ID spoofing, such legislation has struggled to counteract the problem. Recently, however, legislators at both levels of government have undertaken new efforts to curtail harassing and deceptive use of spoofing.
The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently determined that a flu shot reminder text message sent by a hospital is not an “advertisement” for purposes of the level of consent required under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227(b) (the “TCPA”). In issuing its ruling in Latner v. Mt. Sinai, No. 17-99 (2d Cir. Jan. 3, 2018), the Second Circuit gave effect to the FCC’s “Healthcare Exception,” which holds that “a ‘health care’ message” sent by a HIPAA “covered entity” does not require prior express written consent.
Plaintiff David Latner visited a Mt. Sinai medical facility in 2003, where he signed release forms granting consent to Mt. Sinai to use his health information “for payment, treatment and hospital operations purposes.” On September 19, 2014, Mr. Latner received a single text message sent on behalf of Mt. Sinai by a third party encouraging him to schedule an appointment to obtain a flu shot. Mt. Sinai stated that it sent flu shot reminder texts to all active patients of the facility Mr. Latner visited the office within three years prior to the date of the texts. Mr. Latner’s last visit fell within that timeline. Mr. Latner filed a lawsuit, alleging that Mt. Sinai violated 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii), which prohibits anyone from making any call (including text messages) using any automatic telephone dialing system or prerecorded voice to a cellular telephone service without prior written express consent. The District Court for the Southern District of New York granted Mt. Sinai’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and dismissed the case on the ground that the FCC has exempted healthcare providers from being required to obtain written consent prior to making calls that deliver a healthcare message.
Though it affirmed the lower court’s ultimate decision, the Second Circuit determined that the “analysis was incomplete” because it had not determined whether Mr. Latner had provided his prior express consent to receive text messages sent on behalf of Mt. Sinai. Considering the facts of the situation, the Second Circuit determined that the text message fell within the scope of consent that Mr. Latner had previously granted to Mt. Sinai, where the consent form included a reference to Mt. Sinai sharing his information for “treatment” purposes, and the privacy notices stated that the facility could use Mr. Latner’s information “to recommend possible treatment alternatives or health-related benefits and services.”
This opinion illustrates the care callers must employ in drafting its privacy and consent notices as they relate to patients receiving calls or messages, even where the message relates to treatment provided by a healthcare provider.
Last week a New Jersey federal district court dismissed a putative Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) class action against Kohl’s Department Stores Inc. (“Kohl’s”), Viggiano v. Kohl’s, Case No. 17-0243-BRM-TJB, because plaintiff Amy Viggiano failed to unsubscribe from Kohl’s text messages in the matter in which Kohl’s instructed.
In her putative class action, Viggiano admitted that she had consented to receiving text messages initially, but claimed that she changed her mind and relayed this message to Kohl’s. Viggiano alleged that she sent multiple messages to Kohl’s expressing that she no longer wanted to receive any messages, including messages like “I don’t want these messages anymore.” However, she acknowledged that she never texted the word “STOP” to the defendant, a point which was the focus of Kohl’s motion to dismiss.
Kohl’s argued that it provided a direct opt-out mechanism for customer messaging in compliance with FCC requirements. The terms and conditions to Kohl’s mobile sales alerts instruct customers to respond with one of several words in order to opt-out of future messaging. The opt-out mechanism is triggered by words like STOP, CANCEL, and UNSUBSCRIBE. Viggiano did not text any of the single-word commands that Kohl’s instructed would terminate the text alerts, but instead sent several sentence-long messages. Kohl’s demonstrated that Viggiano received an automated text in reply to her messages which stated “Sorry we don’t understand the request! Text SAVE to join mobile alerts . . . Reply HELP for help, STOP to cancel.” Even accepting the facts in the complaint as true, the court found that Viggiano did not plausibly allege that she had a reasonable expectation that by sending the messages in question, she effectively communicated a request for revocation. Further, Viggiano did not allege that Kohl’s had “deliberately design[ed] systems or operations in ways that make it difficult or impossible to effectuate revocations.” In fact, the court found that the facts in the complaint suggested Viggiano herself adopted a method of opting out that made it difficult or impossible for defendant to honor her request. In dismissing the case, the court rejected Viggiano’s argument that her messages were “unequivocal written withdrawals of consent.”
This decision follows a case with similar facts from the Central District of California, Epps v. Earth Fare, Inc., No. 16-8221, 2017 WL 1424637, at *6 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 27, 2017), which resulted in dismissal on the same grounds. Taken together, these cases suggest that where subscribers to text message alerts are provided with clear instructions on how to revoke consent, a plaintiff’s failure to follow those instructions may provide an effective defense to a claim under the TCPA.
A district court recently decertified a class of plaintiffs seeking damages after the judge ruled that recent changes in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (the “TCPA”) warranted decertification. In particular, the court ruled that under the “Solicited Fax Rule,” the question of consent required individualized analysis, and rejected the plaintiff’s argument that solicited faxes require the specific opt-out language required by TCPA regulations.
Plaintiff Lawrence S. Brodsky, an insurance wholesaler, filed a lawsuit against HumanaDental Insurance Company (“HumanaDental”) following the receipt of two identical one-page fax messages sent by Humana Specialty Benefits. Plaintiff has “market agreements” with numerous insurance companies in which he sells those companies’ products through various insurance agents and independent contractors. Plaintiff entered one such contract with Humana Insurance Co. “and all of their affiliates,” which stipulated that Plaintiff agreed that Humana Insurance Co. and all of its affiliates “may choose to communicate with [Plaintiff] through the use of . . . facsimile to the . . . facsimile numbers of” Plaintiff. In connection with this agreement, Plaintiff provided Humana Insurance Co. with his facsimile number.
Following the denial of HumanaDental’s motion for summary judgment, the court granted HumanaDental’s motion for class certification in part and certified a class of entities who received one or more faxes between May 2007 and September 2008 that named Humana Specialty Benefits or HumanaDental on the bottom of the fax and, among other items, contained an “opt out” notice that stated “If you don’t want us to contact you by fax, please call 1-800-U-CAN-ASK,” or “If you don’t want us to contact you by fax, please call 1-888-4-ASSIST.” Plaintiff argued that these faxes violated the TCPA because they did not contain the proper “opt out” language.
The Solicited Fax Rule
The TCPA prohibits sending “unsolicited advertisements” via fax, and a fax is “unsolicited” if the recipient has not given its prior expression invitation or permission to receive the fax. The TCPA provides select exceptions to the ban on unsolicited faxes if, among other things, the fax contains an “opt-out notice” that meets various statutory requirements. In 2006, the Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC”), pursuant to its authority to prescribe regulations to implement the requirements of the TCPA, promulgated the “Solicited Fax Rule,” which required both solicited and unsolicited faxes to include the opt-out notice described in the TCPA. In other words, the FCC’s 2006 rule mandated that senders of solicited faxes comply with a statutory requirement that applied only to senders of unsolicited faxes.
In October 2014, the FCC granted certain non-party petitioners retroactive waivers of the Solicited Fax Rule in light of inconsistencies between the Solicited Fax Rule and other FCC guidance (the “2014 Order”). The FCC also explicitly invited “similarly situated” parties to apply for other retroactive waivers. (Prior discussion on this blog regarding the Solicited Fax Rule waivers can be found on this blog here.)
HumanaDental applied for and received such a waiver. The waiver explicitly excused HumanaDental for any failure “to comply with the opt-out notice requirement for fax advertisements sent with the prior express invitation or permission of the recipient prior to April 30, 2015.”
Following the 2014 Order, several fax senders filed petitions for review of the FCC’s decision in multiple circuit courts. These petitions were consolidated into an action pending in the District of Columbia Circuit. In March 2017, a split panel of the D.C. Circuit struck down the Solicited Fax Rule in Bais Yaakov v. FCC, No. 14-1234 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 31, 2017) holding it “unlawful to the extent that it requires opt-out notices on solicited faxes.” The majority found that the TCPA only applies to unsolicited fax advertisements, such that the FCC lacked the authority to promulgate a rule governing solicited faxes.
HumanaDental’s Motion to Decertify Class
Following HumanaDental’s receipt of a waiver from the FCC and the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Bais Yaakov, HumanaDental moved to decertify the class, arguing that individual questions defeat the superiority and predominance requirements of Rule 23, such that the class must be decertified. The court agreed that the presence of the FCC waiver led to the conclusion that issues of individualized consent predominated, finding that: (1) a substantial portion of the certified class were not a parties to the same contract that Plaintiff entered into with Humana Insurance Co.; (2) select members of the class may have revoked their consent even after entering into such a contract; and (3) the “scope” of a particular consent in the contract might not extend to other “affiliated” class members offering insurance at the same location. The court noted by way of example that while Plaintiff was a party to the contract, at least seven other individuals had his permission to use his fax machine during the time period at issue; questions regarding whether those other individuals had consented to receiving faxes from HumanaDental would “consume and overwhelm” trial.
In so holding, the court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the waiver, while insulating HumanaDental from an administrative enforcement action with the FCC, had no effect in a private TCPA action. Plaintiff relied on a single authority for its position, but the Court rejected that decision’s analysis and noted that the case had been “called into question by a number of authorities cited by Defendant” and sided with the caselaw cited by Defendant.
With regard to the application of Bais Yaakov, the Court also declined to adopt Plaintiff’s argument that the case was inconsistent with the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Holtzman v. Turza. Specifically, the court found that, at best, dicta from that decision could be read to expand the TCPA’s requirements relating to opt out notices to cover solicited as well as unsolicited faxes, but declined to afford Turza “a reading that would improperly expand the TCPA.”
The Court concluded that the waiver and Bais Yaakov bring the question of consent back into the picture. This decision provides defendants with a stronger argument for defense against motions to certify classes in instances where the communications in question include solicited communications.
Plaintiff has appealed this decision to the Seventh Circuit.
The Northern District of Illinois recently refused to certify a class in a case brought under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S. Code § 227 (“TCPA”), on the grounds that the class could not include members who lacked Article III standing, and that determining whether individual class members had standing would lead to a multiplicity of mini-trials. See Christopher Legg et al. v. PTZ Insurance Agency LTD, et al., Case No. 14-C-10043. The decision was based in part on the Court’s finding that class members could not have suffered a concrete injury under Spokeo v. Robins (previously discussed here) if they consented to the calls, irrespective of the TCPA’s requirement that “advertising” calls require express written consent. Thus, the Court granted the defendants’ motion to strike class allegations and denied plaintiffs’ cross-motion to certify a class. Read More
Last week, a bi-partisan coalition of political groups and the federal government completed briefing cross motions for summary judgment in American Association of Political Consultants, Inc., et al. v. Sessions, Case No. 5:16-cv-00252-D (E.D.N.C.). The case challenges the constitutionality of a portion of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). The plaintiffs contend that the TCPA’s prohibition on making auto-dialed calls or texts to cell phones without the requisite consent, 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) (the “cell phone ban”), imposes a content-based restriction on speech that fails to pass strict scrutiny and is unconstitutionally under-inclusive (the plaintiffs’ complaint is discussed here). The government is defending the statute’s constitutionality (previously discussed here).
In their summary judgment briefing, the plaintiffs argued that content-based exemptions to the TCPA’s cell phone ban, such as an exemption for debt collection calls made on behalf of the government, render the cell phone ban unconstitutional. According to the plaintiffs, these exemptions produce outcomes where certain speech is privileged in violation of the First Amendment. In particular, the plaintiffs asserted that the exemptions fail to withstand strict scrutiny because they are not narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest by the least restrictive means available. Further, the plaintiffs rejected the government’s suggestion of severing the disputed exemptions because such action would not curb the power of Congress or the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) to promulgate future content-based exemptions.
The government responded to the plaintiffs’ arguments by asserting that the TCPA’s cell phone ban is a content-neutral “time, place, and manner regulation” concerned with restricting the method of calling cell phones, but not the content of those calls. Alternatively, the government asserted that even if the TCPA was found to be a content-based restriction on speech, it would nonetheless survive strict scrutiny because it serves a compelling governmental interest in protecting consumer privacy, is narrowly tailored, and lacks a comparable alternative. The government also argued that the court should not consider certain FCC orders providing exemptions to the TCPA’s cell phone ban because such orders do not call into question the constitutionality of the TCPA itself. Finally, the government argued that should there be a finding that the government-debt exemption is unconstitutional, the court should sever that provision from the cell phone ban and leave the remainder of the TCPA intact.
Although we cannot predict how the court will decide the cross motions for summary judgment, it is significant that the court is set to rule on a broad challenge to the TCPA’s constitutionality. K&L Gates LLP will continue to monitor the case and post developments as they occur.