A recent decision from the Western District of Washington, Noah Wick v. Twilio Inc., Case No. C16-00914RSL, resulted in dismissal of a putative class action lawsuit under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S. Code § 227 (“TCPA”), against Twilio Inc. (“Twilio”), a cloud communications platform service company which allows software developers to programmatically make and receive phone calls and send and receive text messages using its platform. Although several of Twilio’s arguments for dismissal were rejected, the court agreed with Twilio that the plaintiffs’ claims should be dismissed because a text message sent to complete a customer-initiated transaction is not telemarketing and the customer in this instance had given prior express consent to be contacted by providing his mobile number to the sender. Read More
On June 22, 2017, the Second Circuit affirmed summary judgment for a defendant in a case of first impression, holding that under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227 (“TCPA”), consent to be contacted by telephone cannot be unilaterally revoked by one party when that consent is provided as bargained-for-consideration in a bilateral contract.
In Reyes v. Lincoln Automotive Financial Services, the plaintiff Alberto Reyes, Jr. (“Reyes”) leased a new Lincoln MKZ luxury sedan from a Ford dealership, defendant Lincoln Automotive Financial Services (“Lincoln”). The lease agreement itself provided “express consent” by Reyes for Lincoln to contact him “by manual calling methods, prerecorded or artificial voice messages, text messages, emails and/or automatic telephone dialing systems…. regardless of whether you incur charges as a result.” After the lease agreement was finalized, Reyes ceased making required payments under the agreement. After Lincoln placed multiple calls (using both live and pre-recorded voice messages) to Reyes cellular phone, Reyes allegedly sent a letter to Lincoln revoking his consent to be contacted by Lincoln at that telephone number.
Reyes filed a complaint against Lincoln in the Eastern District of New York, alleging violations of the TCPA and seeking $720,000 in damages. On June 20, 2016, the Eastern District of New York granted summary judgment to Lincoln, holding in part that “the TCPA does not permit a party to a legally binding contract to unilaterally revoke bargained-for consent by telephone.”
In affirming the district court’s ruling regarding revocation of consent, the Second Circuit acknowledged that the Third Circuit and Eleventh Circuit have previously ruled that a party can revoke consent under the TCPA–rulings that were the basis of the FCC’s 2015 Ruling that prior express consent is revocable under the TCPA (discussed here). However, the Second Circuit held that the question presented by the Reyes appeal was different. Unlike the plaintiffs in those cases who gave consent “gratuitously,” in the context of an application process, Reyes’s consent was included as an express provision of his lease agreement with Lincoln.
The Second Circuit rejected Reyes’s argument that under common law, the term “consent” is revocable at any time. While the Second Circuit agreed that the common law definition of “consent” applied to consent in the context of the TCPA, it held that “common law is clear that consent to another’s actions can ‘become irrevocable’ when it is provided in an legally binding agreement.” In such circumstances, any modification to consent must receive the “’mutual assent’ of every contracting party in order to have legal effect.” The Court reasoned “[i]t is black-letter law that one party may not alter a bilateral contract by revoking a term without consent of a counterparty.”
The Second Circuit further deemed “meritless” Reyes’s contention that his consent could be revoked because it was not an “essential term” of his lease. Instead, the Court reasoned that terms of a contract are enforceable even if they are not “essential.” “A party who has agreed to a particular term in a valid contract cannot later renege on that term or unilaterally declare it to no longer apply simply because the contract could have been formed without it.”
The Second Circuit also declined to accept Reyes’s argument that such an interpretation of consent under the TCPA would not further the statute’s remedial purpose of protecting consumers from unwanted telephone calls. Finding “no lack of clarity in the TCPA’s use of the term ‘consent,’” the Court rejected application of the remedial rule of statutory interpretation. In doing so, the Second Circuit recognized that businesses may insert consent clauses into standard sales contracts “thereby making revocation impossible in many instances,” but held that this “hypothetical concern” would be for Congress to resolve, not the Courts.
This ruling may provide a strong defense to revoked-consent claims brought against defendants by those in contractual relationships with those defendants. It remains to be seen whether the reasoning set forth by the Second Circuit will be adopted by other courts.
On June 13, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held a hearing on “Lawsuit Abuse and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act”. The House Energy & Commerce Committee has primary jurisdiction over the TCPA. But the Judiciary Committee oversees all matters related to the administration of justice in federal courts and has been active on a number of litigation reform matters, including most recently class action reform legislation. The Subcommittee held the hearing in response to the fact that between 2010 and 2016, TCPA case filings increased by 1,272%, and today TCPA lawsuits are the largest category of class actions filed in federal court. Although some of the Subcommittee’s Democratic members, including Ranking Democrat Steve Cohen (D-TN), questioned the Committee’s jurisdictional interest in the TCPA, the hearing focused on TCPA reform––specifically with an eye toward reducing lawsuit abuse, and the Republicans said they would work with Energy & Commerce on any legislative proposals.
In a 475-page opinion issued earlier this week, the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois ordered Dish Network Corp., to pay $280 million to the United States government and four states, marking what the government says is a record fine for telemarketing violations, including violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the laws of California, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio, through what the Court called “millions and millions” of calls.
In March 2009, the states and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) sued Dish Network after the company settled with 46 states for purported violations of “do not call” rules and rules governing robocalling. The Court found that Dish Network and its contractors made millions of illegal calls by calling numbers listed on the national Do Not Call Registry and by placing telemarketing calls that deliver prerecorded messages to live consumers, in violation of the TCPA and the states’ laws governing telemarketing.
Plaintiffs sought damages in the amount of $2.1 billion, but the Court determined that the amount requested, approximately 150 percent of Dish Network’s annual profits, “could materially affect Dish’s ability to continue operations.” Although the Court declined to interpret the TCPA as allowing an award “up to” $500 per violation rather than $500 per violation, as Dish Network requested, the Court exercised its discretion in awarding an amount less than $500 per violation. An award of $500 per violation would have incurred a penalty of $8.1 billion; instead, the Court awarded $280 million, or twenty percent of Dish Network’s 2016 profits, an amount it determined to be “proportionate and reasonable” and “a miniscule fraction of maximum possible penalties and damages.” The Court determined the reduced award to be appropriate given that Dish Network “made some efforts to avoid violations in its direct marketing and took some actions” to monitor third-party contractors while substantial enough to reflect “[t]he injury to consumers, the disregard for the law, and the steadfast refusal to accept responsibility.”
The Court further prohibited the company from violating do-not-call laws moving forward and imposed a 20-year plan for supervision of Dish Network’s telemarketing.
This is the second judgment against Dish Network issued in 2017 for violations of the TCPA (the prior judgment, issued by a federal court in North Carolina, is discussed here and here). As the cases against Dish Network demonstrate, companies may face substantial liability based on the actions of third-party contractors.
This week a federal judge in North Carolina ordered Dish Network LLC (“Dish”) to pay treble damages in the amount of $61.5 million, or $1,200 per call, to class members in a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) action against Dish, Krakauer v. Dish Network L.L.C., Case No. 1:14-cv-00333, as a result of marketing efforts made by Dish’s contractor, Satellite Systems Network (“SSN”). Under the TCPA, treble damages are available in the court’s discretion for violations that occur “willfully or knowingly.” Since the court found that Dish “willfully and knowingly” violated the TCPA, Dish was ordered to pay three times the $20.5 million jury verdict (calculated at a rate of $400 per call) against Dish (previously discussed here).
By Andrew C. Glass, Gregory N. Blase, Roger L. Smerage, and Matthew T. Houston
A Michigan federal district court recently rejected a theory of vicarious liability under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227 (“TCPA”). In Kern v. VIP Travel Services, the court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim against hotel chains for calls independent travel agents allegedly made to generate reservations at the hotels. See generally Op., Kern v. VIP Travel Servs., Case No. 1:16-cv-00008 (W.D. Mich. May 10, 2017). Accordingly, the court dismissed the putative class action. Read More
A North Carolina federal district court recently denied a motion by the federal government to dismiss claims raising a First Amendment challenge to a portion of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). See American Ass’n of Political Consultants v. Lynch, Case No. 5:16-00252-D (E.D.N.C.). At this early stage of the case, the government did not address the substance of the constitutional challenge. Rather, the government asserted that the court did not have jurisdiction over the case and that the political organizations which filed the suit did not have standing to maintain suit. The court, however, rejected the government’s arguments and allowed the case to proceed.
Last year, a bi-partisan coalition of political groups filed a two-count complaint alleging that aspects of the TCPA run afoul of First Amendment free-speech protections. Specifically, the suit contends 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), imposes a content-based restriction on speech that fails to pass strict scrutiny and is unconstitutionally underinclusive. The federal government moved to dismiss on standing and subject-matter jurisdiction grounds. In response, the plaintiffs amended their complaint to add the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) as a defendant and to address purported deficiencies in the original complaint.
On February 9, 2017, Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017 (the “Act” or “H.R. 985”). The Act significantly expands the class action reforms proposed in an earlier version of the bill that stalled after passage in the U.S. House of Representatives and imposes significant new restrictions on class action lawyers and plaintiffs seeking to proceed under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as implementing new rules applicable to cases consolidated through the multidistrict litigation process. The stated purposes of the Act are to: (1) “assure fair and prompt recoveries for class members and multidistrict litigation plaintiffs with legitimate claims;” (2) “diminish abuses in class action and mass tort litigation that are undermining the integrity of the U.S. legal system;” and (3) “restore the intent of the framers of the United States Constitution by ensuring Federal court consideration of interstate controversies of national importance consistent with diversity jurisdiction principles.” In a press release, Rep. Goodlatte announced that the objective of the proposed legislation is to “keep baseless class action suits away from innocent parties, while still keeping the doors to justice open for parties with real and legitimate claims, and maximizing their recoveries.”
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In a non-precedential opinion issued earlier this week, the Second Circuit held in Leyse v. Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC, that a class could not be certified in a Telephone Consumer Protection Act case because the plaintiff did not have a list of the recipients of telemarketing phone calls. The Second Circuit followed its own precedent identifying ascertainability as an “implied requirement” under Rule 23. In so ruling, the Second Circuit has further demonstrated the different approaches to ascertainability that federal circuit court apply (previously discussed here).
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) has introduced a bill, H.R. 740 (the “Robo Calls Off Phones Act” or “Robo COP Act”), to “stop the intrusion of political robocalls in homes across America.” Rep. Foxx stated that “politicians made sure to exempt political robo-calls from the power of the ‘Do Not Call’ registry. If these calls weren’t such a nuisance, their blatant exclusion would be laughable.” Claiming that eligible voters receive more than 20 political prerecorded voice calls per day, Rep. Foxx seeks through the bill to end the “robocall loophole” for politicians.