By: Joseph C. Wylie II, Molly K. McGinley, Nicole C. Mueller
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently adopted an expansive definition of the term “automatic telephone dialing system” (“ATDS”) under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). In Marks v. Crunch San Diego LLC, the panel held that, in light of ACA Int’l, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s landmark decision interpreting certain provisions within the TCPA (previously discussed here) and based on the panel’s own review of the TCPA, the statutory definition of an ATDS includes devices that store telephone numbers to be called, whether or not the device has the ability to generate numbers randomly or sequentially. In so holding, the Ninth Circuit splits from a number of other decisions holding that an essential element of an ATDS is the capacity to generate random or sequential numbers.
The TCPA defines ATDS 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.” In ACA Int’l, in brief, the D.C. Circuit invalidated the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”)’s interpretation of two key questions raised by the statutory definition of an ATDS, namely “(i) when does a device have the ‘capacity’ to perform the two enumerated functions; and (ii) what precisely are those functions?” In so doing, the D.C. Circuit created uncertainty as to what features or attributes of a dialing system would bring it within the scope of the ATDS definition.
Plaintiff Jordan Marks filed suit against Crunch San Diego LLC (“Crunch”) after he joined the gym and received three text messages over a period of eleven months. Crunch utilized a system called Textmunication. In this system, phone numbers are captured and stored in one of three ways: an operator of the system can manually enter a phone number into the system; a current or potential customer may respond to a marketing campaign with a text; or a customer may provide a phone number by filling out a consent form on a Textmunication client’s website. A client of Textmunication can then design a marketing campaign and Textmunication will automatically send the desired messages to the stored phone numbers at a time scheduled by the client. When Crunch wants to send a text through Textmunication, a Crunch employee logs into the system, selects the recipient phone numbers, generates the content of the message, and selects the date and time for the message to be sent. The messages are then automatically sent at the appointed time.
Prior to the decision in ACA Int’l, the district court held that Textmunication was not an ATDS because it lacked the present or potential capacity “to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator” and granted summary judgment for Crunch. Marks appealed the decision, and following his appeal, ACA Int’l was decided. The Ninth Circuit then reversed, holding that a system could be an ATDS if it has the capacity to store a list of numbers and call those numbers automatically, even if the system does not have the ability to generate random or sequential lists of numbers. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit first reviewed the statutory definition of ATDS as set forth by Congress in 1991 and determined that the provision is ambiguous, and, accordingly, that it was appropriate to look to the context and structure of the statutory scheme. The Ninth Circuit found that Congress intended to regulate devices that make automatic calls, including those devices that make automatic calls from lists of recipients, rather than utilizing a random or sequential number generator. The Ninth Circuit rejected Crunch’s argument that because the system was not fully automatic, it did not qualify as an ATDS, holding that Congress had been clear that it was targeting equipment that could engage in automatic dialing rather than equipment that operated without any human oversight or contact. The Ninth Circuit remanded the matter back to the district court for further proceedings.
In addition to the Ninth Circuit, several other courts have discussed the effect of ACA Int’l on the definition of ATDS:
- In Gonzalez v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, the Court concluded that a predictive dialer that lacks the capacity to generate random or sequential telephone numbers and dial them, but it does include a predictive dialer that has the “present ability” to do so.
- In Washington v. Six Continents Hotels, Inc., the Court agreed that ACA Int’l set aside not only the FCC’s 2015 ruling but also the FCC’s historic treatment of which devices qualify as an ATDS. 16-3719, 2018 WL 4092024, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 24, 2018) The Court then determined that the complaint adequately alleged the use of an ATDS by claiming that the defendant “acquired Plaintiff’s number, stored it in a database connected to its telephonic or computer system . . . [the system] . . . has the capacity to generate random numbers . . . has the capacity to generate sequential numbers . . . [and] has the capacity to store and dial the random or sequential numbers it generates just like it stored and dialed Plaintiff’s number.” Id.
- In Heard v. Nationstar Mortg. LLC, the Court held that a system that could and did store customer information for at least 24 hours and did not have the capacity to store or produce telephone numbers to be called using a random or sequential number generator fell within the definition of ATDS. 16-694, 2018 WL 4028116, at *5-6 & n.2 (N.D. Ala. Aug. 23, 2018).
- In King v. Time Warner Cable Inc., the Second Circuit determined that qualification as an ATDS was limited to those devices that were “capable at the time of use” of performing the functions of an autodialer, absent any modifications to the device’s hardware or software. 849 F.3d 473, 476–77 (2d Cir. 2018).
- In Dominguez ex rel Himself v. Yahoo, Inc., the Court held that, absent any evidence that the device had the capacity to generate random or sequential telephone numbers and dial those numbers, the plaintiff failed to show that the text messaging system was an ATDS in light of ACA Int’l. 894 F.3d 116, 119 (3d Cir. 2018).
Given the split among courts on how to interpret ATDS, uncertainty will continue to prevail until there is additional clarification, either from the Supreme Court or the FCC. The FCC has requested further comment from the public regarding the interpretation of the TCPA in light of this decision.