On Thursday, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the question of what type of dialing equipment qualifies as an “automatic telephone dialing system” (ATDS) under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). The Court’s review arises from a challenge to the Ninth Circuit’s broad definition of ATDS. The plain language of the TCPA states that an ATDS is “equipment which has the capacity to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and to dial such numbers.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(a)(1). Since the D.C. Circuit abrogated the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rulings construing that language, see ACA International v. FCC, 885 F.3d 687, 701 (D.C. Cir. 2018), a split has emerged among the federal circuit courts that have examined the definition. The Ninth and Second Circuits have held that a dialing system need only have the capacity to “store numbers to be called” and “to dial such numbers automatically” to constitute an ATDS. See Duran v. La Boom Disco, Inc., 955 F.3d 279, 283-84 (2d Cir. 2020); Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, 904 F.3d 1041, 1052-53 (9th Cir. 2018). The Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits, on the other hand, have reined in the definition of ATDS. These courts have held that a system cannot constitute an ATDS where it lacks the capacity either to (1) store telephone numbers to be called using a random or sequential number generator, or (2) produce telephone numbers to be called using a random or sequential number generator. See Gadelhak v. AT&T Servs., Inc., 950 F.3d 458, 464, 469 (7th Cir. 2020); Glasser v. Hilton Grand Vacations Co., 948 F.3d 1301, 1310 (11th Cir. 2020); Dominguez v. Yahoo, Inc., 894 F.3d 116, 119-21 (3d Cir. 2018).Read More
On Monday, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision upholding the broad prohibition against autodialed calls to cells phones under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) but ruling that a 2015 exception, which had allowed autodialed calls for the purposes of collecting federally-backed debts such as student loans and mortgage debts, violated the First Amendment. Thus, the Court held that the exception is invalid and must be severed from the statute. Under Section 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) of the TCPA, it is unlawful to “make any call (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with the prior express consent of the called party) using any automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice” to a cell phone. See 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). In 2015, Congress passed an exception that permitted autodialed calls “made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.” Id. A number of political and nonprofit organizations, seeking to make autodialed calls to cell phones for political purposes, filed suit seeking to invalidate Section 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) in its entirety on the basis that the 2015 exception impermissibly favored government debt-collection speech over political and other speech in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The plaintiffs reasoned that the 2015 exception “undermine[d] the credibility” of the government’s interest in consumer privacy and that if Congress no longer had a genuine interest in consumer privacy, then the underlying 1991 robocall restriction is no longer justified and is thus unconstitutional.Read More
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently issued a declaratory ruling on a petition seeking clarification of the definition of an “automatic telephone dialing system” (ATDS) under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. § 227. In its order, the FCC ruled that a text messaging platform that requires a person to actively and manually dial a recipient’s number and transmit those messages, and that lacks the capacity to transmit more than one message without a person manually dialing each number, is not an ATDS under the TCPA. The FCC concluded such a system does not meet the definition of ATDS because it does not store or produce numbers to be called using a random or sequential number generator and dial such numbers automatically. See FCC Order ¶¶ 3, 8–12. Although not expressly stated, the FCC ruling is consistent with prior decisions of the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeals, discussed here, specifically in that curating a list of numbers, and then dialing the numbers from that list, is not sufficient to establish the use of an ATDS under the TCPA. The FCC order may present businesses facing TCPA lawsuits with another basis to challenge the Ninth and Second Circuit Courts of Appeals’ decisions that construed the definition of ATDS more broadly than Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuit’s definition.
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
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.Read More
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.
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.
Consumers Union, the consumer advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, has filed a letter in support of the National Consumer Law Center’s (NCLC) request that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stay its recent ruling on Broadnet Teleservices LLC’s Petition for Declaratory Ruling in the on-going rulemaking matter In re Rules and Regulations Implementing the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 while that ruling is under appeal. The July 5, 2016, Broadnet Ruling (previously discussed here) held that the TCPA, and its ban on autodialed calls to cellular telephones, does not apply to calls placed by the federal government itself, or its contractors, so long as the calls are placed in the course of conducting “official government business” and, for calls placed by contractors, the calls comply with the government’s instructions. On July 26, 2016, the NCLC moved the FCC to reconsider its ruling and stay its effect until the motion is resolved. Consumers Union is joining the request for the stay as part of its “End Robocalls” campaign, which purportedly seeks “technological solutions to the unwanted robocall problem,” according to the group’s letter to the FCC. If the requested stay is granted, federal government employees and contractors will continue to be subject to the TCPA unless the Broadnet Ruling is upheld.