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.
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
The Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC”) has adopted new rules (set forth in its Second Report and Order) to establish a single, nationwide database with information provided by phone companies that will allow callers to determine whether a number has been permanently disconnected and is therefore eligible for reassignment. The FCC also voted to provide a safe harbor from liability for any calls to reassigned numbers caused by database error. The database will be administered by a private company to be determined through a competitive bidding process. The FCC also voted to provide a safe harbor from liability for any calls to reassigned numbers caused by database error. The database will be administered by a private company to be determined through a competitive bidding process.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.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), a member of the Committee and author of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), recently introduced S. 3655, the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (the TRACED Act), to prevent illegal robocall scams. In brief, the bill would extend the statute of limitations for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to pursue robocall scammers and others who intentionally violate the law, impose additional penalties on such violators, require call authentication and blocking technologies, and establish an interagency working group to explore further ways to prosecute robocallers who intentionally violate the law.
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.
Earlier this month, the federal government filed briefs on cross motions for summary judgment in American Association of Political Consultants v. Lynch, Case No. 5:16-00252-D (E.D.N.C.). The case challenges the constitutionality of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227 (“TCPA”) (previously discussed here and here). The government defended the constitutionality of the statute on several bases.
First, the government argued that the TCPA is a “valid time, place, and manner regulation” and does not distinguish between the content or nature of such calls. In doing so, the government analogized the TCPA to regulations that prevent the ringing of doorbells after certain hours and attempted to distinguish the TCPA from unconstitutional ordinances regulating signs based on the type of information conveyed.
Second, the government argued that in determining whether the TCPA is “content-neutral,” the court should disregard FCC orders providing certain “exemptions” to the TCPA. The plaintiffs contend that the exemptions illustrate how the TCPA favors some types of speech over others. According to the government, however, (1) review of those orders is outside the court’s jurisdiction in analyzing the constitutionality of the TCPA, and (2) the “exemptions” are not actually exemptions and thus do not favor a particular type of speech. The government further asserted that to the extent any “exemption” is actually an exemption, such as the government-debt exemption passed in 2016, it is severable from the remainder of the TCPA.
Finally, the government argued that even if the TCPA regulates the content of speech, it withstands strict scrutiny because the “protection of residential privacy” is a compelling governmental interest, and the TCPA is related to that interest where it acts to protect against the invasion of residential privacy. The government also posited that the TCPA is narrowly tailored because it is limited to a small subset of speech, rather than all potential methods of communication, and that the statute is least restrictive option to accomplish that goal.
Although it is difficult to predict how the court may rule on the parties’ cross motions, the government’s arguments provide insight regarding the bases on which the court is likely to evaluate the constitutionality of the TCPA.
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.