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
UPDATE: Since our original publication, the Federal Communication Commission issued interpretive guidance on applicability of the emergency purpose exclusion, discussed below.
In the current environment, companies face a need to communicate with customers and patients about the impact that coronavirus (“COVID-19”) will have on their ability to provide goods and services. Companies should be aware of how the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 42 U.S.C. §. 447 et seq. (the “TCPA”) may impact their calling and texting practices. This alert discusses certain exemptions to the TCPA that may allow companies to continue to contact clients and customers through automated and prerecorded phone calls and texts regarding the COVID-19 outbreak. Businesses can and should continue to contact clients as needed, with carefully tailored messages, to provide necessary updates regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.Read More
On Saturday, March 7, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a disaster state of emergency in the State of New York based on the COVID-19 outbreak. One significant consequence is that under a newly-enacted law, unsolicited telemarketing calls to New York residents are now prohibited during a state of emergency.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.
In Gadelhak, the plaintiff asserted that the defendant impermissibly used an automatic telephone dialing system to text him without his prior express consent. The defendant had texted the plaintiff using a system that drew on a database containing the numbers of existing customers. The district court entered summary judgment for the defendant, ruling that the defendant’s system did not constitute an ATDS under the TCPA.
On appeal, the Seventh Circuit first concluded (as the Second and Ninth Circuits had done)  that receipt of unwanted text messages can constitute a concrete injury-in-fact for Article III standing purposes. The Seventh Circuit then proceeded to examine the statutory definition of an ATDS to determine whether the definition encompassed defendant’s system, concluding that it did not. 
The TCPA defines an “automatic telephone dialing system” 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.”  The defendant asserted that as a grammatical matter, the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” modifies both the terms “store” and “produce.” The defendant then outlined how a different form of equipment from its system could store numbers using a random or sequential number generator such that the defendant’s interpretation would not render the term “store” mere surplusage.  Under the defendant’s interpretation, dialing systems that draw numbers from an existing database neither store nor produce numbers using a random or sequential number generator and thus cannot constitute an ATDS for TCPA purposes. 
After methodically considering the various grammatical interpretations of the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system,” the Seventh Circuit agreed with the defendant, rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation of ATDS urged by the plaintiff.  The Ninth Circuit had previously read the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” as modifying only a system’s capacity to “produce” telephone numbers.  But the Seventh Circuit noted that such a broad interpretation would sweep into the definition of ATDS all equipment with the capacity to store and dial telephone numbers, including “[e]very iPhone today [which] has … capacity [to store telephone numbers and call or text them automatically] right out of the box.”  The Seventh Circuit found that this far-reaching result was well outside the intended plain-meaning of the statute.
The emerging trend narrowing the definition of an ATDS follows in the wake the D.C. Circuit’s 2018 decision rejecting the Federal Communications Commission’s broad definition of an ATDS.  The FCC issued notices in May and October 2018 inviting public comment concerning the interpretation of an ATDS but has yet to issue a revised definition.
The Seventh Circuit’s decision that a system which places calls using an existing database of numbers does not qualify as an ATDS will be of assistance to businesses operating within the Seventh Circuit in defending against TCPA lawsuits. And the split between the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits, on the one hand, and the Ninth Circuit, on the other, may eventually spur the Supreme Court to provide its own interpretation of the definition of ATDS.
NOTES — F.3d —, 2020 WL 808270, at *1 (7th Cir. Feb. 19, 2020).  Melito v. Experian Mktg. Sols., Inc., 923 F.3d 85, 92-93 (2d Cir.); Van Patten v. Vertical Fitness Grp., LLC, 847 F.3d 1037, 1042-43 (9th Cir. 2017).  Gadelhak, 2020 WL 808270, at *3.  47 U.S.C. § 227(a)(1).  Gadelhak, 2020 WL 808270, at *4-5.  Id. at *4.  See Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, 904 F.3d 1041, 1050 (9th Cir. 2018), cert. dismissed, 139 S. Ct. 1289, 203 L. Ed. 2d 300 (2019).  See id.; Gadelhak, 2020 WL 808270, at *5-6. The Ninth Circuit was recently asked to reconsider the Marks decision to bring its interpretation of an ATDS under the TCPA into accord with the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits. See Lamkin v. Portfolio Recovery Assocs., No. 19-16947 (9th Cir.).  Gadelhak, 2020 WL 808270, at *6.  ACA Int’l v. FCC, 885 F.3d 687, 695 (D.C. Cir. 2018).
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
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.