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
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
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
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina recently rejected a First Amendment challenge to a portion of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). In American Association of Political Consultants, Inc., et al. v. Sessions, et al., Case No. 5:16-cv-00252-D (E.D.N.C.), a bi-partisan coalition of political groups sued the federal government. The coalition asserted that the TCPA’s prohibition on making auto-dialed calls or texts to cell phones without the requisite consent (the “cell phone ban”) imposes a content-based restriction on speech that does not pass strict scrutiny and is unconstitutionally under-inclusive. (The plaintiffs’ complaint was previously discussed here.) The government defended the TCPA’s constitutionality.
In a recent decision, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that the host of an automobile website did not violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227 (“TCPA”), by providing its users a platform to send automated text messages regarding car listings. In Serban v. CarGurus, Inc., Case No. 1:16-cv-02531 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 12, 2018), a user of the defendant’s website mistyped her telephone number when attempting to send herself a car listing. In doing so, the user performed a multi-step process—including selecting the “Send to Phone” option, entering the telephone number, and clicking a “Send” button—to generate a text message automatically created by CarGurus based on the car selected. As a result of the mistyped telephone number, the text message was transmitted to the plaintiff rather than the user.