District Court Departs from Supreme Court Plurality to Find Government-Debt Collector Retroactively Liable Under TCPA — But Rejects Statutory Damages

For nearly five years, the TCPA explicitly excluded from liability calls made to collect government-backed debt. Naturally, government debt collectors relied on this exception and called debtors without fear of TCPA liability. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that this exception was unconstitutional and severed it from the statute. Now, a federal district court has ruled that government debt collectors may be liable for calls made prior to the Supreme Court Ruling, despite their reasonable reliance on the exception. In doing so, the court brushed aside due process concerns.

As previously reported, the government debt exception was severed from the statute by the Supreme Court’s decision in Barr v. AAPC. The AAPC decision was highly fractured—with the Court issuing four opinions but none commanding a majority.  Since, district courts have been grappling with AAPC means for the statute.

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Business or Residential? Ambiguity Surrounding Number on Do Not Call Registry Can Defeat Class Certification

In an interesting decision from the District Court of Oregon, United States Magistrate Judge Youlee Yim You recommended granting a motion to deny class certification where uncertainty about the appropriate classification of a cell phone number’s use was enough to make the plaintiff an inadequate class representative with atypical claims.  Mattson v. New Penn Fin., LLC, No. 3:18-cv-00990, 2021 WL 1406875 (D. Or. Mar. 8, 2021).

In Mattson, the plaintiff filed a TCPA class action, claiming the defendant, New Penn Financial, LLC, called his cell phone while it was registered on the national Do Not Call Registry in violation of 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(c).  Id. at *1.  As readers of this blog will note, 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(c)(2) prohibits telephone solicitations made to residential telephone subscribers who are registered on the Do Not Call Registry.  New Penn sought denial of class certification, arguing the uncertainty of Plaintiff’s standing made his claims atypical, rendering him an inadequate class representative.  Id.  In considering the motion, the Court identified an issue unique to the plaintiff—whether the cell phone number at issue was properly considered a residential or business telephone number.  Id. at *5.

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Another Fifth Circuit Court to Follow in Creasy’s Footsteps

The Eastern District of Texas recently dismissed a plaintiff’s TCPA claim in Cunningham v. Matrix Financial Services, LLC,  No. 4:29-cv-896 (E.D. Tex. Mar. 31, 2021) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

This decision came after the District Court rejected the magistrate judge’s recommendation that subject matter jurisdiction was proper.  The recommendation focused on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants (“AAPC”), 140 S. Ct. 2335 (2020), which held that the government-debt exception violated the First Amendment.  The magistrate judge noted that, following AAPC, the majority of district courts had held that federal courts retained subject matter jurisdiction over TCPA claims brought under § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) during the exception’s existence.  Those that did not were deemed unpersuasive given that “[t]he Supreme Court in AAPC explicitly found that the government-debt exception in the TCPA was severable from the remainder of the statute and declined to strike down the TCPA’s entire robocall ban.”  Further, the magistrate judge reasoned that “[t]he dispositive inquiry lies in . . . [footnote twelve of AAPC]”, which stated that the AAPC Court’s “decision does not negate the liability of parties who made robocalls covered by the robocall restriction.”

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Sixth Circuit Rejects Strict Liability for Products Advertised via Fax, “Some Level of Knowledge” Required

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently re-affirmed its position that manufacturers of products advertised in unsolicited fax messages do not face strict liability under the TCPA’s junk-fax provision.  To face liability, the manufacturers must at least be aware that fax advertisements are being sent.

In Lyngaas v. Curaden AG, a dentist sued a Swiss toothbrush manufacturer, Curaden AG, and its American subsidiary, Curaden USA, for sending unsolicited fax advertisements for their toothbrushes.  992 F.3d 412, 417 (6th Cir. Mar. 24, 2021).  The district court concluded that Curaden AG could not be held liable for the faxes because Curaden USA had designed and broadcasted the faxes on its own, without parent authorization.  Id. at 423.  On appeal, the dentist argued that FCC regulation extended liability to any entity “whose goods or services are advertised or promoted” in a fax, regardless of knowledge.  Id. at 424 (quoting 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(10)).

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Supreme Court’s Facebook Decision Upends TCPA Litigation Landscape

TCPA Blog’s Michael Daly will be participating in a webinar titled “Supreme Court’s Facebook Decision Upends TCPA Litigation Landscape.” This webinar on Thursday, April 22, 2021, will delve into the Supreme Court’s decision in Facebook v. Duguid, which resolved a split among the lower courts over how to interpret the TCPA’s definition of an “automatic telephone dialing system.”  The panelists from the Consumer Litigation Committee of the American Bar Association’s Litigation Section will analyze the decision and discuss the future of TCPA litigation.

For more information and to register, please click here.

S.D. Fla. Court Remands Case to State Court, Finding No Article III Injury

The Southern District of Florida recently remanded a case back to state court because the defendant that removed the case failed to establish that plaintiff suffered an Article III injury. Harris v. Travel Resorts of America, Inc., Civ. No. 2:20-14369-AMC (S.D. Fla. Mar. 31, 2021). Notably, the Court also found that plaintiff should be able to recover its attorneys’ fees in seeking remand given the defendant’s reversing its prior position on whether the Court had subject-matter jurisdiction over the case.

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Supreme Court Adopts Narrow Autodialer Definition

In a decision issued this morning, the Supreme Court settled a long-running debate over the scope of the TCPA’s “automatic telephone dialing system” definition: “whether that definition encompasses equipment that can ‘store’ and dial telephone numbers, even if the device does not ‘us[e] a random or sequential number generator.” Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid, 592 U.S. — (2021).

The Court unequivocally held that devices that merely store numbers from a premade list do not qualify as autodialer systems subject to the TCPA. “To qualify as an [ATDS],” explained Justice Sotomayor, writing for Court, “a device must have the capacity either to store a telephone number using a random or sequential generator or to produce a telephone number” using either form of generation. Id. at 1.

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Auto Service Contractor Not Subject to Court’s Jurisdiction in Texas Resident’s TCPA Claim, Holds State’s Federal Northern District

The Northern District of Texas handed down a decision exploring the jurisdictional limitations on TCPA plaintiffs’ ability to hale out-of-state defendants into a plaintiff’s local federal court.

The case, Horton v. Sunpath, Ltd., involved a Texas resident (Lucas Horton) who launched a TCPA suit against a Massachusetts-based corporation (Sunpath).  Horton alleged that Sunpath’s agent, Northcoast Warranty Services, placed several calls to his cell phone using an automatic telephone dialing system and pre-recorded messages, despite the number’s listing on the National Do-Not Call Registry.  No. 3:20-cv-1884-B-BH, 2021 WL 982344, at *1 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 16, 2021).  On the calls, Horton stated, Northcoast encouraged him to purchase an auto service policy administered by Sunpath.  Id.  The calls continued for about three months until Horton purchased a policy from Sunpath in May 2020.  Id.  Horton filed suit against Sunpath about a month later in the Northern District of Texas.  Id.

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District Court Finds Seminar Invitation Faxes Are Not Advertisements

Recently, the Northern District of Illinois dismissed a TCPA putative class action without prejudice, finding that faxes inviting recipients to attend free continuing education veterinary seminars did not constitute advertisements on their face because they did not promote products or services and they were not sufficiently alleged to be a pretext for an underlying commercial purpose.  Ambassador Animal Hosp., Ltd. v. Elanco Animal Health, Inc., No. 20-cv-2886, 2021 WL 633358 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 18, 2021).

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Artful Pleading Won’t Circumvent Sovereign Immunity, Fourth Circuit Says

In Cunningham v. Lester, —F.3d—, 2021 WL 821467 (4th Cir. Mar. 4, 2021), the Fourth Circuit reiterated that the doctrine of sovereign immunity is alive and well and very much applicable to putative TCPA claims, and that crafty plaintiffs cannot artfully plead around the doctrine’s reach.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) contains a provision requiring the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to “establish a system” so applicants “receive notice of eligibility for an applicable State health subsidy program.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 18083(a), (b)(2), (e). CMS contracted with private company GDIT to fulfill CMS’s requirement that it contact individuals to inform them of their eligibility for participation in the subsidized health insurance plans offered through ACA’s health insurance exchanges. Defendants were individuals working for CMS in connection with the CMS-GDIT contract. Defendants instructed GDIT to prerecord a message and deliver it to approximately 680,000 individuals who had not consented to receive the message.

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