The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently granted a TCPA defendant’s motion to dismiss, in part, because the plaintiff failed to allege plausible facts supporting an assertion that the defendant, QuoteWizard, used an ATDS to send two text messages to his phone. Mantha v. QuoteWizard.com, LLC, No. 19-cv-12235, 2020 WL 1274178 (D. Mass. Mar. 16, 2020). The case highlights an important point, namely that defendants can still prevail on ATDS-related claims at the motion to dismiss stage, even despite a recent decision from the jurisdiction applying the expansive definition of an ATDS from the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, 904 F.3d 1041, 1043 (9th Cir. 2018). See, e.g., Gonzalez v. HOSPO Corp., 371 F. Supp. 3d 26, 34 (D. Mass. 2019) (applying the Marks definition of an ATDS).
Chicago partner Brad Andreozzi was quoted in a Law360 article discussing both the need for automated calls and texts to disseminate timely health and safety information about the COVID-19 pandemic and the uptick in robocalls seeking to profit from fears in the face of the pandemic. According to Brad, “There are two strands running through the FCC’s regulatory strategy right now. One is to promote genuine emergency-purposes communications … and the other is to issue a warning shot across the bow to would-be scammers who are looking to exploit the pandemic.”
A federal court presiding over a civil RICO action recently ordered prolific plaintiff’s attorney Jeffrey Lohman to produce his firm’s communications with its clients. See Navient Sols., LLC v. Law Offices of Jeffrey Lohman, P.C., No. 19-461, 2020 WL 1172696, at *1 (E.D. Va. Mar. 11, 2020). This decision shows that the crime-fraud exception may overcome the attorney–client privilege where a lawyer allegedly participates in a scheme to manufacture TCPA claims. It also suggests that such conduct might form the basis of a civil RICO claim.
The plaintiff in that case, Navient Solutions, alleged that the defendants, including Lohman, operated a fraudulent scheme to manufacture TCPA lawsuits. The defendants allegedly recruited student-debtors into signing up for a sham debt-relief program and told them to stop making loan payments owed to Navient, to pay defendants instead, and to follow a script to induce telephone calls from Navient that would — and ultimately did — form the basis for TCPA claims that were filed by Lohman and others. After patiently uncovering these facts in discovery in various TCPA cases, Navient went on the offensive by bringing a civil RICO claim predicated on alleged mail and wire fraud involved in the scheme.
Acknowledging that “effective communications with the American public” is “a critical component” to efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released on its own motion, a declaratory ruling on March 20, 2020, addressing the applicability of the “emergency purposes” exception to the TCPA’s prohibition against making automated and prerecorded calls without prior express consent. This declaratory ruling is meant to provide “hospitals, health care providers, state and local health officials, and other government officials” peace of mind when sending important COVID-19 information through automated calls or texts.
As readers of the blog are well aware, the TCPA contains an exception to its consent requirements for calls made for “emergency purposes.” 47 U.S.C. §§ 227(b)(1)(A)-(B). The FCC’s rules define “emergency purposes” to mean “calls made necessary in any situation affecting the health and safety of consumers.” 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(4). The FCC’s declaratory ruling officially acknowledges the undeniable point that the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an “emergency” under the TCPA. Earlier this month, on March 13, 2020, the White House declared a national emergency in light of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. As of March 20, 2020, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had declared states of emergency, which have led to many cities closing schools, workplaces, parks, restaurants, and houses of worship. Public safety organizations and institutions providing healthcare services, in particular, are changing modes of operation and means of handling some public-facing tasks. For example, many health care clinics have broadened their telemedicine programs or have begun conducting new patient intake “virtually” to triage patients with flu-like symptoms. These changes need to be communicated to existing and prospective patients in a timely manner on a large scale.