A few weeks ago, the Eastern District of Louisiana held that courts cannot impose liability under Sections 227(b)(1)(A) or (b)(1)(B) of the TCPA for calls that were made before the Supreme Court cured those provisions’ unconstitutionality by severing their debt collection exemptions. The first-of-its-kind decision reasoned that courts cannot enforce unconstitutional laws, and severing the statute applied prospectively, not retroactively. Plaintiffs privately panicked but publicly proclaimed that the Creasy decision was “odd” and would not be followed.
Last Friday, various elected officials and consumer-protection groups filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to adopt the expansive interpretation of the ATDS definition for which Plaintiff Noah Duguid had advocated in a brief he filed the week before. The recent briefs and other filings in the case can be found here.
The Facebook case arises from a security-alert text message that was sent to an individual who had not consented to automated calls, and at long last presents the Court with the critical question of what is and is not an ATDS. (Recall that the FCC has said, and courts have either held or assumed, that text messages should be deemed “calls” for purposes of the TCPA.)
The Plaintiff in Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid—the case that promises to resolve the growing circuit split over the TCPA’s definition of an ATDS—has filed his merits brief in the Supreme Court.
Recall that the TCPA defines an ATDS as equipment that 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.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(a)(1). With help from noted grammarian Bryan Garner, who signed the brief as his new co-counsel, Duguid argues that the language of the statute and the canons of construction make clear that the adverbial phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” modifies the verb “to produce” but not the verb “to store.” For example, he argues that the “distributive-phrasing canon” requires that modifying phrases apply only to words “which, by context, they seem most properly to relate.” Brief at 20. Because the verb “to store” does not in his view relate to the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator,” he argues that the Court need not interpret the phrase as modifying “to store.” Id.; see also id. at 15 (calling this outcome a “semantic mismatch between a modifier and a verb”). He similarly argues that the “last-antecedent canon”—which provides that a modifying phrase “should ordinarily be read as modifying only the [verb] that it immediately follows”—counsels in favor of construing the adverbial phrase as modifying only the adjacent verb “to produce” and not the other verb “to store.” Id. at 20-21.
Charter Communications may have just helped literally thousands of TCPA defendants snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
As our regular readers know, the Supreme Court recently held in Barr v. AAPC that a recent addition to the TCPA—specifically, an exemption for calls to collect federal debts—was a content-based regulation of speech that violated the First Amendment. It then severed that exception from the rest of the statute, and in doing so dashed the hopes of defendants that had advocated for invalidating all of the statute’s restrictions on automated telephone equipment.
Over the years, one of the biggest challenges many businesses face when assessing TCPA risks posed by a new calling or texting campaign has been determining whether the proposed use case can defensibly rely on one of the exemptions adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That is because the FCC has repeatedly cautioned that any exemptions it adopts apply only to the specific set of facts considered by the agency. Sometimes the jigsaw puzzle pieces align, but other times they do not perfectly fit together, making exemptions less useful than they might otherwise be.
On September 21, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau issued a declaratory ruling clarifying that businesses advertised via fax should not face “sender liability” for unsolicited faxes sent without prior authorization. See Declaratory Ruling at ¶¶ 9, 17, In the Matter of Akin Gump, CG Docket No. 02-278 (Sept. 21, 2020). This ruling provides some much-needed guidance on the scope of sender liability under the Junk Fax Prevention Act, an issue which has divided the courts.
In 2005, the Junk Fax Prevention Act amended the TCPA to prohibit the sending of unsolicited advertisements via facsimile, absent some excepted relationship between sender and recipient. See Pub. L. No. 109-21, 119 Stat. 359 (2005). The FCC has defined the “sender” of a fax for liability purposes as any “person or entity on whose behalf a facsimile unsolicited advertisement is sent or whose goods or services are advertised or promoted in the unsolicited advertisement.” 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(10) (2019). The Commission also has observed that the “sender” of a fax is usually, but not always, the business advertised in the fax. See “2006 Junk Fax Order,” FCC Rcd. 3787, 3808, ¶ 39 (2006).