On April 1, 2020, nine amicus briefs were filed in Barr, et al. v. American Association of Political Consultants, et al., currently pending in the Supreme Court, in support of an attempt to invalidate the TCPA’s ban on autodialed calls and texts to cellphones. The ban generally restricts persons or entities from placing automated calls or texts to cell phones without the recipients’ prior express consent. A host of businesses and associations affected by the ban—including Facebook and businesses from the energy, financial services, and tech industries—filed the amicus briefs and argued the TCPA’s blanket ban on autodialed calls and texts to cell phones should be struck down.
The Seventh Circuit recently issued an opinion with significant implications for defendants evaluating the prospects for due process challenges to awards of statutory damages under the TCPA, as well as defendants facing claims of agency liability for the acts of their vendors or contractors. In an opinion by Judge Easterbrook, the Seventh Circuit ordered the District Court to reexamine a “whopping” $280 million penalty against DISH Network, LLC (“DISH”) for violations of the TCPA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, 16 C.F.R. § 310 (the “Rule”), and related state laws. U.S. v. DISH Network, LLC, 2020 WL 141844, at *8 (7th Cir. Mar. 26, 2020). Although the Seventh Circuit suggested in dicta that the damages award was constitutionally acceptable, it held that the District Court erred because it only considered DISH’s “ability to pay” when calculating the award. Id. The court stated that the analysis should “start from harm rather than wealth, then add an appropriate multiplier.” Id.
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.
Recently, the Northern District of California joined other courts in more closely scrutinizing class certification motions in TCPA cases. In a case involving an automated phone call by a loan servicer regarding Plaintiff’s student loans, the district court held that the Plaintiff had failed to present evidence to satisfy Rule 23(a)’s numerosity requirement, even though the defendant had made millions of automated calls to millions of customers. Plaintiff also failed to satisfy Rules 23(b)(3) and (b)(2). The class failed under Rule 23(b)(3) because Plaintiff did not show that common questions predominated as to the consent defense and failed under Rule 23(b)(2) because Plaintiff primarily sought statutory damages rather than an injunction. Silver v. Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, No. 14-cv-00652, 2020 WL 607054 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 7, 2020).
The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut recently dealt another blow to serial TCPA plaintiff, Gorss Motels, Inc., granting summary judgment to the defendant in Gorss Motels, Inc. v. Lands’ End, Inc., No. 17-cv-00010, 2020 WL 264784 (D. Conn. Jan. 16, 2020). This is the latest in a series of adverse decisions—including from a Court of Appeal—suffered by Gorss Motels.
The Western District of Michigan recently denied a motion to certify a class after holding that the class was not ascertainable and the plaintiff had not offered persuasive evidence in support of the motion. Visser v. Caribbean Cruise Line, Inc., No. 13-1029, 2020 WL 415845 (W.D. Mich. Jan. 27, 2020).
The plaintiff alleged that Caribbean Cruise Line had violated the TCPA by using either an ATDS or an artificial or prerecorded voice without his prior consent. Specifically, he alleged that the call began with a prerecorded message that was followed by a live person who told him that he had won a free all-inclusive cruise. The plaintiff stated the caller told him that he had entered his phone number into a website called “leadpile.com.” Not believing this was true, the plaintiff told the caller that he had questions about the cruise. The caller then transferred the plaintiff to an agent who answered Plaintiff’s questions and provided details about the cruise.