The FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau last week issued a declaratory ruling resolving a long-pending Petition on the question of whether certain healthcare-related calls, given their significance and value for consumers, should be entirely exempted from the TCPA’s prior express consent requirement, or at least exempted as long as consumers are allowed to opt out of the calls. The Bureau declined the petitioner’s invitation to create new healthcare exemptions or expand the scope of exemptions already in place for certain types of health-care-related calls.
As readers of this blog know, a robust Circuit split has developed regarding the meaning of an ATDS. The Second and Ninth Circuits have taken one approach, while the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits have taken another. While we await Supreme Court guidance, lower courts continue to grapple with the ATDS issue. In Eisenband v. Pine Belt Automotive, Inc., No. 17-8549 (FLW) (LHG), 2020 WL 1486045 (D.N.J. Mar. 27, 2020), the District of New Jersey analyzed the definition of an ATDS and concluded that equipment that dials numbers from a manually prepared list does not constitute an ATDS.
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.”
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).
Another court has observed that a billion-dollar aggregate liability under the TCPA likely would violate due process, adopting the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning that such a “shockingly large amount” of statutory damages would be “so severe and oppressive as to be wholly disproportionate to the offense and obviously unreasonable.”
The Eleventh Circuit last week issued a common-sense ruling vacating class certification in a TCPA case—an area of the law where common sense does not always prevail. In Cordoba v. DIRECTV, LLC, No. 19-12077 (11th Cir. Nov. 15, 2019), the named plaintiff claimed that DIRECTV violated the TCPA when Telecel, the company it had contracted with to provide telemarketing services, failed to maintain an internal “do-not-call list” of individuals who had requested not to receive telemarketing calls on behalf of DIRECTV. Cordoba sought to represent a class of all persons who had received more than one telemarketing call during the period of time that Telecel had failed to maintain a do-not-call list for DIRECTV. The district court certified the class, failing to consider that the class as defined would include many members—mostly members, potentially—who had never asked to be placed on the do-not-call list. Having never made this request, the Eleventh Circuit said, those members lacked standing because their injuries were not traceable to Telecel’s alleged failure to maintain the list. Furthermore, because distributing an award would require the district court to confirm whether a class member had a traceable injury, individualized inquiries predominated over common questions. The district court’s failure to consider these individualized questions of standing and predominance doomed its certification order.
As we previously discussed, the need for clarification as to the TCPA’s treatment of outbound calls made using soundboard technology (“soundboard calls”) is particularly manifest in light of two pending petitions before the FCC and the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the FTC’s decision to treat soundboard calls as robocalls subject to the Telemarketing Sales Rules. [See here and here]. Plaintiffs have sought to exploit the uncertainty; a spate of lawsuits contend that soundboard calls are prerecorded calls prohibited by the TCPA if made without prior consent. Recently, the Western District of Oklahoma attempted to set a standard for the permissibility of these calls, but the decision may only engender more uncertainty. While professing that soundboard calls are not “categorically prohibited,” the court’s ruling fails to provide a roadmap for what types of soundboard calls would be permissible, beyond stating that a “soundboard call which did not interact with the customer except in preprogrammed not to mention meaningless ways” violated the TCPA.
Soundboard technology allows call center agents to interact with consumers on a real-time basis using a combination of audio clips and the agent’s own voice. Because a live agent selects the audio clips to play based on the statements made by the called party, companies using or offering the technology have argued that these calls feature a degree of human interaction that means they should not be considered “prerecorded calls” subject to the consent requirements of the TCPA.