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).
As we previewed recently, the FCC adopted a set of rule amendments through a Third Report and Order for its “call blocking by default” framework on July 16, 2020. These rules focus on two safe harbors potentially shielding voice service providers from liability when they block calls that fail the SHAKEN/STIR authentication framework or that originate from “bad-actor upstream voice service providers.” These rules also generally provide for protection of “critical calls,” and condition safe harbors on having a no-cost, streamlined solution designed to remedy blocking errors, without defining what constitutes an “error.”
The rules as adopted had few substantive changes from the draft version that was released prior to the FCC’s July 2020 Open Meeting. First, the FCC added a clarification that the safe harbor that allows voice service providers to block calls based on “bad-actor upstream voice service providers” is not intended to “affect the private contractual rights a downstream provider has to block or refuse to accept calls pursuant to its agreements with wholesale customers.” This clarification suggests that the FCC does not intend this safe harbor to be the only permissible provider-based blocking under the FCC’s rules. For example, the FCC has long recognized that consumer consent or opt-in could be a valid basis for call blocking.
The FCC recently reported a decrease of approximately 60% of consumer robocall complaints and a drop of approximately 30% in volume of “unwanted robocalls” that were placed in the first half of 2020 as compared to the first half of 2019. Considering that the FCC adopted the first-of-its-kind “call blocking by default” framework in June 2019, some might wonder: Does this mean the FCC’s “call blocking by default” framework has been successful?
While the FCC cited to voice service providers reporting that they have so far only discovered less than 1% of – or as few as 0.2% of – blocked calls to be false positives, the seemingly low percentage still means that millions of lawful and wanted calls have been erroneously blocked. For example, Hiya reported that it has blocked nearly 800 million calls in 2019, which could mean that 0.2% of which – 1.6 million calls – had been blocked in error in that year. Likewise, Nomorobo blocked over 512 million robocalls in 2019; its blocking platform may have affected the delivery of 1.024 million lawful calls in that year.
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.
The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut recently granted a Defendant’s motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ TCPA claims because Plaintiffs failed to adequately allege facts supporting an inference that Defendant (1) used an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”) and (2) failed to maintain an internal do-not-call list. Sterling v. Securus Technologies, Inc., 2020 WL 2198095 (D. Conn. May 6, 2020). Plaintiffs originally sued multiple Defendants for negligent and willful violations of the TCPA. Id. at *1. Defendants removed the case to federal court and filed motions to dismiss the original Complaint. Id. Plaintiff amended, and Defendants again moved to dismiss. Id. The Court dismissed all claims against Defendants. Id. The Court then granted Plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file a Second Amended Complaint. Id. at *2. Plaintiffs’ Second Amended Complaint only named Defendant Securus, and Defendant again moved to dismiss. Id.
The Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed the district court’s summary judgment ruling that a defendant’s calls did not violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) because consumers cannot unilaterally revoke consent that was part of a bilateral contract.
In Medley v. Dish Network, LLC, No. 18-13841, 2020 WL 2092594 (11th Cir. May 1, 2020), Medley entered a two-year contract with DISH for satellite television services. As part of the service contract, Medley provided her cell phone number to DISH and expressly authorized DISH “‘to contact [her] regarding [her] DISH Network account or to recover any unpaid portion of [her] obligation to DISH, through an automated or predictive dialing system or prerecorded messaging system.’” Medley, 2020 WL 2092594, at *1. Approximately eleven months later, Medley temporarily suspended her service under an optional provision of the contract, which triggered a $5.00 monthly fee in lieu of service charges. Medley then underwent bankruptcy, which discharged approximately $800 that she owed to DISH. Following this discharge, DISH called Medley to recover outstanding fees accrued as a result of her temporary pause in service. In response to emails from DISH, Medley’s bankruptcy lawyer sent DISH faxes stating that the lawyer represented Medley with regard to her debts. DISH continued to contact Medley following these faxes.
On March 30, 2020, the American Bankers Association (“ABA”) and several other associations of banks and credit unions (together, “petitioners”) effectively asked the FCC to exempt all COVID-related calls and texts to consumers from TCPA liability as communications “made for emergency purposes.” Petition for Expedited Declaratory Ruling, Certification, or Waiver of the American Bankers Association et al., CG Docket No. 02-278, at 4 (Mar. 30, 2020) [hereinafter “ABA Petition”].