The FCC recently announced a public comment period for a new Petition for Declaratory Ruling that seeks to have the FCC “clarify that delivery of a voice message directly to a voicemail box through ringless voicemail (RVM) technology does not constitute a ‘call’” subject to TCPA prohibitions. The Petition was filed by the U.S. Senate campaign for David Perdue – Perdue for Senate, Inc. (Perdue) stemming from litigation in Georgia related to primary election delivery of RVMs to voters. Interested parties have until October 4, 2021, to submit comments and until October 19, 2021, to submit reply comments.
The Sixth Circuit recently became the first federal court of appeals to weigh in on whether plaintiffs can bring TCPA claims for conduct occurring between November 2015 and July 2020—the respective dates on which the unconstitutional government debt exception was passed and the Supreme Court’s decision in Barr v. AAPC declared it unconstitutional and severed it from the statute. Some district courts, such as the District of Louisiana in Creasy v. Charter Communications, Inc., 2020 WL 5761117 (E.D. La. Sept. 28, 2020), have concluded plaintiffs cannot—reasoning that the TCPA was void while an unconstitutional provision was part of it. As covered in our prior posts, district courts have come down on both sides of the issue—leading to significant confusion.
Enter the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Lindenbaum v. Realgy, LLC, No. 20-4252, 2021 WL 4097320 (6th Cir. Sept. 9, 2021), which considered the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Ohio’s decision that dismissed a putative class action arising from prerecorded calls.
The Federal Communications Commission has proposed to slap a Virginia political firm and two of its principals with a $5,134,500 fine for placing over one thousand prerecorded phone calls to cell phones across the country without prior consent from recipients, in violation of the TCPA and Commission rules. The action is the FCC’s first big enforcement matter under the recently enacted Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (“TRACED”) Act and demonstrates the Commission’s willingness to use that statute to assess hefty penalties against noncompliant entities.
Under the 2019 TRACED Act, the Commission may issue a “Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture” to an entity that violates the TCPA’s prohibitions on prerecorded voice messages and autodialing systems, without first having to issue a warning to the entity. See Pub. L. No. 116-105, 133 Stat. 3274, Sec. 3(a). The defendant then has an opportunity to challenge the allegations before the Commission issues a final decision on liability and fines. See FCC, Enforcement Primer (“FCC-Initiated Investigations”). Prior to the TRACED Act, FCC rules required the Commission to issue a citation to an alleged violator of § 227(b) before it could seek to impose a forfeiture penalty upon them.
After adopting orders reflecting the majority of implementation deadlines set by the TRACED Act and the Supreme Court’s highly anticipated TCPA decision interpreting the statutory definition of automatic telephone dialing system in the first half of 2021, all eyes are on what the FCC has planned. Midsummer seems like a good time for a year-to-date review to track where the FCC has been and where it is headed next in its TCPA oversight and enforcement roles.
STIR/SHAKEN Call Authentication Framework
Last week, the FCC adopted its January 2021 proposal and issued a Report and Order establishing what the FCC describes as “a fair and consistent process” that a voice service provider can use to challenge a decision by the STIR/SHAKEN framework Governance Authority to strip that provider of the “digital token” that authenticates calls on that provider’s Internet-Protocol (IP) networks.
In an interesting decision from the District Court of Oregon, United States Magistrate Judge Youlee Yim You recommended granting a motion to deny class certification where uncertainty about the appropriate classification of a cell phone number’s use was enough to make the plaintiff an inadequate class representative with atypical claims. Mattson v. New Penn Fin., LLC, No. 3:18-cv-00990, 2021 WL 1406875 (D. Or. Mar. 8, 2021).
In Mattson, the plaintiff filed a TCPA class action, claiming the defendant, New Penn Financial, LLC, called his cell phone while it was registered on the national Do Not Call Registry in violation of 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(c). Id. at *1. As readers of this blog will note, 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(c)(2) prohibits telephone solicitations made to residential telephone subscribers who are registered on the Do Not Call Registry. New Penn sought denial of class certification, arguing the uncertainty of Plaintiff’s standing made his claims atypical, rendering him an inadequate class representative. Id. In considering the motion, the Court identified an issue unique to the plaintiff—whether the cell phone number at issue was properly considered a residential or business telephone number. Id. at *5.
The Southern District of California recently dismissed the TCPA case Hildre v. Heavy Hammer, Inc., No. 3:20-cv-00236, 2021 WL 734431 (S.D. Cal. Feb. 25, 2021), for the plaintiff’s failure to adequately allege that the defendants had used an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”) when placing calls.
The plaintiff alleged that the defendants called him using an ATDS without first obtaining his consent. Specifically, he claimed that the out-of-state defendant called him twice using a California telephone number. After the first call, plaintiff claimed that he asked to be removed from the call list. When plaintiff received the second call, he alleges that there was a “noticeable pause” after he answered.
The TRACED Act’s December 30, 2020 deadline was not the end of the FCC’s recent series of actions to bring more clarity to certain forms of TCPA exemptions. Most recently, on January 15, 2021, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling “clarify[ing] that a call to a residential telephone line seeking an individual’s participation in a clinical pharmaceutical trial is not subject to the TCPA’s restrictions on prerecorded calls.” Instead, the FCC stated that these calls are eligible for exemption from the TCPA’s prior express written consent requirement as other calls to a residence that do not constitute telemarketing.
The FCC in 2016 determined that the federal government was not a “person” subject to the TCPA, and that by extension, federal contractors working within the scope of their delegated authority were also not bound by TCPA restrictions. This Broadnet Declaratory Ruling was the subject of at least one prominent dissent. At the time, then-Commissioner Ajit Pai observed: “[I]t is odd to suggest that a contractor’s status as a ‘person’ could switch on or off depending on one’s behavior or relationship with the federal government.” The National Consumer Law Center and Professional Services Council both filed petitions for reconsideration and this issue was again joined on December 14, 2020, when the FCC issued a Reconsideration Order stating that government contractors – but not federal or state governments themselves – “must obtain prior express consent to call consumers” when making calls on behalf of the government.
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).