Supreme Court Issues Highly Anticipated First Amendment Ruling in Barr v. AAPC

This morning, the United States Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated ruling in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants. The decisions are fractured, but a majority of the Justices coalesced around finding that the federal debt-collection exception (1) violated the First Amendment but (2) could be severed from the statute such that the restrictions on automated telephone equipment remain in place. Notably, however, Justice Gorsuch filed and Justice Thomas joined a separate opinion that poked holes in the remedy—which is to say, the absence of a remedy—and urged the Court to revisit its approach to severability in general. We are reviewing the various opinions and will report back with a more thorough analysis shortly.

Divided Third Circuit Panel Holds that Offers to Buy Can Qualify as “Advertisements” Under the TCPA

A divided panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed the dismissal of TCPA claims, finding that the faxes at issue were advertisements within the meaning of the TCPA. Fischbein v. Olson Research Group, Inc., 959 F.3d 559 (3d Cir. 2020). The Court made this finding even though the faxes at issue did not attempt to sell anything, but rather contained offers to buy the recipients’ services.

In Fischbein, the Third Circuit heard two consolidated appeals in which plaintiffs alleged that the defendants had violated the TCPA by sending them faxes that offered money in exchange for responses to market research surveys. Id. at 561. In both cases, the trial court dismissed the claims because the faxes were not an attempt to sell anything, and thus were not “advertisements” such that the sender needed a recipient’s prior express consent. A divided panel of the Third Circuit disagreed because, in its view, an offer to buy products, goods, or services can also qualify as an advertisement under the TCPA. Id. at 561.

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FCC Issues Declaratory Ruling Regarding Whether P2P Text Messaging Platforms Are Autodialers

On June 25, 2020, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling that granted a Petition that had been filed in 2018 by the P2P Alliance—a “coalition of providers and users of peer-to-peer (P2P) text messaging services.” The Petition had asked the FCC to clarify whether texts sent via its messaging platform were subject to the TCPA restrictions on automated dialing. The FCC did not decide if the Petitioner’s messaging platform is an autodialer, as the record was not sufficient to do so. But it did clarify in the abstract that, “if a texting platform actually requires a person to actively and affirmatively manually dial each recipient’s number and transmit each message one at a time and lacks the capacity to transmit more than one message without a human manually dialing each recipient’s number… then such platform would not be an ‘autodialer’ that is subject to the TCPA.”

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Supreme Court Holds Oral Argument via Teleconference in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants

On May 6, 2020, the Supreme Court held oral argument via teleconference in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants. The argument focused on the two questions presented in Barr.  First, whether the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s (TCPA) government debt exception is an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech. And second, if the government debt exception is unconstitutional, whether the remedy is to sever the exception or instead strike the TCPA’s restrictions on automated telephone equipment in their entirety. A recording of the argument is available below (audio begins at the :30 mark) and a transcript is available on the Supreme Court website.

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D.C. High Court Holds that Businesses Do Not Face Strict Liability for Junk Faxes Advertising Their Products, Agency Principles Apply

FDS Restaurant, Inc. v. All Plumbing, Inc., No. 16-CV-1009, 2020 WL 1465919 (D.C. Mar. 26, 2020)

In a recent TCPA junk-fax case, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals drew the intuitive conclusion that businesses do not incur TCPA liability whenever their products are advertised via fax. The proposition that strict vicarious liability does not apply to advertised businesses is a simple one, but—as the D.C. Court of Appeals noted—courts have diverged as to the proper standard to apply for assessing vicarious liability for faxes sent in violation of the TCPA. In FDS Restaurant, the D.C. Court of Appeals had to decide for itself which standard to apply in this context.

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Court Denies Class Certification Due to Plaintiff’s Lack of Objective Criteria and Lack of Evidence

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.

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Supreme Court Agrees To Review The Constitutionality of the TCPA

Given how often TCPA cases are filed—and how often they push the envelope of the statute’s scope and the courts’ jurisdiction—it should come as no surprise that the Supreme Court is often asked to bring some sanity to the statute’s enforcement.  Last year was no exception.

For example, a plaintiff petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse the Third Circuit’s decision that facsimiles that merely ask to confirm contact information are not “advertisements” for purposes of the TCPA.  Such facsimiles are advertisements, the plaintiff had argued, because businesses send them “to enhance the accuracy of their database and thus increase their profits.”  That may be so, the Third Circuit held, but that does not mean that they qualify as “advertisements” that promote goods or services.  “After all,” the court observed, “a commercial entity takes almost all of its actions with a profit motivation.”  The Supreme Court declined to review that decision in November.  See Robert W. Mauthe, M.D., P.C. v. Optum, Inc., No. 19-413, 2019 WL 6257433 (U.S. Nov. 25 2019).

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Florida Federal Court Stays Putative Class Action to Await Guidance from the FCC and Eleventh Circuit as to What Constitutes an ATDS

It can fairly be said that the statutory definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” (“ATDS”) has generated far more questions than answers—for courts and litigants alike. This is especially true in the wake of ACA International v. FCC, 885 F.3d 687 (D.C. Cir. 2018), where the D.C. Circuit set aside the FCC’s sweeping interpretation of the ATDS definition, and thus handed the baton back to the Commission to provide guidance on what is (and is not) an ATDS. But almost two years later, the FCC has yet to issue its ruling.

In the many TCPA cases that turn on the definition of ATDS, defendants may wish to file a motion to stay the action so that the court can await guidance from the FCC’s anticipated ruling on this issue. Indeed, over the course of the last year, multiple federal judges, at least in Florida, have been willing to grant such motions, particularly because the ATDS definition is also center stage in an appeal pending before the Eleventh Circuit. See Glasser v. Hilton Grand Vacations Co., LLC, No. 18-14499 (11th Cir. filed Oct. 24, 2018).

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Court Denies Atypical Plaintiff’s Motion to Certify Unascertainable Fail-Safe Class

The Middle District of Florida has denied a motion for class certification, finding the proposed class definition would have created a fail-safe class, the class members were not ascertainable, and the plaintiff’s claims were not typical of the class. Fennell v. Navient Solutions, LLC, No. 17-2083, 2019 WL 3854815, at *2 (M.D. Fla. 2019)

The plaintiff in Fennell alleged that, despite her revocation of consent, Navient had used an ATDS to repeatedly call her to collect a debt. Id. at *1. In response, Navient argued that, although it had used predictive dialers to call other people, it had not used that equipment to call the plaintiff because her delinquent loans had been assigned to Navient’s “Cures Unit,” which only made calls through manual dialing. Id. at *1, *2.

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