In a decision that may have far-reaching consequences, a divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit ruled that incentive awards to named plaintiffs—which are routine in TCPA and other class action settlements—are improper. See Johnson v. NPAS Solutions, LLC, No. 18-12344, 2020 WL 5553312, at *1 (11th Cir. Sept. 17, 2020). Despite acknowledging that incentive payments are commonplace in modern class action litigation, the majority held that such awards are prohibited under “on-point Supreme Court precedent” from the late 1800s and required reversal of the district court’s approval of a $1.4 million class settlement.
On July 6, 2020, the Supreme Court issued a highly anticipated—and highly fractured—ruling in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants. The nine Justices produced four opinions, none of which commanded a majority. But six of the Justices agreed that the TCPA’s government-debt exception violated the First Amendment, and seven agreed that it could be severed from the rest of the TCPA. The result, then, is that the exception was stricken but the restrictions on automated telephone equipment were saved.
Writing for the plurality, Justice Kavanaugh made quick work of the government’s argument that the exception was content-neutral: “A robocall that says, ‘Please pay your government debt’ is legal. A robocall that says, ‘Please donate to our political campaign’ is illegal. That is about as content-based as it gets.” Because the exception was content-based, the plurality applied strict scrutiny—a standard that the government had conceded it could not satisfy.
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.