A Divided Eleventh Circuit Holds that Incentive Awards are Prohibited

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.

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The FCC Clarifies that Certain Communications to COVID-19 Patients Fall with TCPA’s “Emergency Purposes” Safe Harbor

In a Public Notice issued July 28, 2020, the FCC confirmed that the TCPA’s safe harbor for calls or text messages made for “emergency purposes” applies to calls and text messages made by or on behalf of health care entities to communicate with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 to provide them with information regarding donating their plasma after recovery. As a result, in the FCC’s view, such calls or text messages during the ongoing pandemic do not require prior express consent to be lawful. Continue reading   »

Supreme Court Strikes Government-Debt Exception But Saves Other Restrictions on Automated Telephone Equipment

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.

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Second Circuit Joins Ninth Circuit in Adopting Expansive Interpretation of ATDS, But Carves Out Smartphones

In a decision released on April 7, the Second Circuit joined the Ninth Circuit in adopting an expansive interpretation of what qualifies as an Automatic Telephone Dialing System (ATDS), finding that online texting platforms that use human-generated lists and require a human to click “send” on a screen to initiate the texts falls within the statutory definition. Duran v. La Boom Disco, Inc., No. 19-600, 2020 WL 1682773, at *8–9 (2d Cir. Apr. 7, 2020). In an effort to respond to expected critics of their approach, the court explained its view of why “so-called smartphones” and other modern devices do not qualify as an ATDS despite having similar functionality to the online texting platforms at issue (the ability to store a list of numbers and to dial them by simply clicking “send”). Id. at *8 n.39. The decision deepens the divide between circuit courts on what qualifies as an ATDS.

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Attorney Facing Civil RICO Claim Ordered to Produce Attorney–Client Communications Made in Furtherance of Alleged Scheme to Manufacture TCPA Claims

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.

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