One area of continued confusion and conflict among courts reviewing TCPA cases has been how each approaches the scope of the statutory definition of an autodialer, as this critical matter can spell the difference between calls being deemed violative of the statute or acceptable. Last week, the Eleventh Circuit addressed a pair of appeals disputing the scope of the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” (“ATDS”) under the TCPA. In Glasser v. Hilton Grand Vacations Co., the Eleventh Circuit determined that ATDS should include only equipment that generates numbers randomly or sequentially and then dials them automatically—effectively excluding equipment that dials numbers from preexisting lists. 2020 WL 415811, at *2 (11th Cir. Jan. 27, 2020). This places the Eleventh Circuit squarely at odds with the Ninth Circuit’s expansive definition of ATDS in Marks v. Crunch San Diego.
TCPA Blog’s Mike Daly was quoted in a Law360 article analyzing the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to review the constitutionality of the TCPA’s restrictions on the use of automatic telephone equipment.
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).
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).
Senate Bill 151, now called “the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act” (the “TRACED Act”), has been reconciled with the House of Representatives’ bipartisan bill House Bill 3375 and was passed in the House on December 4, 2019. This revised amendment has been returned to the Senate for a final vote and is expected to become final legislation “if not this week, then next week,” according to the bill’s sponsor, Representative John Thune. Thus, the prospects for passage of TCPA legislation currently look quite positive.
As drafted, the legislation will kick off a number of activities by the FCC, and may, as a practical matter, require the agency to take prompt actions on long-awaited rulings on critical statutory definitions. We highlight below some of the most notable revisions in the TRACED Act made since July 2019.
Recently, the Middle District of Florida denied a motion for class certification, finding that the plaintiff had not sufficiently shown that the putative classes were ascertainable. Sliwa v. Bright House Networks, LLC & Advanced Telesolutions, Inc., No. 16-0235, 2019 WL 4744938 (M.D. Fla. Sept. 27, 2019).
The Southern District of Florida recently granted a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on certain aspects of a plaintiff’s TCPA claim because plaintiff could not establish that defendant used an ATDS to call her cell phone. Johnson v. Capital One Services, LLC, No. 18-CV-62058, 2019 WL 4536998, *1 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 19, 2019). The case illustrates that a plaintiff must present concrete evidence demonstrating that a defendant used an ATDS in order to survive a motion for summary judgment. See id. at *3-4. A plaintiff cannot rely on purported “admissions” obtained from a call agent on the phone or plaintiff’s own subjective characterizations of the call. Id.
The Northern District of Texas recently dismissed a TCPA claim because “the Complaint nowhere alleges that he was called or texted using an ATDS.” The Court’s opinion emphasized that simply asserting that “the text messages were ‘automated’” was not sufficient to state a TCPA claim, and that plaintiffs cannot casually add new factual allegations in their oppositions to a motion to dismiss.
The Northern District of Illinois recently entered summary judgment against a group of plaintiffs because it found the system at issue was not an ATDS.
In Smith v. Premier Dermatology, No. 17-3712, 2019 WL 4261245 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 9, 2019), the Defendants used a proprietary “eRelevance” system to send medical marketing communications by text message to their clients’ customers or patients. Defendant eRelevance Corporation would have its clients provide their current and prospective customer contact information, which would be uploaded into the eRelevance system. Based on client-selected criteria, the system would create lists of contacts, and once eRelevance employees built a text-message marketing campaign, they could push a button to have the system automatically send text messages to each contact on the list.