District of Massachusetts Grants Dismissal of Threadbare ATDS Claims

The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently granted a TCPA defendant’s motion to dismiss, in part, because the plaintiff failed to allege plausible facts supporting an assertion that the defendant, QuoteWizard, used an ATDS to send two text messages to his phone. Mantha v. QuoteWizard.com, LLC, No. 19-cv-12235, 2020 WL 1274178 (D. Mass. Mar. 16, 2020). The case highlights an important point, namely that defendants can still prevail on ATDS-related claims at the motion to dismiss stage, even despite a recent decision from the jurisdiction applying the expansive definition of an ATDS from the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, 904 F.3d 1041, 1043 (9th Cir. 2018). See, e.g., Gonzalez v. HOSPO Corp., 371 F. Supp. 3d 26, 34 (D. Mass. 2019) (applying the Marks definition of an ATDS).

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Seventh Circuit Disagrees with Ninth Circuit and Joins the Third and Eleventh Circuit in Adopting a Narrow Interpretation of ATDS

In a decision released on February 19 that relied principally on rules of grammar, the Seventh Circuit held that to be an ATDS under the TCPA, a device must be capable of storing or producing telephone numbers using a random or sequential number generator, not merely capable of storing numbers. Gadelhak v. AT&T Services, Inc., No. 19-1738 (7th Cir. Feb. 19, 2020). As such, it affirmed the District Court’s decision (albeit based on a different interpretation of the TCPA) that granted summary judgment in favor of AT&T where AT&T’s customer management tool “dials numbers only from a customer database.” In so holding, the Seventh Circuit joined the Third Circuit’s and the Eleventh Circuit’s (which we blogged about here) narrow interpretation of ATDS and widened the split with the Ninth Circuit’s expansive interpretation. Compare Glasser v. Hilton Grand Vacations Co., 2020 WL 415811 (11th Cir. Jan. 27, 2020) & Dominguez v. Yahoo, Inc., 894 F.3d 116, 119 (3d Cir. 2018) with Marks v. Crunch San Diego, 904 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 2018).

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Eleventh Circuit Narrows ATDS Definition

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.

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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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Legislation Looking Likely on a Number of TCPA “Hot-Button” Issues

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.

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Florida Federal Court Rejects ATDS Allegations, Grants Motion to Dismiss

In a text message case, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida recently granted Atlantic Coast Enterprise, LLC’s (“Ace”) motion to dismiss upon finding that the plaintiff had failed to plausibly allege Ace’s use of an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”). See Turizo v. Jiffy Lube International, Inc., et al., No. 19-61140, 2019 WL 4737696 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 27, 2019) (available here).

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District Court Denies Class Certification Due to Lack of Ascertainability

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).

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Court Finds Plaintiff’s ATDS Evidence Insufficient and Grants Summary Judgment for Defendant

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.

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