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

The Supreme Court announced today that it will hold oral argument via teleconference for Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants and a number of other cases that have come before it this term. The Barr case poses two questions about the TCPA: First, whether the TCPA’s exception for calls regarding “debt owed to or guaranteed by” the United States is an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech; and second, if the government-debt exception is indeed unconstitutional, whether the proper remedy is simply to sever that exception, or instead to strike the statute’s restrictions on automated telephone equipment in their entirety. The Court’s willingness to conduct remote oral argument for Barr indicates a desire to decide the case before the end of the current term.

Oral argument for Barr is to be held at some point in May, depending on the availability of counsel. The Court plans to broadcast a live audio feed of the oral argument.

Nine Amicus Briefs Filed in Support of Attempt to Invalidate TCPA Autodialer Ban

On April 1, 2020, nine amicus briefs were filed in Barr, et al. v. American Association of Political Consultants, et al., currently pending in the Supreme Court, in support of an attempt to invalidate the TCPA’s ban on autodialed calls and texts to cellphones. The ban generally restricts persons or entities from placing automated calls or texts to cell phones without the recipients’ prior express consent. A host of businesses and associations affected by the ban—including Facebook and businesses from the energy, financial services, and tech industries—filed the amicus briefs and argued the TCPA’s blanket ban on autodialed calls and texts to cell phones should be struck down.

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Central District of California Grants Motion for Summary Judgment After Finding That Plaintiff Failed to Revoke Prior Express Consent To Be Called

The Central District of California recently granted summary judgment to the defendant on a TCPA claim in Mendoza v. Allied Interstate LLC, SACV 17-885 JVS (KESx), 2019 WL 5616961 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 22, 2019), finding that the plaintiff had not sufficiently proven revocation of consent to be called about two credit card accounts when he had revoked consent to be called about two other accounts serviced by the same card issuer.

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The First Amendment Battleground: SCOTUS Asked to Review Two Ninth Circuit Decisions on the Constitutionality of the TCPA

In the span of fifteen days, TCPA defendants in two separate cases asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review two distinct but interwoven Ninth Circuit decisions on the constitutionality of the TCPA. Specifically, Facebook, Inc. and Charter Communications, Inc. are each asking the Court to rule that the TCPA’s prohibitions on calls made using an ATDS or an artificial or prerecorded voice contravene the First Amendment because they are “content-based” restrictions on speech and that the Ninth Circuit erred in “remedying” the constitutional violation—by severing the TCPA’s exemption for calls made to collect a government debt—rather than invalidating the entire statute. Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid, Petition for Writ of Certiorari, No. 19-511 (Oct. 17, 2019) (“Facebook Petition”); Charter Commc’ns, Inc. v. Gallion, Petition for Writ of Certiorari, No. 19-575 (Nov. 1, 2019) (“Charter Petition”). The two cases represent the most recent escalation of the growing trend in litigation challenging the TCPA’s ability to withstand First Amendment scrutiny.

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As Courts Grapple With The Severability of The Federal Debt-Collection Exemption, SCOTUS Is Asked to Resolve The Issue

The 2016 amendments to the TCPA—which created an exemption for calls that are made “solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States”—have inadvertently reshaped the way that TCPA claims are litigated. While early decisions in Indiana, Alabama, and Florida rejected claims under the FCC’s proposed implementing rules because they never became effective, more recent decisions have focused on whether the exemption, and by extension the entire statute, violates the First Amendment.  The first of those was the Fourth Circuit’s decision in American Association of Political Consultants v. FCC, which was soon followed by the Ninth Circuit and the Southern District of Florida.

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Seven Robocall-Related Bills Examined at the House Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing

The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing entitled “Legislating to Stop the Onslaught of Annoying Robocalls” on April 30, 2019, that focused on seven bills pending before the Committee. While lawmakers and witnesses generally agreed that illegal and abusive robocalls are a problem, the fix or immediate solution in the form of new legislation was less clear.

Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) opened the hearing by summarizing the current state of pervasive robocalls and calling for voice service providers to make available call-blocking services to all customers free of charge. Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) shared this sentiment, emphasizing the need for a bipartisan solution with wide support. As Walden observed, robocalling is a topic that comes up at every single town hall meeting held in recent months. Several bill sponsors made opening statements regarding their respective bills, which we summarize briefly below. Continue reading   »

Defendant Debunks Plaintiffs’ Reliance On FCC Order That Never Became Effective

A pair of new cases, one from Alabama and the other from Florida, has doubled down on the conclusion that plaintiffs cannot rely on the Report and Order adopted by the FCC on August 11, 2016 (the “August 2016 Order”) in asserting their TCPA claims, especially when the subject of the calls is debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States government.

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Mind the Details: Defendant Observes that Key FCC Order Never Took Effect; Wins Judgment on Pleadings

A new case out of Indiana, Sanford v. Navient Solutions, LLC, 2018 WL 4699890 (S.D. IN Oct. 01, 2018), underscores the importance of delving into the details of the FCC materials on which plaintiffs rely to support their claims.

In Sanford, relatively straightforward allegations—the defendant’s continued use of autodialed calls after the plaintiff revoked consent—were complicated by the fact that the federal government owned the debt at issue in the calls. The TCPA prohibits “mak[ing] any call (other than a call made for emergency purpose or made with the prior express consent of the called party) using any automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice” to “a cellular telephone service   . . . unless such call is made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) (emphasis added). Continue reading   »