Some welcome the New Year with new goals and new plans while others – the FCC, in particular, welcomes the New Year by wrapping up TCPA rulemakings and issuing other rulings. As expected, a number of TRACED Act items were included in orders issued in late December 2020. As we previewed, the FCC amended nine existing TCPA exemptions, imposing additional restrictions on pre-recorded/artificial voice calls placed to residential lines even for informational calling, and adopted new redress requirements on and safe harbor protections for carriers engaging in network-based call blocking. The FCC also denied two petitions for declaratory rulings, clarifying that “soundboard callers use a prerecorded voice to deliver a message” and that as a result, these calls made using soundboards are subject to TCPA restrictions. In light of these changes, we encourage business callers to carefully assess how they affect any existing calling protocols and compliance practices.
Over the years, one of the biggest challenges many businesses face when assessing TCPA risks posed by a new calling or texting campaign has been determining whether the proposed use case can defensibly rely on one of the exemptions adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That is because the FCC has repeatedly cautioned that any exemptions it adopts apply only to the specific set of facts considered by the agency. Sometimes the jigsaw puzzle pieces align, but other times they do not perfectly fit together, making exemptions less useful than they might otherwise be.
The FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau last week issued a declaratory ruling resolving a long-pending Petition on the question of whether certain healthcare-related calls, given their significance and value for consumers, should be entirely exempted from the TCPA’s prior express consent requirement, or at least exempted as long as consumers are allowed to opt out of the calls. The Bureau declined the petitioner’s invitation to create new healthcare exemptions or expand the scope of exemptions already in place for certain types of health-care-related calls.
On March 30, 2020, the American Bankers Association (“ABA”) and several other associations of banks and credit unions (together, “petitioners”) effectively asked the FCC to exempt all COVID-related calls and texts to consumers from TCPA liability as communications “made for emergency purposes.” Petition for Expedited Declaratory Ruling, Certification, or Waiver of the American Bankers Association et al., CG Docket No. 02-278, at 4 (Mar. 30, 2020) [hereinafter “ABA Petition”].
Acknowledging that “effective communications with the American public” is “a critical component” to efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released on its own motion, a declaratory ruling on March 20, 2020, addressing the applicability of the “emergency purposes” exception to the TCPA’s prohibition against making automated and prerecorded calls without prior express consent. This declaratory ruling is meant to provide “hospitals, health care providers, state and local health officials, and other government officials” peace of mind when sending important COVID-19 information through automated calls or texts.
As readers of the blog are well aware, the TCPA contains an exception to its consent requirements for calls made for “emergency purposes.” 47 U.S.C. §§ 227(b)(1)(A)-(B). The FCC’s rules define “emergency purposes” to mean “calls made necessary in any situation affecting the health and safety of consumers.” 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(4). The FCC’s declaratory ruling officially acknowledges the undeniable point that the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an “emergency” under the TCPA. Earlier this month, on March 13, 2020, the White House declared a national emergency in light of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. As of March 20, 2020, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had declared states of emergency, which have led to many cities closing schools, workplaces, parks, restaurants, and houses of worship. Public safety organizations and institutions providing healthcare services, in particular, are changing modes of operation and means of handling some public-facing tasks. For example, many health care clinics have broadened their telemedicine programs or have begun conducting new patient intake “virtually” to triage patients with flu-like symptoms. These changes need to be communicated to existing and prospective patients in a timely manner on a large scale.
Last week, in Smith v. Rite Aid Corporation, 2018 WL 5828693 (W.D.N.Y. Nov. 7, 2018), a court rejected the argument – supported by previous cases – that pharmacy prescription reminder calls categorically come within the TCPA’s statutory emergency purposes exception. This decision creates uncertainty for all pharmacies and may chill their ability to provide important health care notifications to their patients. Continue reading
The Central District of California recently granted summary judgment to a health insurer after finding that a pre-recorded message delivered to the insured’s cell phone reminding her to review her health plan options for the coming year was not telemarketing. Smith v. Blue Shield of Cal. Life & Health Ins. Co., No. 16cv108 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 13, 2017), ECF No. 73.
In Smith, the plaintiff completed an application for health insurance through California’s Affordable Care Act Healthcare Marketplace, Covered California. As part of that application process, Plaintiff provided her cell phone number as “the best number at which to contact her.” As required by law, the insurance was set to automatically renew for 2016, and in 2015, Blue Shield attempted to contact Smith by sending written materials to her mailing address (as also required by law) to inform her of the changes to her plan and provide her with alternatives. Plaintiff’s materials, however, were returned to Blue Shield as undeliverable. As with other insureds whose materials were returned, Blue Shield followed up with a pre-recorded message stating in relevant part: “This is an important message from Blue Shield of California. It’s time to review your 2016 health plan options and see what’s new. Earlier this month, we mailed you information about your 2016 plan and benefit changes. It compares your current health plan to other options from Blue Shield. You can also find out more online at blueshieldca.com. If you have not received your information packet in the mail, or if you have any questions, please call the number on the back of your member ID card.” Plaintiff received the call on December 3, 2015; on December 6, 2015, she completed an application for a different insurance plan for the 2016 year. Continue reading
As we previously reported, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held oral argument this morning in the consolidated appeal from the FCC’s July 10, 2015 Declaratory Ruling and Order. The issues before Judges Srinivasan, Pillard, and Edwards were: (1) the definition of an ATDS, particularly the Order’s treatment of the terms “capacity” and “using a random or sequential number generator;” (2) the identity of the “called party” from whom consent must be obtained and the impracticality of the Order’s one-call safe harbor provision; (3) the means by which consent may be revoked; and (4) whether healthcare-related calls should be afforded the same treatment they receive under HIPAA.
Paul Werner from Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP argued on behalf of petitioner Rite Aid, Shay Dvoretzky from Jones Day argued on behalf of the remaining joint petitioners, and Scott Noveck argued on behalf of the FCC. Although the argument was scheduled to last only forty minutes, it quickly became apparent that Judges Srinivasan, Pillard, and Edwards had concerns about portions of the Order and numerous questions for both parties. The argument ended up lasting more than two and half hours, the majority of which was devoted to what types of equipment qualify as an ATDS, and whether the one-call safe harbor provision strikes a tenable balance between protecting consumers and protecting callers that have been threatened with potentially annihilating liability for calling numbers in good faith that have been reassigned.
An audio recording of today’s argument is available here.
As we previously reported, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit scheduled oral argument for October 19, 2016 at 9:30 a.m. in the consolidated appeal from the FCC’s July 10, 2015 Declaratory Ruling and Order. Each side has been allotted twenty minutes of oral argument time, with petitioner Rite Aid arguing for five minutes on the healthcare-related issues of the Order, and the rest of the petitioners arguing fifteen minutes. Paul Werner from Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP is scheduled to argue on behalf of petitioner Rite Aid, Shay Dvoretzky from Jones Day is scheduled to argue on behalf of the remaining joint petitioners, and Scott Noveck is scheduled to argue on behalf of the FCC. The argument will be heard before Judges Srinivasan, Pillard, and Edwards.
For those planning on attending, doors open around 9:10 a.m. and entry into the courtroom is on a first-come, first-served basis. Instructions on attendance can be found here. We plan to be in attendance and report back after the oral argument.