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.
As predicted, amendments to the TCPA – in the form of the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (the “TRACED Act”) – were signed into law by the President of the United States on December 30, 2019. The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) applauded this milestone on Twitter, commenting: “[T]he TRACED Act was signed into law, giving the FCC and law enforcement greater authority to go after scammers.” As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility: the enactment started the countdown for a long list of actions that the FCC is required to take during 2020 and beyond. This will add to the already active TCPA dockets at the FCC.
We share below the timeline for these actions to help our readers anticipate and prepare for the regulatory activities that will ensue. We summarized the content of these required FCC actions previously at this post.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 Second Circuit yesterday delivered a ruling that was widely expected but also widely welcomed by health care providers struggling to provide patients with important reminders while avoiding massive TCPA class action liabilities. Zani v. Rite Aid Hdqtrs. Corp., 17-1230-cv (Feb. 21, 2018), affirmed summary judgment in favor of Rite Aid over its prerecorded flu shot reminder calls. We wrote about the lower court decision in Zani here. The Second Circuit’s ruling came as no surprise because the same court last month ruled for another health care provider in rejecting TCPA claims over flu shot reminder texts. We analyzed that case, Latner v. Mount Sinai Health System, Inc., 879 F.3d 52 (2d Cir. 2018), here. Indeed, finding that the issues in Zani were “virtually identical” to those in Latner (Opinion, p. 5), the Second Circuit delivered its latest ruling in a non-precedential summary order. Continue reading
We have previously discussed the FCC’s 2012 TCPA exception for automated calls that deliver a “health care message” (the “2012 Health Care Exception”). Now, for the first time, a federal appellate court has construed the scope of the 2012 Health Care Exception. In Latner v. Mount Sinai Health Sys., No. 17-99-cv (2d Cir. Jan. 3, 2018), the Second Circuit ruled that a healthcare provider did not run afoul of the TCPA by sending a patient a flu shot reminder text message after the patient had given consent to use his information—including his cell phone number—for “treatment” purposes. The decision is a favorable one for healthcare providers who utilize text messaging (or automated calls) to provide treatment reminders to patients. Indeed, the Second Circuit interpreted the 2012 Health Care Exception more broadly than the trial court had done in what was previously the leading decision applying the exception to reject TCPA claims attacking flu shot reminders, Zani v. Rite Aid Headquarters Corp., 246 F. Supp. 3d 835 (S.D.N.Y. 2017). Zani is due to be argued before the Second Circuit on February 7th and the Second Circuit’s decision in Latner obviously bodes well for Rite Aid’s prospects of winning an affirmance on appeal. Continue reading
A New York U.S. District Court Judge granted summary judgment in favor of defendant Rite Aid Headquarters Corp. in a putative TCPA class action involving flu vaccine reminder calls. The opinion in Zani v. Rite Aid Headquarters Corp., 14-cv-9701, was recently unsealed after originally being filed under seal on March 30, 2017. In Zani, the court found that Rite Aid’s call to the plaintiff’s cellphone that used a pre-recorded voice to remind him to get his flu shot fell under what the Court referred to as the “Health Care Rule,” which exempted the call from the prior written consent requirement for telemarketing calls under the TCPA. Continue reading