The FCC recently announced a public comment period for a new Petition for Declaratory Ruling that seeks to have the FCC “clarify that delivery of a voice message directly to a voicemail box through ringless voicemail (RVM) technology does not constitute a ‘call’” subject to TCPA prohibitions. The Petition was filed by the U.S. Senate campaign for David Perdue – Perdue for Senate, Inc. (Perdue) stemming from litigation in Georgia related to primary election delivery of RVMs to voters. Interested parties have until October 4, 2021, to submit comments and until October 19, 2021, to submit reply comments.
The Federal Communications Commission has proposed to slap a Virginia political firm and two of its principals with a $5,134,500 fine for placing over one thousand prerecorded phone calls to cell phones across the country without prior consent from recipients, in violation of the TCPA and Commission rules. The action is the FCC’s first big enforcement matter under the recently enacted Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (“TRACED”) Act and demonstrates the Commission’s willingness to use that statute to assess hefty penalties against noncompliant entities.
Under the 2019 TRACED Act, the Commission may issue a “Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture” to an entity that violates the TCPA’s prohibitions on prerecorded voice messages and autodialing systems, without first having to issue a warning to the entity. See Pub. L. No. 116-105, 133 Stat. 3274, Sec. 3(a). The defendant then has an opportunity to challenge the allegations before the Commission issues a final decision on liability and fines. See FCC, Enforcement Primer (“FCC-Initiated Investigations”). Prior to the TRACED Act, FCC rules required the Commission to issue a citation to an alleged violator of § 227(b) before it could seek to impose a forfeiture penalty upon them.
Last week, Judge James C. Dever III of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina handed down a decision of first impression for that court: the FCC’s do-not-call rule, 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(d), creates a private right of action for telephone subscribers who receive calls in violation of that rule’s “minimum standards.” The decision widens the growing split among federal courts as to which provision of the TCPA gives life to the DNC rule.
On its motion to dismiss, the defendant argued that the plaintiff could not maintain an action for alleged violations of § 64.1200(d) because the FCC promulgated that rule under 47 U.S.C. § 227(d), which does not create a private right of action for violations of implementing regulations. Fischman v. MediaStratX, LLC, No. 2:20-CV-83-D, 2021 WL 3559639, at *4 (E.D.N.C. Aug. 10, 2021). In opposition, the plaintiff argued that the rule was actually passed pursuant to 47 U.S.C. § 227(c), which does create a private right of action for such violations. Id.
In an interesting decision from the District Court of Oregon, United States Magistrate Judge Youlee Yim You recommended granting a motion to deny class certification where uncertainty about the appropriate classification of a cell phone number’s use was enough to make the plaintiff an inadequate class representative with atypical claims. Mattson v. New Penn Fin., LLC, No. 3:18-cv-00990, 2021 WL 1406875 (D. Or. Mar. 8, 2021).
In Mattson, the plaintiff filed a TCPA class action, claiming the defendant, New Penn Financial, LLC, called his cell phone while it was registered on the national Do Not Call Registry in violation of 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(c). Id. at *1. As readers of this blog will note, 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(c)(2) prohibits telephone solicitations made to residential telephone subscribers who are registered on the Do Not Call Registry. New Penn sought denial of class certification, arguing the uncertainty of Plaintiff’s standing made his claims atypical, rendering him an inadequate class representative. Id. In considering the motion, the Court identified an issue unique to the plaintiff—whether the cell phone number at issue was properly considered a residential or business telephone number. Id. at *5.
On December 30, 2020, the FCC issued a Report and Order (the December 2020 FCC Order) to implement Section 8 of the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act). The December 2020 FCC Order contains a critical internal inconsistency that has caused significant confusion regarding the level of consent required for certain prerecorded informational calls to residential landlines. As discussed below, the inconsistency is almost certainly the result of a drafting error.
The relevant terms of the TRACED Act state that the FCC must ensure that any exemptions to Section 227(b)(2)(B) or (C) of the TCPA include specific limits on “the number of such calls that may be made to a particular called party.” Dec. 2020 FCC Order ¶ 2 (citing TRACED Act, Pub. L. No. 116-105, 133 Stat. 3274, § 8 (2019)). The December 2020 FCC Order amends 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(a)(3)(ii)-(iii) to limit the number of calls that a caller can make to a residential landline under the exemption for “informational” calls to three such calls within any thirty-day period.
On September 21, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau issued a declaratory ruling clarifying that businesses advertised via fax should not face “sender liability” for unsolicited faxes sent without prior authorization. See Declaratory Ruling at ¶¶ 9, 17, In the Matter of Akin Gump, CG Docket No. 02-278 (Sept. 21, 2020). This ruling provides some much-needed guidance on the scope of sender liability under the Junk Fax Prevention Act, an issue which has divided the courts.
In 2005, the Junk Fax Prevention Act amended the TCPA to prohibit the sending of unsolicited advertisements via facsimile, absent some excepted relationship between sender and recipient. See Pub. L. No. 109-21, 119 Stat. 359 (2005). The FCC has defined the “sender” of a fax for liability purposes as any “person or entity on whose behalf a facsimile unsolicited advertisement is sent or whose goods or services are advertised or promoted in the unsolicited advertisement.” 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(10) (2019). The Commission also has observed that the “sender” of a fax is usually, but not always, the business advertised in the fax. See “2006 Junk Fax Order,” FCC Rcd. 3787, 3808, ¶ 39 (2006).
Chicago partner Brad Andreozzi was quoted in a Law360 article discussing both the need for automated calls and texts to disseminate timely health and safety information about the COVID-19 pandemic and the uptick in robocalls seeking to profit from fears in the face of the pandemic. According to Brad, “There are two strands running through the FCC’s regulatory strategy right now. One is to promote genuine emergency-purposes communications … and the other is to issue a warning shot across the bow to would-be scammers who are looking to exploit the pandemic.”
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).