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.
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
Two important TCPA proceedings are underway at the FCC. The first proceeding addresses the potential creation of a reassigned number database and the second proceeding involves a host of key issues in the wake of the D.C. Circuit ruling in ACA International v. Federal Communications Commission, No. 15-1211 (D.C. Cir. March. 16, 2018), including reassigned number liability, revocation of consent and the definition of an “automatic telephone dialing system.” Cf. 47 U.S. Code § 227(a)(1). 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
As discussed here, the Central District of California recently granted summary judgment in favor of an insurance company after finding that a prerecorded call to the insured’s mobile phone, which reminded her to review her health plan options for the following year, was not telemarketing and therefore did not require “prior express written consent.” See Smith v. Blue Shield of Cal. Life & Health Ins. Co., No. SACV 16-00108-CJC-KES (C.D. Cal. Jan. 13, 2017).
But just a few weeks ago, a different judge in the Central District reached the opposite conclusion in a similar case, and denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss. See Flores v. Access Ins. Co., No. 2:15-cv-02883-CAS-AGR (C.D. Cal. Mar. 13, 2017) (available here). These two decisions illustrate how courts continue to grapple with the distinction between “telemarketing” and “informational” calls. 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
Over two years ago, we first argued that a pharmacist’s prescription refill reminder calls fell within the emergency purpose exception to the TCPA in Kolinek v. Walgreen Co. (N.D. Ill.). The TCPA, of course, prohibits many types of autodialed or pre-recorded/artificial voice calls to cell phones if made without the prior express consent of the called party, except where the calls are made “for emergency purposes.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A). In Kolinek, the court held at the motion to dismiss stage that further factual development was necessary to evaluate whether the emergency purpose exemption precluded plaintiff’s claims because the complaint did not allege sufficient detail regarding the nature of the calls. Although the case settled before the court had the opportunity to rule on the issue on summary judgment, the court acknowledged the viability of the emergency purposes defense as a basis for approving the class action settlement despite objections that the settlement fund was a tiny fraction of potential liabilities. Continue reading