As we have reported on here, here, here, and here, a growing number of district courts are issuing opinions addressing whether they have subject matter jurisdiction over TCPA claims alleging robocall violations that occurred when the government debt exception invalidated by Barr v. APPC, 140 S. Ct. 2335 (2020), was part of the statute. The Eastern District of California recently added to this line of cases, joining courts that have held that “the TCPA remains enforceable, at least against non-government debt collectors, as to calls made between November 2015 and July 6, 2020.” See Stoutt v Travis Credit Union, No. 2:20-cv-01280, 2021 WL 99636, at *3 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 12, 2021).
The Supreme Court recently declined to review the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Mussat v. IQVIA, Inc., 953 F.3d 441 (7th Cir. 2020), which found that the logic of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, 582 US (2017) did not apply to class actions and therefore that a federal court in Illinois somehow had specific personal jurisdiction over the individual claims of unnamed class members who had no connection whatsoever to that forum state.
A district court from the Central District of California cast its lot against the growing argument that federal courts lack jurisdiction over TCPA claims based on conduct that occurred when the government debt exception was part of the statute. See Shen v. Tricolor California Auto Group, LLC, No. 20-7419, 2020 WL 7705888, at *1 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 17, 2020).
As our regular readers know, the government debt exception—a relatively new addition to the TCPA—was recently severed from the statute by the Supreme Court’s decision in Barr v. AAPC. Since, several federal district courts have questioned whether they may enforce the statute as to claims based on conduct that allegedly occurred while the exception was part of the statute, i.e. from November 2, 2015 through July 6, 2020. Most notably, the Eastern District of Louisiana concluded in Creasy v. Charter Communications that the Barr decision held that the TCPA was unconstitutional in its entirety during the pendency of the exception, that courts lack authority to enforce a constitutional statute, and that courts therefore cannot hear claims based on conduct during that period.
On the same day last week, two different judges in the Middle District of Florida issued divergent decisions regarding the effect of the Supreme Court’s holding in Barr v. AAPC, 140 S. Ct. 2335, 2347 (2020). One followed the Eastern District of Louisiana’s groundbreaking decision in Creasy v. Charter Communications and the Northern District of Ohio’s subsequent decision Lindenbaum v. Realgy. But the other is notable because it broke with those decisions, marking the first time a court has rejected them. Compare Hussain v. Sullivan Buick Cadillac-GMC Truck, No. 20-0038, 2020 WL 7346536 (M.D. Fla. Dec. 11, 2020) (following Creasy) with Abramson v. Fed. Ins. Co., No. 19-2523, 2020 WL 7318953 (M.D. Fla. Dec. 11, 2020) (rejecting Creasy).
Tomorrow morning, the Supreme Court will hold oral argument via teleconference in Facebook v. Duguid, which concerns the proper interpretation of the TCPA’s definition of an “automatic telephone dialing system.” The question presented is “whether the definition of ATDS in the TCPA encompasses any device that can ‘store’ and ‘automatically dial’ telephone numbers, even if the device does not ‘us[e] a random or sequential number generator.’” You can listen to the argument live at various media outlets and later on the Court’s website.
This week, Facebook and the United States government filed responses to Plaintiff’s brief in Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid, the Supreme Court case that promises to resolve the circuit-splitting uncertainty over what does and does not qualify as an ATDS under the TCPA. The Plaintiff’s brief—which we covered here—argues that the adverbial phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” modifies the verb “to produce” but not the verb “to store” in the statute’s definition of an ATDS. See 47 U.S.C. § 227(a)(1). If the TCPA is interpreted in this fashion, liability could follow from using any device that can store and automatically dial a number—including, among other things, virtually every smartphone in use today.
A few weeks ago, the Eastern District of Louisiana held that courts cannot impose liability under Sections 227(b)(1)(A) or (b)(1)(B) of the TCPA for calls that were made before the Supreme Court cured those provisions’ unconstitutionality by severing their debt collection exemptions. The first-of-its-kind decision reasoned that courts cannot enforce unconstitutional laws, and severing the statute applied prospectively, not retroactively. Plaintiffs privately panicked but publicly proclaimed that the Creasy decision was “odd” and would not be followed.
Last Friday, various elected officials and consumer-protection groups filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to adopt the expansive interpretation of the ATDS definition for which Plaintiff Noah Duguid had advocated in a brief he filed the week before. The recent briefs and other filings in the case can be found here.
The Facebook case arises from a security-alert text message that was sent to an individual who had not consented to automated calls, and at long last presents the Court with the critical question of what is and is not an ATDS. (Recall that the FCC has said, and courts have either held or assumed, that text messages should be deemed “calls” for purposes of the TCPA.)
The Plaintiff in Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid—the case that promises to resolve the growing circuit split over the TCPA’s definition of an ATDS—has filed his merits brief in the Supreme Court.
Recall that the TCPA defines an ATDS as equipment that has the capacity “(A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(a)(1). With help from noted grammarian Bryan Garner, who signed the brief as his new co-counsel, Duguid argues that the language of the statute and the canons of construction make clear that the adverbial phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” modifies the verb “to produce” but not the verb “to store.” For example, he argues that the “distributive-phrasing canon” requires that modifying phrases apply only to words “which, by context, they seem most properly to relate.” Brief at 20. Because the verb “to store” does not in his view relate to the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator,” he argues that the Court need not interpret the phrase as modifying “to store.” Id.; see also id. at 15 (calling this outcome a “semantic mismatch between a modifier and a verb”). He similarly argues that the “last-antecedent canon”—which provides that a modifying phrase “should ordinarily be read as modifying only the [verb] that it immediately follows”—counsels in favor of construing the adverbial phrase as modifying only the adjacent verb “to produce” and not the other verb “to store.” Id. at 20-21.
Charter Communications may have just helped literally thousands of TCPA defendants snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
As our regular readers know, the Supreme Court recently held in Barr v. AAPC that a recent addition to the TCPA—specifically, an exemption for calls to collect federal debts—was a content-based regulation of speech that violated the First Amendment. It then severed that exception from the rest of the statute, and in doing so dashed the hopes of defendants that had advocated for invalidating all of the statute’s restrictions on automated telephone equipment.