District of New Jersey Adopts Narrow ATDS Definition as Circuit Split Grows; Supreme Court Clarification Required

As readers of this blog know, a robust Circuit split has developed regarding the meaning of an ATDS. The Second and Ninth Circuits have taken one approach, while the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits have taken another. While we await Supreme Court guidance, lower courts continue to grapple with the ATDS issue. In Eisenband v. Pine Belt Automotive, Inc., No. 17-8549 (FLW) (LHG), 2020 WL 1486045 (D.N.J. Mar. 27, 2020), the District of New Jersey analyzed the definition of an ATDS and concluded that equipment that dials numbers from a manually prepared list  does not constitute an ATDS.

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Supreme Court Holds Oral Argument via Teleconference in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants

On May 6, 2020, the Supreme Court held oral argument via teleconference in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants. The argument focused on the two questions presented in Barr.  First, whether the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s (TCPA) government debt exception is an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech. And second, if the government debt exception is unconstitutional, whether the remedy is to sever the exception or instead strike the TCPA’s restrictions on automated telephone equipment in their entirety. A recording of the argument is available below (audio begins at the :30 mark) and a transcript is available on the Supreme Court website.

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Supreme Court to Hold Oral Argument via Teleconference in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants

The Supreme Court announced today that it will hold oral argument via teleconference for Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants and a number of other cases that have come before it this term. The Barr case poses two questions about the TCPA: First, whether the TCPA’s exception for calls regarding “debt owed to or guaranteed by” the United States is an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech; and second, if the government-debt exception is indeed unconstitutional, whether the proper remedy is simply to sever that exception, or instead to strike the statute’s restrictions on automated telephone equipment in their entirety. The Court’s willingness to conduct remote oral argument for Barr indicates a desire to decide the case before the end of the current term.

Oral argument for Barr is to be held at some point in May, depending on the availability of counsel. The Court plans to broadcast a live audio feed of the oral argument.

Nine Amicus Briefs Filed in Support of Attempt to Invalidate TCPA Autodialer Ban

On April 1, 2020, nine amicus briefs were filed in Barr, et al. v. American Association of Political Consultants, et al., currently pending in the Supreme Court, in support of an attempt to invalidate the TCPA’s ban on autodialed calls and texts to cellphones. The ban generally restricts persons or entities from placing automated calls or texts to cell phones without the recipients’ prior express consent. A host of businesses and associations affected by the ban—including Facebook and businesses from the energy, financial services, and tech industries—filed the amicus briefs and argued the TCPA’s blanket ban on autodialed calls and texts to cell phones should be struck down.

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Supreme Court Agrees To Review The Constitutionality of the TCPA

Given how often TCPA cases are filed—and how often they push the envelope of the statute’s scope and the courts’ jurisdiction—it should come as no surprise that the Supreme Court is often asked to bring some sanity to the statute’s enforcement.  Last year was no exception.

For example, a plaintiff petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse the Third Circuit’s decision that facsimiles that merely ask to confirm contact information are not “advertisements” for purposes of the TCPA.  Such facsimiles are advertisements, the plaintiff had argued, because businesses send them “to enhance the accuracy of their database and thus increase their profits.”  That may be so, the Third Circuit held, but that does not mean that they qualify as “advertisements” that promote goods or services.  “After all,” the court observed, “a commercial entity takes almost all of its actions with a profit motivation.”  The Supreme Court declined to review that decision in November.  See Robert W. Mauthe, M.D., P.C. v. Optum, Inc., No. 19-413, 2019 WL 6257433 (U.S. Nov. 25 2019).

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Briefing in Dish Network’s Petition to the Supreme Court Complete

Does a “call placed in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, without any allegation or showing of injury—even that plaintiffs heard the phone ring—suffice to establish concrete injury for purposes of Article III [of the Constitution?]” Recently, Dish Network petitioned the Supreme Court to resolve this question and overturn a verdict rendered by a North Carolina federal jury that was later trebled to $61 million and upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Briefing on Dish Network’s petition is now complete and we now await the Court’s decision on whether it will review the case.

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The First Amendment Battleground: SCOTUS Asked to Review Two Ninth Circuit Decisions on the Constitutionality of the TCPA

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.

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FTC’s Decision Treating Soundboard Calls as Robocalls Remains Undisturbed. What Comes Next?

A two-year legal battle in the federal courts has come to an end, the Supreme Court announced last week. On April 15, 2019, it declined to review the Soundboard Association’s challenge to the legality of a Federal Trade Commission decision in 2016 that outbound telemarketing calls made through soundboard technology are robocalls.

Soundboard technology allows call center agents to interact and converse with consumers on a real-time basis using a combination of audio clips and the agent’s own voice. It may involve reading a pre-determined script, responding to queries and interjections from consumers by playing a pre-recorded audio clip, using “response keys” to generate common interactive conversational responses (such as “I understand,” “exactly,” “yeah,” or a recorded statement that the agent is a real person using audio clips to communicate with the consumer), or giving the consumer the option to speak with a live operator’s own voice for the duration of the call. It has been widely used by call centers in the last two decades. Continue reading   »