The FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau has issued a public notice seeking comment on a December 11, 2015 petition by Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC (“Lifetime”). The petition asked the FCC to clarify that the TCPA’s limitations on prerecorded calls do not apply to calls by cable operators and networks that merely inform subscribers about content that they are already entitled to watch. In the alternative, Lifetime sought a grant of retroactive waiver for a call that it had allegedly placed to inform subscribers that a reality television program had moved to Lifetime, and was accordingly available under the subscriber’s current plan. Lifetime argued that, because it was not urging the subscriber to make a new purchase, and indeed, provided no information on how to make any purchase, the call should be viewed as informational, not telemarketing. In support of this conclusion, Lifetime cited Sandusky Wellness Center, LLC v. Medco Health Solutions, which deemed informational several faxes that were “not sent with hopes to make a profit.” 788 F.3d 218, 221 (6th Cir. 2015). The FCC has set the deadlines for comments and reply comments on this petition at March 7, 2016 and March 21, 2016, respectively.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office recently filed a complaint in the Eastern District of Missouri against Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter”), a cable, internet, and telephone company. The complaint alleges violations of the TCPA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, the Missouri No-Call Law, and the Missouri Telemarketing Practices Law, and seeks what amounts to multi-millions of dollars in civil penalties. See State of Missouri ex rel. v. Charter Commc’ns, Inc., No. 15-01593 (E.D. Mo. filed Oct. 19, 2015).
We previously advised that the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, in an unusual move, on June 11 published a letter it sent to PayPal warning that PayPal’s proposed changes to its User Agreement that contained robocall contact provisions might violate the TCPA. These proposed revisions conveyed user consent for PayPal to contact its users via “autodialed or prerecorded calls and text messages … at any telephone number provided … or otherwise obtained” to notify consumers about their accounts, to troubleshoot problems, resolve disputes, collect debts, and poll for opinions, among other things. The Bureau’s letter highlighted concerns with the broad consent specified for the receipt of autodialed or prerecorded telemarketing messages and the apparent lack of notice as to a consumer’s right to refuse to provide consent to receive these types of calls.
In advance of the FCC’s highly anticipated June 18 meeting, during which it is likely to vote on an omnibus order disposing of a wide range of pending petitions for declaratory ruling, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau took an early shot across the bow at a proposed change to PayPal Inc.’s User Agreement. In an unusual move, the Bureau sent a public letter to PayPal warning it that its new broad “consent to contact” provision may violate the TCPA.
Through prior posts (see here, here, and here), we have monitored the FCC’s somewhat perplexing distinction between calls and faxes in the context of analyzing direct and vicarious liability under the TCPA. Just two months ago, the FCC’s position, as originally set forth in a letter brief, was adopted by the Eleventh Circuit in Palm Beach Golf Center-Boca, Inc. v. Sarris, 781 F.3d 1245 (11th Cir. 2015) (“Sarris”). The Sarris court held that “a person whose services are advertised in an unsolicited fax transmission, and on whose behalf the fax is transmitted, may be held liable directly” under the TCPA.
A recent decision from the Southern District of Alabama provides more clarity as to the treatment of “dual purpose” telephone calls to wireless numbers that offer free goods and services. The Federal Communications Commission already has explained that “offers for free goods and services that are part of an overall marketing campaign to sell property, goods, or services” are advertisements under the TCPA and FCC regulations. The FCC also has explained that informational calls that are motivated in part by the intent to sell property, goods, or services are “in most instances” advertisements under the TCPA. This is true whether call recipients are encouraged to purchase, rent, or invest in property, goods, or services during the call or in the future (“such as in response to a message that provides a toll-free number”). Report and Order, In re Rules and Regulations Implementing the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, 18 FCC Rcd. 14014, ¶¶ 139-142 (2003).
In September, we reported that a court in the District ofNew Jersey denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in a “fax blast” class action, concluding that the defendants could be directly liable under the TCPA for fax advertisements they did not actually send, but rather that were sent by a third-party marketing firm to promote the defendants’ goods or services. See City Select Auto Sales, Inc. v. David Randall Associates, Inc., No. 11-2658, 2014 WL 4755487 (D.N.J. Sept. 24, 2014) (“City Select I”).
Six months later, relying heavily on that earlier ruling, the court has entered summary judgment on behalf of the plaintiff class and awarded it statutory damages of $22,405,000. City Select Auto Sales, Inc. v. David Randall Associates, Inc., et al., No. 11-2658, 2015 WL 1421539 (D. N.J. Mar. 27, 2015) (“City Select II”).
As we previously reported, on July 17, 2014, the FCC filed a letter brief in Palm Beach Golf Center-Boca, Inc. v. Sarris, No. 13-14013 (11th Cir.) (“Sarris”), in which it took the position that entities can be held directly liable under the TCPA whenever their products or services are advertised in an unsolicited fax—even if they did not actually send the fax, and even if they did not know the fax was going to be sent. The FCC’s letter brief stood in marked contrast to its decision last year in In re Joint Petition Filed by Dish Network, LLC, 28 F.C.C. Rcd. 6574 (2013) (“Dish Network”), where the FCC had limited direct liability to only “telemarketers” that “initiate” calls, and otherwise applied agency principles to determine whether “sellers” might be vicariously liable for calls made on their behalf. As readers may recall, the FCC’s letter brief does not articulate a policy reason why a “seller” in the voice call context should receive more protection than an entity whose goods and services are promoted through a fax advertisement. But whatever the merits of the letter brief, it has yet to be cited by the Eleventh Circuit (which has heard argument but not yet issued an opinion) or, at least for the past few months, any other court.
The FCC is not the only federal agency tasked with regulating telephone calls. The FTC also regulates telephone calls pursuant to the Telemarketing Sales Rule (“TSR”) (16 C.F.R. § 310 et seq.). And while the scope of the TCPA and the TSR differs, the two sets of regulations overlap in a key area—prerecorded calls. See 47 C.F.R. § 227(b)(1); 16 C.F.R. § 310(b)(iv). As we have noted in a previous post, these regulations are not entirely consistent.