District Court Departs from Supreme Court Plurality to Find Government-Debt Collector Retroactively Liable Under TCPA — But Rejects Statutory Damages

For nearly five years, the TCPA explicitly excluded from liability calls made to collect government-backed debt. Naturally, government debt collectors relied on this exception and called debtors without fear of TCPA liability. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that this exception was unconstitutional and severed it from the statute. Now, a federal district court has ruled that government debt collectors may be liable for calls made prior to the Supreme Court Ruling, despite their reasonable reliance on the exception. In doing so, the court brushed aside due process concerns.

As previously reported, the government debt exception was severed from the statute by the Supreme Court’s decision in Barr v. AAPC. The AAPC decision was highly fractured—with the Court issuing four opinions but none commanding a majority.  Since, district courts have been grappling with AAPC means for the statute.

For instance, several federal district courts have questioned whether they may enforce the statute as to claims based on alleged conduct that occurred while the exception was in place, i.e. from November 2, 2015 through July 6, 2020. Further complicating the judicial landscape is a recent opinion from the District of Delaware in Franklin v. Navient, Inc., No. 1:17-CV-1640-SB, 2021 WL 1535575, at *1 (D. Del. Apr. 19, 2021).  In Franklin, the court took the unusual view that because the government debt exception was found to be unconstitutional, calls to collect government debt made while the exception was part of the statute are actionable despite a caller’s lack of notice that the exception was unreliable.

In Franklin, Navient robocalled Franklin eighty-six times between 2015 and 2017 to collect his government-backed student loan. Franklin brought a TCPA action against Navient. In September 2019, the court granted summary judgment for Navient, limiting the case to calls made prior to the November 2015 enactment of the exception. In July 2020, the Supreme Court in Barr found the government debt exception unconstitutional. In November 2020, Franklin filed a motion to alter the award of summary judgment, arguing that Navient could not rely on the exception because AAPC found it unconstitutional.  Navient argued that even though the exception was unconstitutional, it was on the books—so Navient lacked fair notice that its calls were illegal.  According to Navient, imposing liability for calls that were, at the time, expressly permitted by the statute at the time would violate due process and the First Amendment.

The court rejected Navient’s argument, reasoning that “[i]n civil cases, courts may apply surprising rulings to past acts.  There is no exception for free speech. . . .” Id. at *2. On that basis, the court concluded that AAPC applies retroactively.

As to Navient’s argument that it lacked notice, the court stated, “[I]t had no right to more notice,” and, “Due process does not bar retroactive civil decisions.” Id. at *3. The court reasoned that it was merely recognizing “a civil duty that existed the whole time.”  Id. As to Navient’s First Amendment concerns, the court found that because the TCPA imposes civil (not criminal) liability, applying it unexpectedly would not violate the First Amendment.  Id. at *4.

The Franklin court recognized that its imposition of liability on government debt collectors defies the expectations of the AAPC plurality, but concluded that their expected result did not seem workable:

The AAPC plurality thought that government-debt collectors would avoid all liability. But I do not see how. In a footnote, Justice Kavanaugh wrote that “no one should be penalized or held liable for making robocalls to collect government debt after the effective date of the 2015 government-debt exception and before . . . th[at] case.” AAPC, 140 S. Ct. at 2355 n.12 (emphasis added in Franklin). To follow the second half of this dictum, I would need to either treat AAPC like legislation or extend [prohibitions on unforeseeable judicial enlargement of criminal statutes] to free-speech cases. Either would be a stretch. Plus, ‘a holding that shields only government-debt collection callers from past liability . . . would wind up endorsing the very same kind of content discrimination [that AAPC] s[ought] to eliminate.’ Id. at 2366 (Gorsuch, J.). The Supreme Court could reasonably extend [prohibitions on retroactive application of criminal statutes] to shield speakers, but I will not.

Id. at *5.

The Franklin court further acknowledged that AAPC “addressed only what the [TCPA] means going forward.”  Id. at *3.  But then reasoned that “if the exception was void the day it was passed . . . then it never took effect. As Justice Kavanaugh put it, the exception was ‘not law at all’” Id. (quoting AAPC, 140 S. Ct. at 2351 n.8).

While the Franklin court’s findings as to retroactivity were decidedly plaintiff friendly, the court found for the defendant on damages. The court determined that the statutory damages of $500 per call were so disproportionate to any damages that Franklin suffered, that they were quasi-criminal, and therefore Franklin could “not get the full $500” per call automatically.  Id.  Rather, he would need some proof of losses to recover.  Id.

Whether other courts will follow Franklin remains to be seen.  The only thing we know for sure is that AAPC has caused murkiness for litigants and courts alike.

Zoë K. Wilhelm

About the Author: Zoë K. Wilhelm

Zoë Wilhelm advocates for her clients in consumer class actions and commercial litigation in California and in multiple jurisdictions throughout the country. Zoë is a co-leader of the firm’s consumer products and retail industry group, a partner liaison to the Associates Committee, and a member of the steering committee for Faegre Drinker Women. Zoë defends consumer class actions involving state and federal consumer protection laws such as the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Unfair Competition Law (UCL), False Advertising Law (FAL), California Gift Card Law, California Invasion of Privacy Act (CIPA), the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Zoë is well-versed in class action procedural issues and works with her clients to develop litigation strategies that incorporate their unique business concerns.

Renée M. Dudek

About the Author: Renée M. Dudek

Renée Dudek is a litigator and appellate lawyer who helps clients resolve commercial and business disputes, especially in high stakes and complex matters. Renée is experienced with pre-litigation counseling, discovery, dispositive motions, trials, post-trial proceedings and appeals. She is especially familiar with federal courts within the Third Circuit and with Delaware state courts. Renée maintains an active pro bono practice focused primarily on civil rights matters and serves as co-chair of the firm’s Business Litigation Wellness Committee.

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