In a decision issued this morning, the Supreme Court settled a long-running debate over the scope of the TCPA’s “automatic telephone dialing system” definition: “whether that definition encompasses equipment that can ‘store’ and dial telephone numbers, even if the device does not ‘us[e] a random or sequential number generator.” Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid, 592 U.S. — (2021).
The Court unequivocally held that devices that merely store numbers from a premade list do not qualify as autodialer systems subject to the TCPA. “To qualify as an [ATDS],” explained Justice Sotomayor, writing for Court, “a device must have the capacity either to store a telephone number using a random or sequential generator or to produce a telephone number” using either form of generation. Id. at 1.
In reaching this interpretation, the Court relied principally upon the “series-qualifier canon,” a principle of statutory construction that advises the reader to apply a modifier at the end of a list “to the entire series” of antecedents. Id. at 5 (quoting A. Scalia & B. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 147 (2012)). As Justice Sotomayor explained:
Here, the series-qualifier canon recommends qualifying both antecedent verbs, “store” and “produce,” with the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator. . . .
Id. at 6 (citation and some internal quotations omitted).
The Court also rejected the more expansive reading proposed by Duguid because of its far-reaching consequences:
Id. at 8.
To the extent that the ATDS definition fails to cover dialing technologies not in existence at the time of the TCPA’s enactment in 1991, Justice Sotomayor explained that it is not the judiciary’s place to rewrite the statute:
Id. at 12.
Justice Alito concurred in the judgment and agreed with the Court’s analysis, but wrote separately to warn his colleagues against perfunctory application of construction canons:
Id. (Alito, J., concurring).
The Supreme Court’s rejection of the broad ATDS definition propounded by TCPA plaintiffs resolves much, if not all, of the uncertainty surrounding what constitutes an autodialer. And while this is a great ruling for businesses wishing to communicate with consumers on a timely basis through calls and texts, we don’t expect this to be the last that businesses hear from the plaintiffs’ bar (or Congress) on this issue. Click here for more analysis from Faegre Drinker on the Supreme Court’s decision in Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid.