FCC Seeks Comment on HHS/CMS Request for Certainty About Communications Critical to Federal and State Health Insurance Programs Post-Pandemic

Reacting quickly to a joint request by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) (collectively, the Health Agencies) last Thursday, the FCC released a Public Notice on May 3, 2022, inviting comments about how it should clarify “that certain automated calls and text messages or prerecorded voice calls relating to enrollment in state Medicaid and other governmental health coverage programs are permissible under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).” Recognizing the time-sensitive nature of the Health Agencies’ request, the FCC established a short cycle for public comment – comments are due in 14 days on May 17, 2022, and any reply comments are due on May 24, 2022.

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Spring Roster of FCC Actions: State-Federal Partnerships, Enforcement Actions, and Reassigned Numbers Database Clarifications and Changes

The FCC’s TCPA dockets did not witness many developments from the beginning of 2022 until February. However, beginning in February and into March, Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s office and the Enforcement Bureau were busy negotiating new robocalling partnerships with state regulators and issuing enforcement orders against suspected or apparent violations. Those activities expanded in April by the issuance of new guidance and a new pricing structure for the Reassigned Numbers Database. We cover each of these topics below.

State-Federal Partnership on Investigations

Since Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s confirmation as the FCC Chair in December 2021, she has put on the top of her agenda building a partnership with state regulators – attorneys general and enforcement agencies. During February, March, and April 2022, Chairwoman Rosenworcel signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) designed to allow greater cooperation and sharing of information and other investigation intelligence with regard to illegal robocalls and telephone scams. These MOUs also reflect the intention of close collaboration to enforce consumer protection laws concerning robocalls. The FCC currently has MOUs in place with twenty-eight (28) states and more could be in the offing.

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“The Number You Have Dialed Has Changed Subscriber” or the Advent of the Reassigned Numbers Database

After years of discussion and planning, the FCC’s Reassigned Numbers Database opened for commercial use on November 1, 2021. Now business callers can register for a paid subscription with the FCC’s designated Administrator, SomosGov, to query both the connection and permanent disconnection status of over 152 million U.S. telephone numbers through this web-based platform. This information can let subscribing callers know whether customers who had previously given consent to receive calls and texts from the business have disconnected their phone numbers and whether these phone numbers have since been reassigned to others. By reducing the likelihood of unwittingly making calls to unintended recipients, the Reassigned Numbers Database is expected to prevent millions of “unwanted calls intended for someone who previously held their phone number,” which should provide callers some protection against TCPA allegations of calling without adequate prior consent.

Initially adopted in December 2018, the Reassigned Numbers Database proposal and framework underwent many rounds of public comments on various aspects of its implementation, had nearly three years of preparation, and had a three-month beta test. Since April 2021, nonexempt communications service providers have been reporting permanent disconnections to the Reassigned Numbers Database each month, accumulating data about over 152 million U.S. telephone numbers (including toll-free numbers). Smaller communications service providers began reporting their records into the Reassigned Numbers Database on October 15, 2021.

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New Petition Renewing Request for FCC Clarification of TCPA Status of “Ringless Voicemail” for “Get Out the Vote” Campaigns

The FCC recently announced a public comment period for a new Petition for Declaratory Ruling that seeks to have the FCC “clarify that delivery of a voice message directly to a voicemail box through ringless voicemail (RVM) technology does not constitute a ‘call’” subject to TCPA prohibitions. The Petition was filed by the U.S. Senate campaign for David Perdue – Perdue for Senate, Inc. (Perdue) stemming from litigation in Georgia related to primary election delivery of RVMs to voters. Interested parties have until October 4, 2021, to submit comments and until October 19, 2021, to submit reply comments.

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FCC Seeks to Assess a $5.1 Million TCPA Fine from Political Operatives Behind Alleged Anti-Voting Phone Calls

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed to slap a Virginia political firm and two of its principals with a $5,134,500 fine for placing over one thousand prerecorded phone calls to cell phones across the country without prior consent from recipients, in violation of the TCPA and Commission rules. The action is the FCC’s first big enforcement matter under the recently enacted Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (“TRACED”) Act and demonstrates the Commission’s willingness to use that statute to assess hefty penalties against noncompliant entities.

Under the 2019 TRACED Act, the Commission may issue a “Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture” to an entity that violates the TCPA’s prohibitions on prerecorded voice messages and autodialing systems, without first having to issue a warning to the entity. See Pub. L. No. 116-105, 133 Stat. 3274, Sec. 3(a). The defendant then has an opportunity to challenge the allegations before the Commission issues a final decision on liability and fines. See FCC, Enforcement Primer (“FCC-Initiated Investigations”). Prior to the TRACED Act, FCC rules required the Commission to issue a citation to an alleged violator of § 227(b) before it could seek to impose a forfeiture penalty upon them.

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Business or Residential? Ambiguity Surrounding Number on Do Not Call Registry Can Defeat Class Certification

In an interesting decision from the District Court of Oregon, United States Magistrate Judge Youlee Yim You recommended granting a motion to deny class certification where uncertainty about the appropriate classification of a cell phone number’s use was enough to make the plaintiff an inadequate class representative with atypical claims.  Mattson v. New Penn Fin., LLC, No. 3:18-cv-00990, 2021 WL 1406875 (D. Or. Mar. 8, 2021).

In Mattson, the plaintiff filed a TCPA class action, claiming the defendant, New Penn Financial, LLC, called his cell phone while it was registered on the national Do Not Call Registry in violation of 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(c).  Id. at *1.  As readers of this blog will note, 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(c)(2) prohibits telephone solicitations made to residential telephone subscribers who are registered on the Do Not Call Registry.  New Penn sought denial of class certification, arguing the uncertainty of Plaintiff’s standing made his claims atypical, rendering him an inadequate class representative.  Id.  In considering the motion, the Court identified an issue unique to the plaintiff—whether the cell phone number at issue was properly considered a residential or business telephone number.  Id. at *5.

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Some Clinical Trial Calls Now Eligible for the FCC’s Revised TCPA Exemption

The TRACED Act’s December 30, 2020 deadline was not the end of the FCC’s recent series of actions to bring more clarity to certain forms of TCPA exemptions. Most recently, on January 15, 2021, the FCC issued a Declaratory Ruling “clarify[ing] that a call to a residential telephone line seeking an individual’s participation in a clinical pharmaceutical trial is not subject to the TCPA’s restrictions on prerecorded calls.” Instead, the FCC stated that these calls are eligible for exemption from the TCPA’s prior express written consent requirement as other calls to a residence that do not constitute telemarketing.

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FCC Reconsiders Government Contractors’ Classification as TCPA Non-“Persons”

The FCC in 2016 determined that the federal government was not a “person” subject to the TCPA, and that by extension, federal contractors working within the scope of their delegated authority were also not bound by TCPA restrictions.  This Broadnet Declaratory Ruling was the subject of at least one prominent dissent.  At the time, then-Commissioner Ajit Pai observed:  “[I]t is odd to suggest that a contractor’s status as a ‘person’ could switch on or off depending on one’s behavior or relationship with the federal government.”  The National Consumer Law Center and Professional Services Council both filed petitions for reconsideration and this issue was again joined on December 14, 2020, when the FCC issued a Reconsideration Order stating that government contractors – but not federal or state governments themselves – “must obtain prior express consent to call consumers” when making calls on behalf of the government.

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FCC Proposed Rulemaking Presents an Opportunity to Reshape Some Existing TCPA Exemptions

Over the years, one of the biggest challenges many businesses face when assessing TCPA risks posed by a new calling or texting campaign has been determining whether the proposed use case can defensibly rely on one of the exemptions adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That is because the FCC has repeatedly cautioned that any exemptions it adopts apply only to the specific set of facts considered by the agency. Sometimes the jigsaw puzzle pieces align, but other times they do not perfectly fit together, making exemptions less useful than they might otherwise be.

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Advertised Businesses Not Liable for Unauthorized Fax Advertisements, FCC Declares

On September 21, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau issued a declaratory ruling clarifying that businesses advertised via fax should not face “sender liability” for unsolicited faxes sent without prior authorization.  See Declaratory Ruling at ¶¶ 9, 17, In the Matter of Akin Gump, CG Docket No. 02-278 (Sept. 21, 2020).  This ruling provides some much-needed guidance on the scope of sender liability under the Junk Fax Prevention Act, an issue which has divided the courts.

In 2005, the Junk Fax Prevention Act amended the TCPA to prohibit the sending of unsolicited advertisements via facsimile, absent some excepted relationship between sender and recipient.  See Pub. L. No. 109-21, 119 Stat. 359 (2005).  The FCC has defined the “sender” of a fax for liability purposes as any “person or entity on whose behalf a facsimile unsolicited advertisement is sent or whose goods or services are advertised or promoted in the unsolicited advertisement.”  47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(10) (2019).[1]  The Commission also has observed that the “sender” of a fax is usually, but not always, the business advertised in the fax.  See “2006 Junk Fax Order,” FCC Rcd. 3787, 3808, ¶ 39 (2006).

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