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.
Confusion continues amongst federal district courts in the wake of Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc. (“AAPC”), 140 S. Ct. 2335 (2020), the Supreme Court decision that held the TCPA’s government-debt exception—instituted via a 2015 amendment to the statute—violated the First Amendment. Courts recently have dealt with the issue of whether plaintiffs can bring TCPA claims for conduct occurring between 2015 and July 2020, the date the unconstitutional amendment was passed and the date the Supreme Court declared the amendment unconstitutional and ordered it severed from the TCPA. The Eastern District of Louisiana said the answer to this question is no. Creasy v. Charter Communications, Inc., 2020 WL 5761117 (E.D. La. Sept. 28, 2020). The district courts for the Southern District of California and the Northern District of Ohio disagree, as we discuss below. Our prior posts on this issue, which we have been following closely, can be found here.
In McCurley et al. v. Royal Sea Cruises, Inc., 2021 WL 288164 (S.D. Cal. Jan. 28, 2021), and Less v. Quest Diagnostics Incorporated, 2021 WL 266548 (N.D. Ohio Jan. 26, 2021), defendants argued that TCPA claims arising during the above-mentioned time period were barred because the TCPA was entirely unconstitutional during that period. Both the McCurley and the Less courts disagreed, though the two courts differed in their rationales.
In the aftermath of Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc.—the Supreme Court decision from July that held the TCPA’s government-debt exception to be an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech—the country’s district courts cannot agree on whether they may adjudicate TCPA claims alleging conduct that transpired during the life of the exception (i.e., during the period from November 2, 2015 to July 6, 2020). Click here to see our collection of posts on this issue, which we have been following closely. Continue reading
As we have reported on here, here, here, and here, a growing number of district courts are issuing opinions addressing whether they have subject matter jurisdiction over TCPA claims alleging robocall violations that occurred when the government debt exception invalidated by Barr v. APPC, 140 S. Ct. 2335 (2020), was part of the statute. The Eastern District of California recently added to this line of cases, joining courts that have held that “the TCPA remains enforceable, at least against non-government debt collectors, as to calls made between November 2015 and July 6, 2020.” See Stoutt v Travis Credit Union, No. 2:20-cv-01280, 2021 WL 99636, at *3 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 12, 2021).
A few weeks ago, the Eastern District of Louisiana held that courts cannot impose liability under Sections 227(b)(1)(A) or (b)(1)(B) of the TCPA for calls that were made before the Supreme Court cured those provisions’ unconstitutionality by severing their debt collection exemptions. The first-of-its-kind decision reasoned that courts cannot enforce unconstitutional laws, and severing the statute applied prospectively, not retroactively. Plaintiffs privately panicked but publicly proclaimed that the Creasy decision was “odd” and would not be followed.
Charter Communications may have just helped literally thousands of TCPA defendants snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
As our regular readers know, the Supreme Court recently held in Barr v. AAPC that a recent addition to the TCPA—specifically, an exemption for calls to collect federal debts—was a content-based regulation of speech that violated the First Amendment. It then severed that exception from the rest of the statute, and in doing so dashed the hopes of defendants that had advocated for invalidating all of the statute’s restrictions on automated telephone equipment.
In a victory for debt collectors, the Central District of Illinois recently found that a plaintiff’s bare-bones allegations regarding use of an ATDS were particularly implausible because “the business of the defendant is such that it would not need a machine with random or sequential number generation capacities.” Mosley v. Gen. Revenue Corp., No. 20-01012, 2020 WL 4060767, at *3 (C.D. Ill. July 20, 2020).
In Mosley v. General Revenue Corp., the plaintiff alleged that a debt collection company used an ATDS and prerecorded messages to call her cellular telephone without her consent. Id. at *1. She claimed the calls concerned debts that were not hers, and some calls started with short pauses and “dead air.” Id.
On July 6, 2020, the Supreme Court issued a highly anticipated—and highly fractured—ruling in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants. The nine Justices produced four opinions, none of which commanded a majority. But six of the Justices agreed that the TCPA’s government-debt exception violated the First Amendment, and seven agreed that it could be severed from the rest of the TCPA. The result, then, is that the exception was stricken but the restrictions on automated telephone equipment were saved.
Writing for the plurality, Justice Kavanaugh made quick work of the government’s argument that the exception was content-neutral: “A robocall that says, ‘Please pay your government debt’ is legal. A robocall that says, ‘Please donate to our political campaign’ is illegal. That is about as content-based as it gets.” Because the exception was content-based, the plurality applied strict scrutiny—a standard that the government had conceded it could not satisfy.
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.
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.