In the wake of the Supreme Court’s April 2021 Facebook v. Duguid decision, plaintiffs prosecuting class actions across the nation have been searching hard to mine other potential ambiguities in the TCPA to support allegations about the use of an ATDS. One area of focus has been on whether that term – which is defined as equipment that can “store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator” – applies to equipment that assigns random or sequential identifiers to stored numbers that were not randomly or sequentially generated.
Earlier this week, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri granted summary judgment for a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) that allegedly violated the TCPA by sending unsolicited advertisements via fax to thousands of healthcare providers. The defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the court concluded, because the fax simply notified recipients of changes to insured patients’ coverage and did not promote any products or services.
The case began when a St. Louis healthcare provider (BPP) filed a complaint alleging that defendant CaremarkPCS Health, LLC, violated the TCPA when it sent an unsolicited fax to over 55,000 providers notifying them of new limits on insurance coverage for opioid prescriptions for pediatric and adolescent patients in plans sponsored by Caremark’s clients. BPP v. CaremarkPCS Health, LLC, No. 4:20-cv-126, 2021 WL 5195785, at *1 (E.D. Mo. Nov. 9, 2021). Caremark, which manages prescription drug benefits for various health insurers, asked for summary judgment on the ground that the fax was not an “advertisement” under the TCPA and that plaintiff’s claim therefore failed as a matter of law. Id.
The Seventh Circuit last week affirmed its holding in Gadelhak v. AT&T Services, Inc., 950 F.3d 458 (7th Cir. 2020) that, to qualify as an “automatic telephone dialing system” (ATDS) under the TCPA, a device or calling system must have the ability to randomly or sequentially generate the phone numbers that it calls. As we reported here and here, this interpretation of the statute’s ATDS definition excludes systems and devices that place calls from a premade list of numbers, such as a list of customers’ mobile numbers. Courts remain divided on how to interpret the ATDS definition and the Supreme Court is expected to address the issue in a case that is currently before it, Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid.
The Eastern District of California recently entered summary judgment against a plaintiff because it found that the plaintiff failed to revoke his consent to receive auto-dialed calls on his cell phone. Wright v. USAA Savings Bank, No. 19-0591, 2020 WL 2615441, at *1-5 (E.D. Cal. May 22, 2020). The case illustrates that defendants in the Ninth Circuit can still prevail on consent and other issues even though they may face an uphill battle on ATDS issues.
The plaintiff in Wright applied for a credit card and listed his cell phone number on the application. Id. at *1. He developed terminal cancer in 2018 and failed to make payments on the credit card. Id. Between July 2018 and January 2019, defendants’ agent called Mr. Wright’s cellphone number using the Aspect Dialing System to collect the credit card debt. Id. Evidence established that the Aspect Dialing System is a predictive dialer that does not have and is not capable of using a random or sequential number generator to dial numbers. Id.
As we previously discussed, the need for clarification as to the TCPA’s treatment of outbound calls made using soundboard technology (“soundboard calls”) is particularly manifest in light of two pending petitions before the FCC and the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the FTC’s decision to treat soundboard calls as robocalls subject to the Telemarketing Sales Rules. [See here and here]. Plaintiffs have sought to exploit the uncertainty; a spate of lawsuits contend that soundboard calls are prerecorded calls prohibited by the TCPA if made without prior consent. Recently, the Western District of Oklahoma attempted to set a standard for the permissibility of these calls, but the decision may only engender more uncertainty. While professing that soundboard calls are not “categorically prohibited,” the court’s ruling fails to provide a roadmap for what types of soundboard calls would be permissible, beyond stating that a “soundboard call which did not interact with the customer except in preprogrammed not to mention meaningless ways” violated the TCPA.
Soundboard technology allows call center agents to interact with consumers on a real-time basis using a combination of audio clips and the agent’s own voice. Because a live agent selects the audio clips to play based on the statements made by the called party, companies using or offering the technology have argued that these calls feature a degree of human interaction that means they should not be considered “prerecorded calls” subject to the consent requirements of the TCPA.
Last year, this blog analyzed whether and when professional plaintiffs have standing to assert TCPA claims. A Massachusetts District Court recently examined that issue and held that a plaintiff’s standing “boils down to” how a plaintiff uses a given phone line.
In Rhodes v. Liberty Power Holdings, LLC, No. 18-10506, 2019 WL 4645524 (D. Mass. Sept. 24, 2019), the Court examined TCPA claims brought by two representatives of a putative class. One of them, Samuel Katz (“Katz”), fits the profile of a professional plaintiff, as he is a “frequent litigant in TCPA cases” who “closely tracks the telemarketing calls he receives.” Katz has served over two dozen TCPA demand letters and has filed at least nine TCPA lawsuits. In the present matter, he alleges that he received thirteen automated calls to a “residential landline that he maintained for emergencies.”
The Southern District of Florida recently granted a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on certain aspects of a plaintiff’s TCPA claim because plaintiff could not establish that defendant used an ATDS to call her cell phone. Johnson v. Capital One Services, LLC, No. 18-CV-62058, 2019 WL 4536998, *1 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 19, 2019). The case illustrates that a plaintiff must present concrete evidence demonstrating that a defendant used an ATDS in order to survive a motion for summary judgment. See id. at *3-4. A plaintiff cannot rely on purported “admissions” obtained from a call agent on the phone or plaintiff’s own subjective characterizations of the call. Id.
The Northern District of Illinois recently entered summary judgment against a group of plaintiffs because it found the system at issue was not an ATDS.
In Smith v. Premier Dermatology, No. 17-3712, 2019 WL 4261245 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 9, 2019), the Defendants used a proprietary “eRelevance” system to send medical marketing communications by text message to their clients’ customers or patients. Defendant eRelevance Corporation would have its clients provide their current and prospective customer contact information, which would be uploaded into the eRelevance system. Based on client-selected criteria, the system would create lists of contacts, and once eRelevance employees built a text-message marketing campaign, they could push a button to have the system automatically send text messages to each contact on the list.
In many TCPA cases, the sufficiency of a plaintiff’s allegations, particularly those concerning the defendant’s alleged use of an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”), are tested at the pleadings stage through a motion to dismiss. No matter which side prevails, a trial court’s ruling at that procedural moment is limited to whether ATDS allegations are plausible—not whether any evidence actually proves that an ATDS was, in fact, used. And because so many lawsuits are resolved through an early settlement, a defendant often does not have a day in court on the question of whether its dialing equipment as configured and used constitutes an ATDS.