Auto Service Contractor Not Subject to Court’s Jurisdiction in Texas Resident’s TCPA Claim, Holds State’s Federal Northern District

The Northern District of Texas handed down a decision exploring the jurisdictional limitations on TCPA plaintiffs’ ability to hale out-of-state defendants into a plaintiff’s local federal court.

The case, Horton v. Sunpath, Ltd., involved a Texas resident (Lucas Horton) who launched a TCPA suit against a Massachusetts-based corporation (Sunpath).  Horton alleged that Sunpath’s agent, Northcoast Warranty Services, placed several calls to his cell phone using an automatic telephone dialing system and pre-recorded messages, despite the number’s listing on the National Do-Not Call Registry.  No. 3:20-cv-1884-B-BH, 2021 WL 982344, at *1 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 16, 2021).  On the calls, Horton stated, Northcoast encouraged him to purchase an auto service policy administered by Sunpath.  Id.  The calls continued for about three months until Horton purchased a policy from Sunpath in May 2020.  Id.  Horton filed suit against Sunpath about a month later in the Northern District of Texas.  Id.

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FCC Order Causes Confusion Regarding Consent Required for Informational Calls to Residential Landlines

On December 30, 2020, the FCC issued a Report and Order (the December 2020 FCC Order) to implement Section 8 of the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act). The December 2020 FCC Order contains a critical internal inconsistency that has caused significant confusion regarding the level of consent required for certain prerecorded informational calls to residential landlines. As discussed below, the inconsistency is almost certainly the result of a drafting error.

The relevant terms of the TRACED Act state that the FCC must ensure that any exemptions to Section 227(b)(2)(B) or (C) of the TCPA include specific limits on “the number of such calls that may be made to a particular called party.” Dec. 2020 FCC Order ¶ 2 (citing TRACED Act, Pub. L. No. 116-105, 133 Stat. 3274, § 8 (2019)). The December 2020 FCC Order amends 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(a)(3)(ii)-(iii) to limit the number of calls that a caller can make to a residential landline under the exemption for “informational” calls to three such calls within any thirty-day period.

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Professional Plaintiff Who Manufactured Claims Can Sue But Can’t Represent Class

A recent denial of a professional plaintiff’s motion for class certification shows that, irrespective of whether such plaintiffs have standing to sue on their own behalf, courts are increasingly skeptical that contrived claims are amenable to class treatment. See Hirsch v. USHealth Advisors, LLC, No. 4:18-CV-00245-P, 2020 WL 7186380, at *1 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 7, 2020).

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Second Circuit Joins Ninth Circuit in Adopting Expansive Interpretation of ATDS, But Carves Out Smartphones

In a decision released on April 7, the Second Circuit joined the Ninth Circuit in adopting an expansive interpretation of what qualifies as an Automatic Telephone Dialing System (ATDS), finding that online texting platforms that use human-generated lists and require a human to click “send” on a screen to initiate the texts falls within the statutory definition. Duran v. La Boom Disco, Inc., No. 19-600, 2020 WL 1682773, at *8–9 (2d Cir. Apr. 7, 2020). In an effort to respond to expected critics of their approach, the court explained its view of why “so-called smartphones” and other modern devices do not qualify as an ATDS despite having similar functionality to the online texting platforms at issue (the ability to store a list of numbers and to dial them by simply clicking “send”). Id. at *8 n.39. The decision deepens the divide between circuit courts on what qualifies as an ATDS.

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Seventh Circuit Remands $280 Million TCPA Penalty Against DISH Network, LLC

The Seventh Circuit recently issued an opinion with significant implications for defendants evaluating the prospects for due process challenges to awards of statutory damages under the TCPA, as well as defendants facing claims of agency liability for the acts of their vendors or contractors. In an opinion by Judge Easterbrook, the Seventh Circuit ordered the District Court to reexamine a “whopping” $280 million penalty against DISH Network, LLC (“DISH”) for violations of the TCPA, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, 16 C.F.R. § 310 (the “Rule”), and related state laws. U.S. v. DISH Network, LLC, 2020 WL 141844, at *8 (7th Cir. Mar. 26, 2020). Although the Seventh Circuit suggested in dicta that the damages award was constitutionally acceptable, it held that the District Court erred because it only considered DISH’s “ability to pay” when calculating the award. Id. The court stated that the analysis should “start from harm rather than wealth, then add an appropriate multiplier.” Id.

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District of Massachusetts Grants Dismissal of Threadbare ATDS Claims

The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts recently granted a TCPA defendant’s motion to dismiss, in part, because the plaintiff failed to allege plausible facts supporting an assertion that the defendant, QuoteWizard, used an ATDS to send two text messages to his phone. Mantha v. QuoteWizard.com, LLC, No. 19-cv-12235, 2020 WL 1274178 (D. Mass. Mar. 16, 2020). The case highlights an important point, namely that defendants can still prevail on ATDS-related claims at the motion to dismiss stage, even despite a recent decision from the jurisdiction applying the expansive definition of an ATDS from the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, 904 F.3d 1041, 1043 (9th Cir. 2018). See, e.g., Gonzalez v. HOSPO Corp., 371 F. Supp. 3d 26, 34 (D. Mass. 2019) (applying the Marks definition of an ATDS).

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Court Finds that Professional Plaintiffs’ Standing “Boils Down to” Purpose of Phone Line

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.”

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Court Grants Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment on Vicarious Liability Issues

The Western District of Oklahoma recently granted a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment against NorthStar Alarm Services, LLC (“NorthStar”) in a certified class action.  The court held, in part, that NorthStar was vicariously liable for telemarketing calls that sales lead generator Yodel Technologies, LLC (“Yodel”) placed on its behalf.  Braver v. NorthStar Alarm Services, LLC, No. 17-cv-0383, 2019 WL 3208651, at *1 (W.D. Okla. July 16, 2019).  The case illustrates the factors that one court found relevant in a particular factual context when assessing vicarious liability issues related to a lead generator’s telemarketing calls. Continue reading   »

Do B2C Telephone Communications Now Need to Win the Popularity Contest to Not Be Preemptively Blocked?

Businesses may dial large volumes of numbers daily for a variety of legitimate purposes. These calls now appear to have become swept up and conflated with illegal robocalls, with a number of undesirable consequences. Certainly policy makers at the FCC, in reacting to understandable concerns about fraudulent and illegal calling, have been introducing more and more opportunities for voice service and app providers to apply non-transparent, subjective standards to block calls, and further muddy the water for business callers. Continue reading   »

Seven Robocall-Related Bills Examined at the House Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing

The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing entitled “Legislating to Stop the Onslaught of Annoying Robocalls” on April 30, 2019, that focused on seven bills pending before the Committee. While lawmakers and witnesses generally agreed that illegal and abusive robocalls are a problem, the fix or immediate solution in the form of new legislation was less clear.

Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) opened the hearing by summarizing the current state of pervasive robocalls and calling for voice service providers to make available call-blocking services to all customers free of charge. Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) shared this sentiment, emphasizing the need for a bipartisan solution with wide support. As Walden observed, robocalling is a topic that comes up at every single town hall meeting held in recent months. Several bill sponsors made opening statements regarding their respective bills, which we summarize briefly below. Continue reading   »