An Indiana District Court Foreshadows a Split in Authority as to Personal Liability of Corporate Officers

The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, in Black v. First Impression Interactive, Inc., No. 21 C 3745, 2022 WL 169652 (Jan. 19, 2022), denied a motion to dismiss a TCPA claim and, in so doing, highlighted a potential split among authorities as to the extent of personal liability for corporate officers and employees.

Plaintiff brought suit against two individuals, “the only officers and employees of First Impression,” a defunct corporation that had dissolved prior to the lawsuit.  Id. at *1.  Because First Impression had dissolved and the defendants were named individually, the court considered three theories of personal liability:  “(1) ʻvicarious liability’; (2) ‘relief defendants’; and (3) ‘personal participation.’”  Id. at *2.

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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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California Court Enters Summary Judgment Against Plaintiff Who Failed To Prove Vicarious Liability

A court in the Northern District of California recently granted a defense motion for summary judgment, finding that the defendants were not vicariously liable for a subcontractor’s supposed TCPA violations because the record showed that they had neither given the subcontractor authority to violate the TCPA nor ratified its acts.

In Schick v. Caliber Home Loans, Inc., defendant Caliber hired defendant NextLevel to generate leads for its home loan refinancing business. No. 20-CV-00617-VC, 2021 WL 4166906, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 14, 2021). Their contract mandated that NextLevel “perform or provide” its services “in full compliance with … all applicable federal, state, and local laws, regulations and ordinances.” Id. The contract further required that NextLevel “not allow any subcontractor … to perform or provide” services “without … prior written consent.” Id. Without Caliber’s consent, in violation of the subcontractor provision, NextLevel hired subcontractor Driving Force to provide leads. Id. After allegedly receiving two calls on a number on the national “Do Not Call” Registry, Plaintiff filed suit and sought to hold the defendants vicariously liable. Id.

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Telemarketers’ Alleged Conduct Establishes Personal Jurisdiction over Principal with No Direct Forum Ties, Seventh Circuit Holds

The Seventh Circuit has reversed a decision from last year by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissing a TCPA claim for lack of personal jurisdiction over an alleged principal of the caller.  That decision, which we covered here, concluded that the plaintiff had not established an agency relationship between defendant Health Insurance Innovations, Inc. (“HII”) and the unnamed “lead generators” that had made the allegedly unsolicited calls.  Bilek v. Fed. Ins. Co., No. 19-8389, 2020 WL 3960445, at *5 (N.D. Ill. July 13, 2020).  As a result, the Northern District held that it lacked specific personal jurisdiction over HII, which had no connection to the forum state beyond its alleged relationship with the telemarketers that called the plaintiff in Illinois.  Id.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that he had plausibly alleged an agency relationship and that the district court should therefore have imputed the caller’s conduct to HII when assessing whether it could exercise specific personal jurisdiction over the latter.  Bilek v. Fed. Ins. Co., No. 20-2504, 2021 WL 3503132, at *6 (7th Cir. Aug. 10, 2021).

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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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Another Court Rejects Threadbare Allegations of So-Called Vicarious Personal Jurisdiction

The District of Arizona recently dismissed Winters v. Grand Caribbean Cruises, Inc., No. 20-0168, 2021 WL 511217 (D. Ariz. Feb. 11, 2021), for lack of personal jurisdiction, finding that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the caller’s contact with Arizona could be imputed to Grand Caribbean.

The plaintiffs alleged that Grand Caribbean violated the TCPA by using a prerecorded voice to initiate calls to numbers on the Do-Not-Call Registry.  Grand Caribbean moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, among other things.

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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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District of Nevada Applies Agency Principles to TCPA Suit Against Messaging Platform and Consumer-Info Company, Dismisses Claims

Last week, the District of Nevada contributed to a growing consensus among Ninth Circuit district courts that TCPA liability generally does not extend to companies that produce equipment used to place unlawful calls—such as messaging platforms and contact lists— because the entities that use such equipment usually do so on behalf of another company, and not the equipment provider.

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No Agency, No Personal Jurisdiction

We have previously written about decisions that dismissed TCPA claims because plaintiffs could not allege or prove facts establishing that the party making the offending calls was acting as an agent for the named defendant. The Northern District of Illinois recently applied these principles to dismiss claims against a defendant for lack of personal jurisdiction.

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Alleged Oversight and Monitoring of a Messaging Campaign Deemed Inadequate to Establish Agency

Another court decision reminds us that conclusory allegations that an agency relationship exists should not be sufficient to impute TCPA liability on the alleged beneficiary of a messaging campaign. Pleadings that lack plausible allegations showing “some degree of control over who sent the text and the manner and means by which it was sent” can lead to dismissal – with prejudice, if the plaintiff has run out of a reasonable number of opportunities to amend.

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