The Eleventh Circuit recently decided not to rehear en banc a panel decision which held that a TCPA class action settlement could not include an incentive award for the lead plaintiff. See Johnson v. NPAS Sols., LLC, No. 18-12344, 2022 WL 3083717 (11th Cir. Aug. 3, 2022).
The matter arose from a putative class action complaint, which alleged that defendant NPAS Solutions, a medical debt collection company, violated the TCPA by repeatedly robocalling plaintiffs to collect debts that did not actually belong to them. The lead plaintiff in the case, Charles Johnson, retained counsel and was actively engaged in the litigation, including negotiations that resulted in a $1.432 million class settlement.
On July 12, 2022, Representatives Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Katie Porter, D-Calif. introduced H.R. 8334 in the U.S. House of Representatives, which was referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce. The bill would amend the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (the “TCPA”), 47 U.S.C. § 227, to, among other things, “prohibit the use of automated telephone equipment to send unsolicited text messages.”
The TCPA presently defines “automatic telephone dialing system” (or “ATDS”) as equipment that has the capacity “to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator . . . to dial such numbers.” The law generally prohibits any person from making nonconsensual telemarketing or other types of telephone calls to a cell phone number using an ATDS.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded that the TCPA’s definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” (or “ATDS”) includes all dialing equipment with the present ability to generate random or sequential phone numbers and dial those numbers, regardless of whether the equipment’s owner actually uses those “ATDS functionalities.” But, importantly, a caller must actually use such functionalities in order to violate the statute’s prohibition on making autodialed phone calls, the Court further held.
In other words, a dialing system’s status as an ATDS turns on the system’s present capabilities, not how it is used. But whether a defendant is liable for using an ATDS turns on how the system is used, not just what it can do. Thus, the Court read the ATDS definition broadly but the liability provision narrowly, in a ruling that will give some comfort to companies that use their dialing equipment to contact customers or prospects from set lists, rather than to randomly generate phone numbers to be called indiscriminately.
Recently, on May 20, 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued a Report and Order (“Order”), as well as a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (all available here), with a plain objective: to “take further steps to stem the tide of foreign-originated illegal robocalls and seek comment on additional ways to address all such calls.” Order ¶ 1. As stated by the FCC, “reducing illegal robocalls that originate abroad is one of the most vexing challenges we face in tackling the problem of illegal robocalls.” Id. The Order was adopted by a unanimous, 4-0 vote by the FCC after it had received comments over the last nine months on various topics, including whether so-called “gateway providers” should be required to authenticate caller identification information and implement other efforts to reduce the number of illegal prerecorded and/or artificial voice “robocalls” originating overseas.
A “gateway provider” is a U.S.-based provider that acts as an intermediary for an international call by receiving a call directly from a foreign provider before transmitting that call downstream to other U.S.-based providers for termination. Order ¶ 25. This definition is not static but rather one that applies on a call-by-call basis, i.e., a provider is a gateway provider—and subject to the FCC’s new Order—only for those calls in which it acts as a gateway provider. Id. ¶ 28. Per the FCC, commenters “overwhelmingly” supported the imposition of additional requirements on gateway providers in order to “stop the flood of foreign-originated illegal calls.” Id. ¶ 21.
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.
Earlier this month, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio clarified that a TCPA defendant need not maintain an internal do-not-call list and policies in order to invoke the “established business relationship” defense for telemarketing calls to numbers on the national DNC registry.
By way of background, the TCPA prohibits businesses from making “telephone solicitations” to phone numbers on the national DNC registry. 47 U.S.C. § 227(c); 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(c). However, telemarketing calls and messages can be sent to such numbers where the caller has an “established business relationship” with the recipient. 47 U.S.C. § 227(a)(4); 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(15)(ii). The FCC has defined an “established business relationship” (“EBR”) as a “relationship formed by a voluntary two-way communication” regarding a telephone subscriber’s recent purchase of or inquiry about a product sold by the caller. 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(5). A subscriber can terminate the EBR at any moment by making a clear and specific request for the calls and/or messages to stop. Id. § 64.1200(f)(5)(i). Separately, 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(d) requires entities who place telemarketing calls to keep an internal list of individuals who have requested not to receive calls and to maintain policies to ensure that the list is honored.