Spring Roster of FCC Actions: State-Federal Partnerships, Enforcement Actions, and Reassigned Numbers Database Clarifications and Changes

The FCC’s TCPA dockets did not witness many developments from the beginning of 2022 until February. However, beginning in February and into March, Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s office and the Enforcement Bureau were busy negotiating new robocalling partnerships with state regulators and issuing enforcement orders against suspected or apparent violations. Those activities expanded in April by the issuance of new guidance and a new pricing structure for the Reassigned Numbers Database. We cover each of these topics below.

State-Federal Partnership on Investigations

Since Chairwoman Rosenworcel’s confirmation as the FCC Chair in December 2021, she has put on the top of her agenda building a partnership with state regulators – attorneys general and enforcement agencies. During February, March, and April 2022, Chairwoman Rosenworcel signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) designed to allow greater cooperation and sharing of information and other investigation intelligence with regard to illegal robocalls and telephone scams. These MOUs also reflect the intention of close collaboration to enforce consumer protection laws concerning robocalls. The FCC currently has MOUs in place with twenty-eight (28) states and more could be in the offing.

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The Losses Mount for a Serial TCPA Plaintiff

In an ever-growing string of losses, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the Northern District of Indiana in denying class certification to serial TCPA plaintiff Gorss Motels, Inc. in Gorss Motels, Inc. v. Brigadoon Fitness, Inc., — F.4th —, 2022 WL 872639 (7th Cir. 2022).

The fact pattern in the present matter is consistent with the other cases Gorss Motels has filed, and the basic fact pattern can be found here. In the present case, Gorss Motels sued a franchisor-approved vendor, Brigadoon Fitness, Inc., for sending a fax advertisement for deals on fitness equipment. Gorss Motels was denied certification for a class of all recipients of this fax, Gorss Motels, Inc. v. Brigadoon Fitness, Inc., 331 F.R.D. 335 (N.D. Ind. 2019), which was denied again on reconsideration, Gorss Motels, Inc. v. Brigadoon Fitness, Inc., No. 1:16-CV-330-HAB, 2019 WL 5692168 (N.D. Ind. Nov. 4, 2019).

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Court Rejects Healthcare Facility’s Use of Emergency Purpose Exception

The Middle District of Florida recently held that a defendant cannot invoke the “emergency purposes” exception to the TCPA if the defendant continues to send messages after the plaintiff has instructed the defendant to stop.  In Farhat v. Unique Healthcare Systems, Inc., the Plaintiff claimed that her healthcare provider had sent her four messages within a four-week period with regard to free COVID-19 testing at the Defendant’s locations.

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Eighth Circuit Finds That System That Sends Texts to Stored Numbers is Not an ATDS, Rejects Plaintiffs’ Interpretation of Footnote 7 in Facebook v. Duguid

Last week, the Eighth Circuit affirmed a finding that a dialing system does not qualify as an ATDS if it randomly selects numbers from a stored list. See Beal v. Truman Road Dev. (8th Cir. Mar. 24, 2022). The decision explains that dialing equipment is not an ATDS if it does not produce those numbers (either randomly or sequentially) in the first place, and is notable for flatly rejecting a misreading of Facebook v. Duguid that plaintiffs have been peddling for nearly a year now.

The court’s analysis turns on the mechanics of the dialing system and plain language of the statute. The defendants were drinking establishments that use the “Txt Live” platform to send promotional text messages to numbers that were manually entered by the defendant’s employees. Specifically, the platform allowed employees to filter down to a target list of recipients based on demographic factors, select the number of potential customers to receive the message, draft or select the content of the message, and then send messages to designated recipients. To do so, it “shuffles the target contacts using a numerically based randomizer. If the number of people who meet the filtered criteria exceed the number of people to whom the message will be sent, Txt Live selects the recipients at the top of the randomized list first.” Id. at 3.

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Texts Regarding COVID Vaccine Eligibility Are Not Actionable Under TCPA, Texas Northern District Holds

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas recently held that unsolicited text messages that simply inform recipients of the availability of a free COVID-19 vaccine are protected by the “emergency purposes” exception to the TCPA’s prior express consent requirement and also do not qualify as telephone “solicitations” prohibited by the FCC’s do-not-call (DNC) rules.

In Horton v. Tarrant County Hospital District, No. 4:22-CV-9-P, 2022 WL 702536 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 4, 2022), the plaintiff alleged that he received a single unsolicited text message from the defendant, a public hospital district, announcing that “everyone ages 12 and up is eligible for the COVID vaccine.” Mr. Horton alleged that the text was sent without his consent in violation of the TCPA’s prohibition on autodialed calls as well as the rule against solicitations to telephone numbers on the national DNC list.

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Personal Cell Phones May Qualify as “Residential Telephones” Subject to DNC Rules, but Calls Made to a Pre-produced List Are Not ATDS Calls, Texas Northern District Holds

Last week, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas held that mobile phones may qualify as “residential telephones” when used (as the Complaint alleged) primarily for “personal, family, and household use,” and thus be subject to the TCPA’s do-not-call rules (47 C.F.R. §§ 64.1200(c) & (d)).  This issue has sewn disharmony among federal district courts and may draw attention from higher courts.  But the court also joined the growing number of courts following Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid, 141 S. Ct. 1163 (2021), that have agreed that calls specifically directed to persons on a pre-produced list (like plaintiff) are not calls made using a “random or sequential number generator” and thus are not subject to the TCPA’s prior express consent requirement for calls made using an ATDS.

In Hunsinger v. Alpha Cash Buyers, LLC, 3:21-cv-1598-D, 2022 WL 562761 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 24, 2022), the plaintiff alleged that, over the course of last year, he received eight unsolicited phone calls and six SMS text messages on his cell phone from a number he didn’t recognize.  Hunsinger picked up one of the calls and spoke with a representative for the defendant, to whom Hunsinger gave his email address.  Hunsinger subsequently received several calls and texts from the defendant referring to Hunsinger’s conversation with the representative and asking if he was still interested in a transaction.  These calls and texts were sent using an ATDS, Hunsinger alleged.  At all relevant times, Hunsinger’s number was on the national DNC list.  Id. at *1.

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Second Circuit Diverges from Third, Holds that an Unsolicited Invitation to Participate in a Survey is Not Actionable Under the TCPA

The Second Circuit recently addressed whether a faxed invitation to participate in a market research survey is an “unsolicited advertisement” actionable under the TCPA.  In Bruce Katz, M.D., P.C. v. Focus Forward LLC, 22 F.4th 368, 374 (2d Cir. 2022), the Court of Appeals held that under the plain text of the TCPA, an offer to participate in a survey, without more, is not an advertisement because it does not communicate the “availability or quality of any property, goods, or services.”  Id. at 372.

The dispute arose from defendant Focus Forward LLC’s two faxes to plaintiff Bruce Katz, M.D., P.C., a medical services company.  Id. at 370.  The faxes offered $150 in exchange for participation in a market research study.  Id.  Plaintiff initiated a putative class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York alleging violations of the TCPA, but the federal district court dismissed the complaint, agreeing with Defendant that an invitation to participate in a market research survey was not an unsolicited advertisement within the bounds of 47 U.S.C. § 227.  Id.

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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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“Pretext” Theory Could Turn Calls Regarding Free Health Care Services into Prohibited Solicitations, District of New Jersey Holds

The District of New Jersey recently endorsed the view that calls regarding the availability of free services may plausibly qualify, at the pleadings stage, as “telephone solicitations,” and as such be subject to the Do Not Call prohibition, where the calls are part of a larger marketing program for the defendant’s services. It also held, as the FCC has ruled, that the FCC’s exemption for calls that deliver a “health care message,” from a HIPAA-covered entity or its business associates, treats the calls differently based on whether the calls are delivered to a cell phone or a residential landline. Calls from such entities about health care, when made to wireless numbers, are exempt only from the requirement for written consent that applies to telemarketing calls. Unlike health care calls to residential landlines, these calls are not exempt from the TCPA’s general “prior express consent” requirement for prerecorded and autodialed phone calls, the court held.

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Defendants Suable in State Where Calls Inadvertently Received, If Similar Calls Purposefully Directed at Forum Residents, Tenth Circuit Holds

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit applied the Supreme Court’s recent Ford Motor decision on personal jurisdiction to a Rule 12(b)(2) motion to dismiss a TCPA claim.

In Hood v. American Auto Care, LLC, the plaintiff, Alexander Hood, alleged that the defendant (American Auto Care or “AAC,” a Florida company) violated the TCPA by directing automated calls to Mr. Hood’s cell phone without his consent.  No. 20-1157, 2021 WL 6122400, at *1 (10th Cir. Dec. 28, 2021).  According to the complaint, the calls were part of a sweeping telemarketing campaign by AAC that involved calling people from various states, including Vermont and Colorado, to advertise extended vehicle warranties sold by AAC.  Id.  Mr. Hood had previously lived in Vermont and had a Vermont cell phone number, but was living in Colorado at the time he received the calls.  Id.  The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado granted AAC’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, finding that the calls to Mr. Hood’s Vermont cell phone number did not “arise out of or relate to” calls that AAC directed at forum residents.  Id. 

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