Subscribe to our InfoBytes Blog weekly newsletter and other publications for news affecting the financial services industry.
On December 6, the Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced he is joining a bipartisan group of 40 state Attorneys General to stop or reduce “annoying and dangerous” robocalls. The multistate group is reviewing, through meetings with several major telecom companies, the technology the companies are pursuing to combat robocalls. According to the announcement, the working group’s goals are to (i) develop an understanding of the technology that is feasible to combat unwanted robocalls; (ii) encourage the major telecom companies to expedite a technological solution for consumers; and (iii) determine if the states should make further recommendations to the FCC. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in October, a group of 35 Attorneys General, including Herring, submitted reply comments to the FCC in response to a public notice seeking ways the FCC could create rules that would enable telephone service providers to block more illegal robocalls. In their comments to the FCC, the coalition encouraged the FCC to implement rules and additional reforms that go beyond the agency’s 2017 call-blocking order, which allows phone companies to proactively block illegal robocalls originating from certain types of phone numbers.
On November 29, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey partially denied a company’s motion to dismiss proposed class action allegations that it violated the TCPA when it used an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) to send unsolicited text messages to customers’ cell phones that resulted in additional message and data charges. According to the opinion, the company sent three text messages to the plaintiff who responded to two of them. The first message gave the plaintiff the option to send “STOP” to opt out or “HELP” to receive assistance. Because the plaintiff texted “HELP” in response, the court found that the plaintiff consented to receiving the company’s second message; the court found that the third follow-up message was permissible because it was a single “confirmatory message” sent after the plaintiff texted “STOP” after receiving the second follow-up message. However, the court determined that the plaintiff satisfied the burden of showing at this stage in the proceedings that the first text message was sent from a company with whom he had no prior relationship and had not provided consent. “When an individual sends a message inviting a responsive text, there is no TCPA violation,” the judge ruled. “The TCPA prohibits a party from using an ATDS ‘to initiate any telephone call to any residential telephone line using an artificial or prerecorded voice to deliver a message without the prior express consent of the called party,’ unless the call falls within one of the statute’s enumerated exemptions.”
The court further denied the company’s motion to stay pending the FCC’s interpretation of what qualifies as an ATDS in light of the decision reached by the D.C. Circuit in ACA International v. FCC, stating, among other things, that the company “has not established the FCC proceedings will simplify or streamline the issues in this matter” and that the plaintiff is entitled to discovery concerning the company’s communication devices.
On November 6, the FCC announced that it sent letters to voice providers urging them to participate in “traceback” efforts to help the FCC identify the source of illegal spoofed robocalls. The FCC released copies of the letters that it sent to eight voice providers that are not currently assisting with the USTelecom Industry Traceback Group’s program, which seeks to trace the robocalls that pass through the voice providers’ networks to the originating provider.
In the announcement, the FCC notes that: (i) traceback efforts assist the FCC in identifying the source of illegal calls; and (ii) the FCC receives more complaints from consumers regarding unwanted calls—including scam calls that use spoofing to trick consumers—than any other subject. The FCC emphasizes that “consistent participation of all network operators is critical for helping consumers and enforcing the law.”
On October 8, a collation of 35 state Attorneys General submitted reply comments in response to a public notice seeking ways the FCC could create rules that will enable telephone service providers to block illegal robocalls. In their comments to the FCC, the coalition encourages the FCC to implement rules and additional reforms that go beyond the agency’s 2017 call-blocking order, which allows phone companies to proactively block illegal robocalls originating from certain types of phone numbers. (See previous InfoBytes coverage here.) “Many illegal robocallers, however, simply do not care about the law and have a more insidious agenda — casting a net of illegal robocalls to ensnare vulnerable victims in scams to steal money or sensitive, personal information,” the coalition stated. “[C]riminals are estimated to have stolen 9.5 billion dollars from consumers through phone scams in 2017.” The coalition encourages collaboration between states, federal counterparts, and the domestic and international telecommunications industry, and applauds recent progress on the implementation of frameworks such as the “Secure Telephone Identity Revisited” and “Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs” protocols that assist service providers in identifying illegally spoofed calls.
FCC seeks comments on interpretation of TCPA definition of autodialer following 9th Circuit decision
On October 3, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau released a notice seeking comment on the interpretation of the TCPA in light of a recent 9th Circuit decision, which broadened the definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (autodialer) under the TCPA. As previously covered in InfoBytes, on September 20, the 9th Circuit held that the TCPA’s definition of an autodialer includes equipment with the capacity to store numbers to be called and to automatically dial such numbers whether or not those numbers have been generated by a random or sequential number generator. The court, however, declared the statutory definition of an autodialer to be “ambiguous on its face” and, thus, it looked to the context and structure of the TCPA in reaching its conclusion regarding the scope of the definition.
The FCC issued the notice “to supplement the record developed in response” to a prior notice issued last May, which sought comments on the interpretation of the TCPA following the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC. (See previous InfoBytes coverage on the May 2018 notice here.) Specifically, the FCC seeks comments on the following issues relevant to developing an interpretation of the TCPA’s definition of autodialer: (i) To the extent the definition of an autodialer is ambiguous, how should the FCC exercise its discretion to interpret such ambiguities? (ii) Does the 9th Circuit’s interpretation mean that any device with the capacity to dial stored numbers automatically qualifies as an autodialer? (iii) What devices have the capacity to store numbers, and do smartphones have such capacity? and (iv) What devices that have the capacity to dial stored numbers also have the capacity to automatically dial such numbers and do smartphones have such capacity?
Comments are due October 17 with reply comments due October 24.
11th Circuit holds deaf plaintiff not required to file complaint with FCC before filing lawsuit under other federal disability rights laws
On September 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit vacated a district court’s decision to grant a Florida city’s (City) motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, holding that (i) the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (CVAA) did not require the appellant to exhaust his remedies before the FCC prior to commencing a lawsuit under other federal disability statutes; and (ii) the primary-jurisdiction doctrine does not apply to this case.
According to the opinion, the appellant, a deaf individual, alleged that none of the video content stored on the City’s four webpages provided closed captioning, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court dismissed the action without prejudice, holding the CVAA requires exhaustion of remedies by the FCC as a prerequisite to the filing of a lawsuit.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit rejected as “an overbroad reading of the statute” the City’s argument that the CVAA contains an exhaustion requirement for claims brought under other disability rights statutes. In support of its position that the FCC only has exclusive jurisdiction over closed captioning complaints brought under the relevant section of the CVAA, the Court cited a 9th Circuit decision, which concluded “the FCC’s exclusive jurisdiction over complaints under the CVAA does nothing to extinguish [the plaintiff’s] right to pursue broader relief for online captioning under [California state law].” In rejecting the City’s primary-jurisdiction argument, the 11th Circuit first cited instances where the FCC—in a report to Congress and in a communication to this plaintiff in an unrelated action—took the position that the CVAA does not require plaintiffs to exhaust administrative remedies as a prerequisite to bringing lawsuits under other federal statutes. The Court also applied the two-factor primary jurisdiction doctrine test, concluding that (i) the FCC has no expertise with respect to the claims under the other federal disability rights statutes before the lower court; and (ii) “this case presents no special need for uniformity.”
On September 26, the FCC announced that it fined a telemarketer and associated companies more than $82 million for using allegedly illegal caller ID spoofing to market and generate leads for health insurance sales in violation of the Truth in Caller ID Act (the Act). The Act prohibits telemarketers from purposefully falsifying caller ID information with the intent to harm, defraud consumers, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. The FCC alleges that the telemarketer made more than 21 million robocalls with spoofed caller ID information, which makes it difficult for consumers to register complaints and for law enforcement to track and stop the illegal calls. According to the related Forfeiture Order (FCC 18-134), the FCC rejected the telemarketer’s argument that the value he received from the calls was not “wrongfully obtained,” concluding that the calls were placed without prior consent, including contacting consumers on the Do Not Call registry, and that the telemarketer knew the tactics he used to obtain the insurance leads were unlawful. The FCC also rejected the telemarketer’s request to reduce the penalty, stating “the proposed forfeiture of $82,106,000 properly reflects the seriousness, duration, and scope of [the telemarketer]’s violations.”
On July 16, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan held in a matter of first impression that direct-to-voicemail or direct-drop voicemails are covered by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). In so holding, the court denied a debt collection agency’s (defendant) motion for summary judgment. According to the opinion, the defendant asserted that the prerecorded voicemails left on the plaintiff’s cell phone in an effort to collect a mortgage did not violate the TCPA because calls were not dialed to the cell phone but rather deposited directly on a voicemail service—an action the defendant claimed was not within the scope of the TCPA and unregulated. However, the court found that the defendant’s use of the voicemail product constituted as a “call” within TCPA’s broadly constructed purview. In addition, the court specifically stated that the direct drop voicemails left by the defendant were “arguably more of a nuisance” to the plaintiff than receiving text messages since she would have to take steps each time to review or delete the message. In denying the defendant’s motion, the court held that “[b]oth the FCC and the courts have recognized that the scope of the TCPA naturally evolves in parallel with telecommunications technology as it evolves, e.g., with the advent of text messages and email-to-text messages or, as we have here, new technology to get into a consumer’s voicemail box directly.”
On June 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed summary judgment for a global internet media company holding that the plaintiff failed to show the equipment the company used fell within the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” (autodialer) based the recent holding by the D.C. Circuit in ACA International v. FCC. (Covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert.) The decision results from a lawsuit filed by a consumer alleging the company’s email SMS service, which sent a text message every time a user received an email, was an “autodialer” and violated the TCPA. The consumer had not signed up for the service, but had purchased a cellphone with a reassigned number and the previous owner had elected to use the SMS service. Ultimately, the consumer received almost 28,000 text messages over 17 months. In 2014, the district court granted summary judgment for the company concluding that the email service did not qualify as an autodialer. In light of the FCC’s 2015 Declaratory Ruling—which concluded that an autodialer is not limited to its current functions but also its potential functions—the 3rd Circuit vacated the lower court’s judgment. On remand, the lower court again granted summary judgment in favor of the company.
In reaching the latest decision, the 3rd Circuit interpreted the definition of an autodialer as it would prior to the 2015 Declaratory Ruling in light of the D.C. Circuit’s recent holding, which struck down the part of the FCC’s 2015 Ruling expanding the definition to potential capacity. The appellate court held that the consumer failed to show that the email SMS service had the present capacity to function as an autodialer.
On May 14, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau released a notice seeking comment on the interpretation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) in light of the recent D.C. Circuit decision in ACA International v. FCC. (Covered by a Buckley Sandler Special Alert.) The notice requests, among other things, comment on what constitutes an “automatic telephone dialing system” (autodialer) due to the court setting aside the FCC’s 2015 interpretation of an autodialer as “unreasonably expansive.” Specifically, the FCC requests comment on how to interpret the term “capacity” under the TCPA’s definition of an autodialer (“equipment which has the capacity—(A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers”) and requests comment on the functions a device must be able to perform to qualify as an autodialer, including how “automatic” the dialing mechanism must be. Additionally, the notice seeks comment on (i) how to treat reassigned wireless numbers under the TCPA; (ii) how a party may revoke prior express consent to receive robocalls; and (iii) three pending petitions for reconsideration, including the 2016 Broadnet Declaratory Ruling and the 2016 Federal Debt Collection Rules. Comments are due by June 13 and reply comments are due by June 28.
On May 3, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Bankers Association, and over a dozen more trade associations petitioned the FCC seeking a declaratory ruling on the definition of an autodialer under the TCPA, previously covered by InfoBytes here.