In March, the D.C. Circuit issued its long-awaited decision on the FCC’s 2015 TCPA Declaratory Ruling. ACA International v. Federal Communications Commission, No. 15-1211 (Mar. 16, 2018). The ruling invalidates the FCC’s definition of an automated telephone dialing system (“ATDS”) and sets aside the FCC’s ruling on reassigned numbers. The ruling, however, upholds the FCC’s determination that consent can be revoked by any reasonable means.
The 2015 Declaratory Ruling.
In July of 2015, the FCC issued its highly controversial ruling on 21 petitions seeking review of various aspects of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (the “TCPA”). In the Matter of Rules & Regulations Implementing the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, Declaratory Ruling & Order, 30 FCC Rcd, 7961 (2015) (“Order”). Two commissioners issued impassioned dissents, noting that the Order “expands the TCPA’s reach” and “twists the law’s words…to target useful communications between legitimate businesses and their customers.” Dissenting Statement of Commissioner Ajit Pai. Immediately following the ruling, ACA International, a major trade group for the collection industry, filed suit against the FCC in the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit seeking a judicial review of the Order.
While the D.C. Circuit’s review focused on four aspects of the FCC Ruling, this post will limit itself to an examination of the three aspects most relevant to the consumer financial services industry. Before discussing the D.C. Circuit’s holding, here is a reminder of the FCC’s Ruling on the relevant issues:
The Definition of an ATDS.
Under the TCPA, an ATDS is defined as “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.” 47 U.S.C. §227(a)(1). Breaking down the definition, the Court looked at two questions. First, when does a device have the “capacity” to perform the two enumerated functions (to store and dial numbers) and second, what precisely are those functions. ACA International, Slip Op. at 12. The Court held that the FCC’s efforts to clarify what equipment qualifies as an ATDS provided an “eyepopping sweep” and the Court set it aside. ACA International, Slip Op. at 16.
Regarding when a device has the capacity to store and dial numbers, the court was highly critical of the FCC’s expansive interpretation of “capacity”, noting that it was incompatible with the statute’s original concern – telemarketing calls. The Court was particularly troubled by the Order’s inescapable conclusion that “all smartphones, under the Commission’s approach, meet the statutory definition of an autodialer.” The Court concluded that the TCPA cannot be reasonably read to render every smartphone an ATDS subject to the TCPA’s restrictions. Id. At 15-17. Applying a Chevron analysis, the court held that the FCC’s definition was arbitrary and capricious and lay beyond the FCC’s zone of delegated authority. The Court concluded that “[n]othing in the TCPA countenances concluding that Congress could have contemplated the applicability of the statute’s restrictions to the most commonplace phone device used every day by the overwhelming majority of Americans.” Id. at 19.
The Court next reviewed the FCC’s treatment of what functions must be present to constitute an ATDS. Looking to the TCPA, the Court noted that to constitute an ATDS, a device must have the capacity to perform two functions: (a) to store or produce numbers to be called using a random or sequential number generator, and (b) to dial such numbers. The Court determined that the FCC’s efforts fell short of reasoned decision making, offering no meaningful guidance to affected parties. As examples of why the FCC Ruling failed to satisfy the requirement of reasoned decision making, the Court noted the two conflicting positions taken by the FCC as to what functionalities are necessary for a device to qualify as an ATDS, noting that at certain places in the Order, the FCC takes the position that a device qualifies as an ATDS only if it can generate random or sequential numbers to be dialed while in others, the FCC stated that a device qualifies as an ATDS even if it lacks that capacity. The Court also noted that the FCC Order was unclear as to whether other certain referenced capabilities (for instance, dialing without human intervention) are necessary for a dialer to qualify as an ATDS.
What Next? The Court’s refusal to sustain the Order’s definition of an ATDS invalidates one of the most disturbing aspects of the 2015 Order but what does it mean for collection agencies and others who use ATDS to make non-telemarketing calls? Absent further rulemaking from the FCC, it will leave the issue open for judicial interpretation and we are likely to see additional litigation seeking to examine equipment on a device by device basis. The Court’s decision contains some language which may prove helpful to the industry on the issue of what constitutes an ATDS – particularly its parsing of the issue as to functionality and the distinction drawn between the ability to generate random or sequential numbers and the ability to call from a database of numbers generated elsewhere. It is likely that we will see this definition delved into in litigation to a further degree than previously seen.
Regarding reassigned numbers, the court determined the FCC’s one call safe harbor was arbitrary and set it aside. The Court’s ruling was premised in large part upon the FCC’s own interpretation of the TCPA as allowing a caller’s reasonable reliance on prior express consent. Recognizing that a caller’s reasonable reliance might not cease after one call or text message (for instance, when the recipient does not answer or provide any indication of reassignment), the Court held that there was no reasonable basis for the FCC to conclude that reasonable reliance would cease after the first call. “Having embraced an interpretation of the statutory phrase ‘prior express consent’ grounded in conceptions of reasonable reliance, the Commission needed to give some reasoned (and reasonable) explanation of why the safe harbor stopped at the seemingly arbitrary point of a single call or message.” Id. at 38. Importantly, the Court further held that the FCC’s failure regarding the one call safe harbor requires that the Court set aside its treatment of reassigned numbers generally. As a result, the Court also set aside the FCC’s interpretation of a “called party” as referring to a new subscriber because to leave it in place would in turn “mean that a caller is strictly liable for all calls made to the reassigned number, even if she has no knowledge of the reassignment.” Id. at 39.
What Next? While setting aside the FCC Ruling, the Court also signaled its agreement with other circuits (notably the Seventh and Eleventh) that the “called party” for purpose of the TCPA is intended to be the current subscriber. The Court also seemingly embraced the reasonable reliance on prior express consent position espoused by the FCC. As a result, it is likely we can anticipate a ramp-up in reassigned number litigation centering around who is the “called party” and what constitutes reasonable reliance on prior express consent provided by the previous subscriber. At the same time, the FCC (under new leadership) is already seeking to address the issue of reassigned numbers by looking at mechanisms to address the issue, including a repository of reassigned numbers. In re Advanced Methods to Target and Eliminate Unlawful Robocalls, Second Notice of Inquiry, 32 FCC Rcd. 6007. 6010 (2017).
Revocation of Consent. As noted above, the Court sustained the FCC’s ruling that consent can be revoked through any reasonable means that clearly expresses a desire not to receive further messages. Of note, the Court made clear that the FCC Ruling did not address revocation rules mutually adopted by contracting parties. “Nothing in the Commission’s order thus should be understood to speak to parties’ ability to agree upon revocation procedures.” Id. at 43.
What Next? Based upon the court’s clarification as to mutually adopted revocation rules, affected parties may wish to consider incorporating revocation procedures in their contracts with specific mechanisms for consumers to indicate their consent. Based upon the Court’s ruling, affected parties should also continue to implement policies and procedures for recording revocations of consent.
Caren Enloe leads Smith Debnam’ s consumer financial services litigation and compliance group. In her practice, she defends consumer financial service providers and members of the collection industry in state and federal court, as well as in regulatory matters involving a variety of consumer protection laws. Caren also advises fintech companies, law firms, and collection agencies regarding an array of consumer finance issues. An active writer and speaker, Caren currently serves as chair of the Debt Collection Practices and Bankruptcy subcommittee for the American Bar Association’s Consumer Financial Services Committee. She is also a member of the Defense Bar for the National Creditors Bar Association, the North Carolina State Chair for ACA International’s Member Attorney Program and a member of the Bank Counsel Committee of the North Carolina Bankers Association. Most recently, she was elected to the Governing Committee for the Conference on Consumer Finance Law. In 2018, Caren was named one of the “20 Most Powerful Women in Collections” by Collection Advisor, a national trade publication. Caren oversees a blog titled: Consumer Financial Services Litigation and Compliance dedicated to consumer financial services and has been published in a number of publications including the Journal of Taxation and Regulation of Financial Institutions, California State Bar Business Law News, Banking and Financial Services Policy Report and Carolina Banker....LEARN MORE