Three weeks ago, we informed you that the Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) had declared a state of emergency in light of Hurricane Ida, which meant that callers could not place any “telephonic solicitations” into the state, regardless of whether the calls were with the recipients’ prior express written consent, pursuant to an established business
Yes, I know, Shakespeare was English (which is about all I remember about him from the CliffsNotes I relied upon in high school), and Louisiana has French origins. But it’s Friday afternoon and I’m tired. This is about as creative as it gets right now.
Today, the Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) declared a state of emergency and announced, pursuant to its Do Not Call Program General Order, in no unclear terms, that “NO telephonic solicitor shall engage in ANY form of telephonic solicitation” is permitted during the state of emergency (at least while the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness requires the PSC to report to the Emergency Operations Center). The PSC is not kidding around about this, as the emphasis in the announcement is its own. The state of emergency extends from August 26 through September 27, 2021, unless it is terminated sooner.
I have received a number of calls and emails from clients over the past few hours about what the PSC’s announcement actually means: are calls with the consumer’s prior express written consent permitted? What about calls pursuant to an established business relationship? And how about debt collection calls to Louisiana residents—are those allowed to be placed? The answer is no, no, and still no. Here’s why.
On May 26, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion in Cranor v. 5 Star Nutrition, LLC, holding that the receipt of a single text message is a sufficient injury to convey standing under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). This creates a circuit split with the Eleventh Circuit’s 2019 opinion entered in Salcedo v. Hanna, which we previously blogged about.
Cranor made its way to the Fifth Circuit after the district court dismissed the case on grounds that a single text message doesn’t “involve [the same] intrusion into the privacy of the home” as a call to a residential landline. In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit looked to the (1) congressional purpose of the TCPA, and (2) traditional basis for actionable, intangible harm in holding that the receipt of a single text message constitutes an injury under the TCPA.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a 9-0 unanimous decision authored by Justice Sotomayor (with Justice Alito writing a concurring opinion) in Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid, resolving the circuit split on what constitutes a prohibited “automatic telephone dialing system” (more often referred to as an “autodialer” or “ATDS”) and adopting a narrow definition of ATDS. Yesterday’s ruling likely provides welcome relief to those subject to the TCPA—at least for the time being. More on that below.
Specifically, the Court favored the Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits’ autodialer definitions and held that, in order to be an ATDS, “a device must have the capacity either to store a telephone number using a random or sequential generator or to produce a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator.” In other words, a telephone number must essentially be pulled out of thin air and then called or texted; that is what “random or sequential” number generation means. That type of technology was commonly used in the early 1990s when the TCPA was enacted, but virtually no one uses it anymore. Now, companies typically dial from stored lists of specific telephone numbers. The Supreme Court’s concern was that, if it accepted the alternative ATDS definition—that dialing from a cultivated list of telephone numbers constitutes autodialing—such interpretation “would capture virtually all modern cell phones . . . The TCPA’s liability provisions, then, could affect ordinary cell phone owners in the course of commonplace usage, such as speed dialing or sending automated text message responses.” Notably, during oral argument last December, Justice Sotomayor foreshadowed her and the other justices’ doubts in questioning to Bryan Garner, Duguid’s counsel:
The FTC’s pursuit of companies purportedly engaged in telemarketing scams is nothing new, but its recent settlement with a company that allegedly assisted a fraudulent telemarketer by providing a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service is the first of its kind. VoIP is a technology that allows a company to make voice calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular (or analog) phone line. VoIP services can make telemarketing more efficient and cheaper—particularly for autodialing and sending prerecorded messages. These features make it an attractive option for both legitimate and fraudulent telemarketers alike.
On July 29, 2019, the FTC and the Ohio attorney general sued Educare Center Services, Inc. (Educare), among other related entities and individuals, for engaging in an alleged telemarketing scheme that falsely promised consumers that Educare could significantly reduce the interest rate on consumers’ credit cards, along with a 100% money back guarantee. Educare collected payments from consumers using Remotely Created Payment Orders (RCPOs), in direct contravention of the Telemarketing Sales Rule.
The past five years have seen a major uptick in FTC enforcement against alleged charity fundraising scams, along with increased multi-state coordination in this space. Regular readers of this blog already know that, by having read this, this, this, and this. On September 15, 2020, the FTC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against fundraiser Outreach Calling, its owner and principal Mark Gelvan, two other related organizations, and three additional individuals. The attorneys general of New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Minnesota joined the FTC as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Alongside their complaint, the FTC and states filed proposed stipulated orders against each of the defendants.
The FTC and states allege that the defendants engaged in deceptive telemarketing campaigns on behalf of numerous (and now defunct) “sham” charities. According to the complaint, the Outreach Calling entities induced tens of millions of dollars in charitable donations by telling donors that the recipient charities provided assistance to particularly vulnerable populations, such as disabled and homeless veterans, breast cancer patients, law enforcement officers, and children. In fact, say the plaintiffs, the recipient charities spent very little of the money raised – in some cases only 1 or 2 percent of gross donations – on charitable programs. Instead, approximately 90 percent of the funds raised were paid to the Outreach Calling fundraisers; most of the remaining money funded the personal expenses of the charities’ principals.
The FTC and states brought causes of action under Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and state charity and anti-fraud laws. To resolve the litigation, the parties have agreed to enter into stipulated orders that permanently ban the defendants from charity fundraising and that impose a collective monetary judgment of approximately $58 million. As is typical in cases like this one, the monetary judgment will be suspended because of the defendants’ inability to pay it; however, each of them must surrender certain assets, and Mr. Gelvan will have to sell two homes and grant the FTC a lien and mortgage on three of his properties in order to secure his payment obligations under the proposed order.
The issue of what exactly is an autodialer, subject to the restrictions of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), may eventually be resolved. But for now, the outlook is much like the long-ago Brooklyn Dodger’s chance of winning the World Series: “Wait ‘Til Next Year.” On July 29, 2020, a divided, 2-1 panel in the Sixth Circuit issued its opinion in Allan v. Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, deepening the circuit split over the breadth of the TCPA. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit held that any device that dials from a stored list of numbers is sufficient to constitute an “automatic telephone dialing system” (“ATDS” or “autodialer”). This decision comes on the heels of the Supreme Court granting certiorari in Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid, setting the stage for the high court to, hopefully, not only resolve the split among the circuits, but produce a definition of an autodialer that permits the responsible and efficient generation of calls for a broad array of legitimate reasons—indeed in some cases emergency. (Interestingly, in Allan, the defendant opposed the plaintiffs’ motion to stay the appeal pending Duguid. That’s likely because the defendant had previously prevailed on the ATDS issue in the Eleventh Circuit a few months earlier in a consolidated appeal.)
In Allan, the plaintiffs received hundreds of unwanted calls and automated voice messages regarding student loan debt after they had requested to no longer be called; many of these calls delivered a prerecorded message as well. Plaintiffs sued alleging that they did not consent to the unwanted calls; the district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit addressed whether the Defendant’s calling platform constituted an ATDS where it created a calling list based on stored numbers and placed calls, connecting recipients to operators.
Today the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid where it will resolve a circuit split and decide the issue of whether an “automated telephone dialing system” (“ATDS” or “autodialer”) under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) encompasses any device that can “store” and “automatically dial” telephone numbers, even if the device does …
On Monday July 6, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc., in which a majority of the Court struck down and severed the 2015 Government Debt Exception (the Exception) to the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) but held that the balance of the TCPA was constitutional.
First, as oral argument in May indicated, the Court was brief in striking down the Exception as unconstitutional. A plurality of opinions found that the Exception was a content-based restriction that violated the First Amendment. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Kavanaugh and joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, and Justice Thomas, found the government’s arguments that the Exception was not content-based unpersuasive, but, instead, relied upon the Exception’s text, drawing a distinction based on the message a speaker is permitted to convey: “A robocall that says, ‘Please pay your government debt’ is legal. A robocall that says ‘Please donate to our political campaign’ is illegal. Because the law favors speech made for collecting government debt over political and other speech, the law is a content-based restriction on speech.” Given that the government conceded that it could not satisfy strict scrutiny for a content-based restriction, the majority struck down the Exception as unconstitutional.
First Data Merchant Services, LLC (First Data), and its former executive, Chi “Vincent” Ko, will pay $40.2 million to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that they ignored obvious warning signs of fraud and processed transactions for an array of scams that caused tens of millions of dollars in harm to consumers.
This action serves as a powerful reminder that the FTC seeks to hold processors and their independent sales organizations (ISOs) financially responsible for facilitating the unlawful conduct of merchants by enabling merchants to access the payments system to allegedly defraud consumers and launder card transactions. Just as noteworthy, the settlement agreed to by First Data may propel new industry standards for processors to formally oversee the merchant onboarding activities of ISOs given responsibility for underwriting merchant accounts.