FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed the creation of a comprehensive reassigned numbers database, addressing a significant compliance challenge under the TCPA. The TCPA’s prohibitions on the use of automatic telephone dialing systems (ATDS) allows calls to be made with the express consent of the recipient. However, as the Chairman noted in the press release announcing this proposal, millions of phone numbers are reassigned each year. Because businesses who have received prior express consent cannot rely on consumers to inform them of a reassignment, they risk violating the TCPA by placing any calls with an ATDS to those numbers after they have been reassigned.

The Chairman’s press release and proposed order recognize this challenge and outline the establishment of a database of all phone numbers that have been permanently disconnected (and that are therefore eligible for reassignment). With a single, comprehensive, and authoritative repository for this information, business callers can check the database and determine whether a recipient’s number has become eligible for reassignment. This will allow callers to know before placing an ATDS call whether the consumer who consented to receive calls still holds that phone number—and thus whether the prior express consent is still valid.

If approved by the FCC, the proposed order would establish a database based on information provided by phone companies obtaining geographic numbers from the North American Numbering Plan. Voice providers would report all permanently disconnected numbers (i.e., numbers that have thus become eligible for reassignment) on a monthly basis. The draft order would also require an aging period of 45 days before permanently disconnected numbers may be reassigned, ensuring that eligible numbers will be in the database before reassignment occurs. An independent third-party administrator would be responsible for managing the data with funding assessed from voice providers.

Although the TCPA compliance problems around reassigned numbers have existed for years, these issues took on new importance this year after the DC Circuit set aside two components of the FCC’s 2015 Declaratory Ruling and Order in ACA International v. FCC. The ACA International decision both eliminated the FCC’s one-call safe harbor for calls placed to reassigned numbers and set aside the FCC’s interpretation of “called party” to mean the current actual subscriber instead of the intended recipient, increasing the uncertainty faced by business callers. The FCC issued a notice seeking comments on this and other issues arising from the ACA International decision in April. This was followed later in the summer by a bipartisan letter from two U.S. Senators calling for the establishment of a reassigned number database, demonstrating consensus that a comprehensive solution to reassigned numbers is overdue.

While the establishment of a reassigned numbers database would certainly be a welcome development, it would not resolve all of the compliance challenges relating to reassigned numbers that resulted from ACA International. The chairman’s draft order establishing the database specifically says it would not address “how a caller’s use of this database would impact its potential liability under the TCPA for calls to reassigned numbers” but “that use of the database will be a consideration” when the FCC does address the other topics raised in the May 2018 notice.

We recently addressed these and other TCPA compliance developments on our podcast, including the FCC’s response to a number of other issues raised by the ACA International decision around what constitutes an ATDS and how a party can revoke prior express consent to receive calls.

The FCC is expected to vote on the Chairman’s database proposal at its next Open Commission Meeting on December 12.

Compliance with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act continues to present challenges to the financial services industry as a result of uncertain legal standards and contradictory court decisions.  In this week’s podcast, we discuss the key recent court decisions dealing with the TCPA’s autodialer definition and what the FCC is doing to provide further guidance to industry.  We’ll also talk about what new FCC guidance might say, how it will impact future court decisions, and strategies for defendants in TCPA litigation to consider using pending the FCC’s issuance of new guidance.   

To listen and subscribe to the podcast, click here.

 

 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued a notice asking for comment on what constitutes an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) under the TCPA following the Ninth Circuit’s September 20, 2018 decision in Marks v. Crunch San DiegoIn May 2018, the FCC issued a notice announcing that it was seeking comments on several TCPA issues following the D.C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC.  The FCC’s new notice states that it is now seeking comment “to supplement the record developed in response to our prior Public Notice.”  Comments are due by October 17, 2018 and reply comments are due by October 24, 2018.

In Marks, a unanimous Ninth Circuit three-judge panel held that the TCPA’s definition of an ATDS includes telephone equipment that can automatically dial phone numbers stored in a list, rather than just phone numbers that the equipment randomly or sequentially generates.  This decision departed sharply from the post-ACA International decisions by the Second and Third Circuits, which had narrowed the definition of an ATDS.

The TCPA defines an ATDS as equipment that “has the capacity—(1) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (2) to dial such numbers.”  The Ninth Circuit concluded that the statutory definition of an ATDS was “ambiguous on its face” regarding whether it is limited to devices with the capacity to call numbers produced by “a random or sequential number generator” or also includes devices with the capacity to store numbers and to dial such numbers automatically.

In its notice, the FCC states that the ACA International court “held that the TCPA unambiguously foreclosed any interpretation of the TCPA that ‘would appear to subject ordinary calls from any conventional smartphone to the Act’s coverage.’”  The FCC raises the following series of questions in an effort to obtain further comment on how to apply the ATDS statutory definition in light of Marks and “how that decision might bear on the analysis set forth in ACA International”:

  • To the extent the ATDS definition is ambiguous, how should the FCC exercise its discretion to interpret such ambiguities?
  • Does the Marks interpretation mean that any device with the capacity to dial stored numbers automatically is an ATDS?
  • What devices have the capacity to dial stored numbers and do smartphones have such capacity?
  • 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?

The FCC also asks for comment on any other issues addressed in Marks that it should consider in interpreting the ATDS definition.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has scheduled a hearing for tomorrow, August 16, titled “Oversight of the Federal Communications Commission.”  The Committee’s website indicates that the hearing will examine policy issues before the FCC and review the FCC’s ongoing duties and activities.

The witnesses scheduled to appear are the four sitting FCC Commissioners (Chairman Pai and Commissioners O’Reilly, Carr, and Rosenworcel).  The FCC’s response to the D.C. Circuit’s ACA International decision, particularly with regard to the TCPA robocall prohibition, is expected to be a significant focus of the hearing.

 

Two U.S. Senators, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, have sent a letter to FCC Chairman Pai to encourage the FCC to proceed with a rulemaking to create a database of reassigned telephone numbers.

The TCPA’s autodialed call prohibition excepts calls made “with the prior express consent of the called party.”  In its March 2018 decision in ACA International v. FCC, the D.C. Circuit set aside the FCC’s one-call safe harbor as well as its interpretation that the “called party” means the current subscriber rather than the intended recipient.

In April 2018, the FCC published a notice in the Federal Register seeking comment on a variety of issues relating to the creation of a reassigned numbers database, including how the ACA decision impacts its ability to create a safe harbor from TCPA liability for callers who voluntarily use such a database.

In their letter, the Senators discuss various features that should be part of a database, such as comprehensiveness, accuracy, and accessibility.  They also suggest that a safe harbor from TCPA liability for making calls to reassigned numbers may be appropriate where (1) the caller took all reasonable steps to properly use a reassigned numbers database, (2) the call to the reassigned number resulted from inaccurate information in the database, (3) the caller had the consent of the call’s intended recipient, and (4) the caller took appropriate steps to stop calling the reassigned number and reported the inaccuracy.

 

The FCC has issued a notice announcing that it is seeking comments on several TCPA issues following the D. C. Circuit’s decision in ACA International v. FCC.  Comments are due by June 13, 2018 and reply comments are due by June 28, 2018.

The FCC’s notice follows the filing of a petition by several industry trade groups seeking clarification of the TCPA’s definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” (ATDS) in light of the D.C. Circuit decision.  The FTC seeks comment on the issues described below.

  • What constitutes an ATDS
    • The TCPA defines an ATDS 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.” The D.C. Circuit reversed the FCC’s interpretation of “capacity” as overly expansive.  The FCC seeks comments “on how to more narrowly interpret the word ‘capacity’ to better comport with the congressional findings and intended reach of the statute.”
    • The FCC seeks comment on the functions a device must perform to qualify as an ATDS. The D.C. Circuit set aside the FCC’s interpretations regarding whether a device must be able to generate and dial random and sequential numbers to be an ATDS and whether a device must be able to dial numbers without human intervention to be an ATDS.  The court also noted that uncertainty was created by the FCC’s statement that another “basic function” of an ATDS is “to dial thousands of numbers in a short period of time.”  Among the questions asked by the FCC are whether, to be “automatic,” a system must dial numbers without human intervention and dial thousands of numbers in a short period of time (and, if so, what constitutes a short period of time).  It also asks whether a system can be an ATDS if it cannot dial random or sequential numbers.
    • The D.C. Circuit noted that the statutory prohibition on making calls using an ATDS raised the question of whether the prohibition only applies to calls made using a device’s ATDS functionality.  The FCC seeks comment on that question.
  • How to treat calls to reassigned numbers
    • The TCPA’s autodialed call prohibition excepts calls made “with the prior express consent of the called party.” The D.C. Circuit set aside the FCC’s one-call safe harbor as well as its interpretation that the “called party” means the current subscriber rather than the intended recipient.  The FCC seeks comment on how to interpret the term “called party” for calls to reassigned numbers.
  • How a called party can revoke prior express consent to receive calls
    • The D.C. Circuit upheld the FCC’s ruling that a called party can revoke consent to receive autodialed calls at a wireless number “at any time and through any reasonable means that clearly expresses a desire not to receive further messages.”  In response to concerns that the ruling would make it burdensome to adopt systems to implement revocations using methods chosen by consumers, the court observed that “callers will have every incentive to avoid TCPA liability by making available clearly-defined and easy-to-use opt-out methods” and that, if such methods were afforded to consumers, consumers’ use of  “idiosyncratic or imaginative revocation requests might well be seen as unreasonable.”  The FCC seeks comment on “what opt-out methods would be sufficiently clearly defined and easy to use such that ‘any effort to sidestep the available methods in favor of idiosyncratic or imaginative revocation requests might well be seen as unreasonable.'”  (In its 2017 Reyes decision, the Second Circuit held that TCPA consent cannot be revoked when it is part of the bargained-for exchange memorialized in the parties’ contract.)
  • Whether contractors acting on behalf of federal, state, and local government are “persons” under the TCPA (The issue as to federal contractors is raised by two pending petitions for reconsideration of the FCC’s 2016 Broadnet Declaratory Ruling.  The FCC states that it is seeking renewed comment on the petitions in light of the D.C. Circuit’s decision.)
  • The interplay between the Broadnet ruling and the 2015 TCPA amendment that removed a prior express consent requirement for autodialed calls ”made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.” The FCC asks whether its 2016 Federal Debt Collection Rules would apply to a federal contractor collecting a federal debt if a federal contractor is not a “person” under the TCPA.  (The FCC also seeks renewed comment on a pending petition for reconsideration of its 2016 Federal Debt Collection Rules because the issues raised in the petition include the applicability of the TCPA’s limits on calls to reassigned numbers and such limits were addressed by the D.C. Circuit.)

Ballard Spahr’s TCPA Team has deep experience in FCC comment letters and related filings.