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SIXTH CIRCUIT REJECTS HYPERTECHNICAL READING OF TCPA CONSENT REQUIREMENT

The Sixth Circuit recently joined the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Eleventh Circuit in holding that “prior express consent” can be obtained and conveyed via intermediaries. In Braisden v. Credit Adjustments, Inc., plaintiffs filed a putative class action contending that defendant violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) when it placed calls to their cell phone numbers using an automatic telephone dialing system and artificial or prerecorded voice in an attempt to collect a medical debt. Defendant did not dispute that it placed the calls or that it used an autodialer. Rather, defendant maintained that by virtue of giving their cell phone numbers to the hospital where they received medical care, plaintiffs gave their “prior express consent” to receive such calls. The district court entered summary judgment for defendant on this basis and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Specifically, plaintiffs had received medical care from a hospital which utilized the services of a third party anesthesiologist. When the anesthesiologist did not get paid, the anesthesiologist transferred the delinquent accounts to defendant for collection. Defendant contacted plaintiffs at the numbers provided by the anesthesiologist, which had received the numbers from the hospital. Notably, the plaintiffs had signed admission forms permitting the hospital to release their “health information” to third parties for purposes of “billing and payment” or “billing and collecting monies due.” Plaintiffs argued that because they had not given their numbers to defendant or the creditor on whose behalf it was calling, plaintiffs had not provided prior express consent to be called at those numbers. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, finding that the FCC held in a 2014 Declaratory Ruling that consent can be obtained and conveyed by intermediaries. The Sixth Circuit further found that cell phone numbers fell within the definition of “health information” under a logical reading of the admission forms and rejected plaintiffs’ narrow interpretation of a 2008 FCC Declaratory Ruling which stated that a number must be “provided during the transaction that resulted in the debt owed.” Relying on its own prior ruling on the matter, the Sixth Circuit found that “during the transaction that resulted in the debt owed” was to be read as only applying to the “ ‘initial transaction’ that creates the debt.” Thus, “consumers may give ‘prior express consent’ . . . when they provide a cell phone number to one entity as part of a commercial transaction, which then provides the number to another related entity from which the consumer incurs a debt that is part and parcel of the reason they gave the number in the first place.”

For more information on the Sixth Circuit’s decision, “prior express consent” or the TCPA generally, contact Katherine Olson at (312) 334-3444 or kolson@messerstrickler.com.

FLORIDA COURT HOLDS CONSENT ISSUE PRECLUDES CLASS CERTIFICATION IN TCPA CASE

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The Middle District of Florida recently denied class certification in a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) case where there was no “class-wide” proof as to whether proposed class members consented to automated calls to their cellular telephones. 

See

Shamblin v. Obama for Am.

, No 13-2428, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 54849 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 27, 2015).  In doing so, the court confirmed that the burden of proving critical issues are susceptible to class-wide proof falls on class-action plaintiffs regardless of whether defendants bear the ultimate burden of proving or disproving certain issues at trial (in this case consent).

The TCPA makes it illegal to call any telephone number assigned to a cellular telephone service using an automatic-telephone-dialing system or an artificial or pre-recorded voice, unless the consumer expressly consents to same.

 In

Shamblin

, plaintiff filed a putative class action against Obama for America after receiving two unsolicited auto-dialed calls to her cellular telephone.  In finding that the commonality, predominance and superiority requirements for class certification were not satisfied, the court reasoned that Plaintiff was “not entitled to a presumption that all class members failed to consent” despite a lack of documentary evidence of consent and “[d]efendants have a constitutional right to a jury determination as to whether any person consented to receiving calls to their cellular telephone.”   As there was no class-wide proof available to decide consent, individualized inquiries into consent (including where, how, and when) would predominate trial, precluding class certification.

The Shamblin decision indicates that class treatment may not be the appropriate mechanism for adjudicating TCPA disputes where individual determinations with respect to consent exist.  For more information on the Shamblin decision or the TCPA generally, contact Katherine Olson at 312-334-3444 or kolson@messerstrickler.com.

MOOTED TCPA CLAIM REVIVED IN SECOND ACTION AGAINST SAME DEFENDANTS

The Eastern District of New York recently held that a plaintiff’s TCPA claims were not precluded by the Southern District of Texas’ ruling that the same claims against the same defendants were mooted by a Rule 68 offer of judgment.  See Bank v. Spark Energy Holdings, No. 13-6130, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84493 (E.D.N.Y. June 20, 2014). 

The plaintiff alleged that he received telemarketing calls from defendants “using an artificial or prerecorded voice” without his prior express consent in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”).  He initially filed a class action suit in the Southern District of Texas, where after nearly two years of defending the case and prior to plaintiff moving for class certification, defendants made a Rule 68 offer of judgment offering plaintiff complete relief.  Although the plaintiff rejected the offer, the Texas court found that the offer rendered plaintiff’s claims moot because he no longer had a personal stake in the outcome of the litigation.  Accordingly, the Texas court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. 

Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff filed suit in the Eastern District of New York and asserted the same TCPA claims against the same defendants.  The defendants moved to dismiss the claims based on the preclusive effect of the Texas court’s ruling.  The New York court denied the motion to dismiss, reasoning that neither claim nor issue preclusion applied.  The New York court held that claim preclusion only applied if there was a final judgment on the merits in the prior action and that dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is generally not considered a final judgment on the merits.  The New York court further held that issue preclusion did not apply because an identical issue was not adjudicated in the prior action:

"I find that the identical issue is not presented here because the prior’ court’s determination of mootness relied on particular factual circumstances that are not the same as the facts presented in this suit.  In the Texas case, the court decided that plaintiff’s individual TCPA claim was moot because plaintiff had rejected a Rule 68 offer that would have provided complete relief on his claim.  In this suit, defendants have not made any Rule 68 offer, so the court is not presented with the same factual scenario.  Since the first requirement to establish issue preclusion is not satisfied, the Texas court’s prior finding of mootness does not require the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims as moot in this action."

While the New York judge did express sympathy for defendants’ position (having litigated plaintiff’s TCPA claim for almost two years in Texas, successfully moving to have the suit dismissed, and now facing the same TCPA claims in New York), she nevertheless found in favor of the plaintiff, stating: “[a] finding that a claim is moot in one case simply does not mean that claim is moot in all subsequent cases.”

While the opinion appears to undermine the goals that the mootness and preclusion doctrines were meant to serve, if this tactic gains traction, defendants should consider immediately making the same offer of judgment upon notice of the second lawsuit.  Defendants should also consider filing a motion to transfer venue to the first court rather than relitigating the mootness issue in the second court. 

For more information on the aforementioned case and the TCPA generally, contact Katherine Olson at (312) 334-3444 or kolson@messerstrickler.com.