Over the past several years, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) took an expansive view of its rules under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (“TCPA”). The TCPA bars certain calls, texts and faxes without prior express consent and requires disclosures and opt-out procedures. While the FCC and state attorney generals may enforce the TCPA, the law’s truth “teeth” come in the form of private lawsuits where statutory damages allow up to $1500 per call/text/fax advertisement. Organizations in every industry, including hospitality, financial services, retail, and healthcare, have settled TCPA lawsuits for millions of dollars.
Businesses viewed recent FCC rulings for the most part as pro-plaintiff, encouraging additional class action lawsuits. In July 2015, for instance, the FCC issued an “omnibus” declaratory ruling in which it expanded certain definitions and interpreted the TCPA in ways seen as empowering the plaintiffs’ bar. However, the FCC’s TCPA rules do not go unchecked, as they are subject to challenge in the courts. The D.C. Circuit recently sent a message to the FCC, ruling in Bais Yaakov of Spring Valley v. Federal Communications Commission that the agency’s 2006 rule requiring an opt-out notice on “solicited” facsimile advertisements ignored clear statutory language. The D.C Circuit’s ruling demonstrates that the court will invalidate FCC rules and interpretations when the agency exceeds statutory authority, even if the FCC may think it is making good policy. It also suggests that the D.C. Circuit may be ready to give a defiant “thumbs down” to significant parts of the FCC’s July 2015 order. A decision is expected on that appeal at any time and we anticipate that the D.C. Circuit will invalidate several aspects of that ruling. This action would have a tremendous impact on pending TCPA litigation and may curb the TCPA gravy train on which several class action firms have already ridden.
The TCPA, as amended by Congress through the Junk Fax Prevention Act, prohibits (among other things) sending an unsolicited advertisement to a fax machine. An “unsolicited advertisement,” as defined in the TCPA is “any material advertising the commercial availability or quality of any property, goods, or services which is transmitted to any person without that person’s prior express invitation or permission, in writing or otherwise.” Thus, the law allows fax advertisements transmitted with permission (“solicited faxes”). The law also contains another exception to the unsolicited fax advertisement ban where there is an established business relationship with the recipient (“EBR faxes”), provided the recipient voluntarily communicated the fax number or made it available, and a conspicuous opt-out notice meeting certain statutory requirements appears on the fax.
In 2006, the FCC ruled that “solicited” faxes – i.e. those fax advertisements for which the sender received prior consent – require the opt-out notice and associated opt-out procedures. The TCPA, in contrast, only mandates the opt-out notice for the EBR faxes. The 2006 ruling resulted in litigation against companies like Anda (a generic drug seller) that had permission to fax advertisements. Anda had valid permission from pharmacies to fax advertisements regarding time-sensitive topics such as pricing information and weekly specials. Plaintiffs nevertheless sued Anda in a $150 million class action lawsuit because Anda allegedly had not included the opt-out notice. Anda subsequently sought a ruling from the FCC clarifying that solicited faxes did not require the opt-out.
In the category of “sometimes when you ask, you get the answer you don’t want,” the FCC ruled that the opt-out notice applied to solicited and EBR faxes. However, the FCC stated it would waive application for faxes sent before April 30, 2015. The two Republican commissioners (including now Chairman Pai) vigorously dissented. Anda then appealed to the D.C. Circuit.
Late last month, the D.C. Circuit vacated the 2006 solicited fax rule and remanded it to the agency. The court focused on the TCPA’s statutory language, noting that the opt-out notice requirement only appears in the EBR fax provision. “Although the Act requires an opt-out notice on unsolicited fax advertisements, the Act does not require a similar opt-out notice on solicited fax advertisements…Nor does the Act grant the FCC authority to require opt-out notices on solicited fax advertisements.” The appeals court concluded that the case was quite simple – the FCC can only take action that Congress authorized. Congress did not authorize an opt-out notice requirement for solicited fax advertisements. Under an existing rule, senders must still allow recipients to opt-out if they no longer want to receive solicited faxes. But the FCC cannot require the opt-out notice on those solicited fax advertisements. Consequently, companies should not be liable under the TCPA for not including the opt-out notice on solicited fax advertisements.
While the FCC understandably wants to protect consumers and businesses from unsolicited calls, texts, and faxed advertisements – the agency must respect its authority and the limits to that authority. In other words, the FCC cannot choose how the TCPA “should” read. Congress made that choice.
With TCPA litigation continuing to explode, this ruling provides some comfort that the FCC will not go unchecked in its recent, broad TCPA interpretations. And, with the high stakes appeal of the 2015 Omnibus Ruling pending before the same court, there are strong signs that the D. C. Circuit will push the FCC back on its expansive interpretations of autodialer and liability for calls to reassigned numbers, among other challenged rules. Companies involved in ongoing TCPA litigation involving the challenged interpretations may want to seek stays from their courts or arbitrators pending the outcome of the next appeal.
TCPA Trouble Continues: FCC Slams Lyft and First National Bank for Terms of Service Requiring Consent
Most of the attention involving the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) has centered on the stream of class actions around the country. It is important to remember that the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) and state attorney generals can, and do, enforce the TCPA. In fact, the FCC recently issued citations to Lyft, the ride-sharing service, and First National Bank (“FNB”). Under the Communications Act, before the FCC may issue monetary penalties against a company or person that does not hold an FCC license or authorization, it must first issue a citation warning the company or person.
The TCPA requires prior express written consent for telemarketing calls/texts to mobile phones utilizing an autodialer or prerecorded call and for prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential lines. FCC rules mandate that the “prior written consent” contain certain key features. Among these requirements is the disclosure informing the consenting person that “the person is not required to sign the agreement – directly or indirectly – or agree to enter into an agreement as a condition of purchasing any property, goods, or services.”
For years, the FCC focused on actual consumer complaints of having received telemarketing calls/texts without the required prior express written consent. Interestingly, here, the FCC did not allege that either Lyft or FNB sent texts/robocalls without the required consent. The FCC’s accompanying press release indicates that its Enforcement Bureau initiated the two investigations after becoming aware of “violative provisions in those companies’ service agreements.” The citations issued to Lyft and FNB, along with recent correspondence by the FCC to Paypal concerning similar issues, represent new FCC attention on terms/conditions of service in the TCPA context, particularly on “blanket take it or leave it” agreements. The FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief, Travis LeBlanc, put all companies on notice, urging “any company that unlawfully conditions its service on consent to unwanted marketing calls and texts to act swiftly to change its policies.” The FCC directed Lyft and FNB to take “immediate steps” to comply with FCC rules and the TCPA – presumably meaning that the companies should immediately revise their terms and practices.
According to the FCC, Lyft’s terms require customers to expressly consent to receive communications from Lyft to customer’s mobile numbers, including text messages, calls, and push notifications. The messages could include Lyft-provided promotions and those of third party partners. The terms advise customers that they can opt-out by following the “unsubscribe” option, and that customers are not required to consent to receive promotional messages as a condition of using the Lyft platform or the services.
However, the FCC found that contrary to Lyft’s terms of service, Lyft does not actually provide “unsubscribe options” for consumers. If a consumer independently searches and gets to Lyft’s “help center,” the only option to opt-out subsequently prevents consumers from using Lyft’s service. Thus, per the FCC, “Lyft effectively requires all consumers to agree to receive marketing text messages and calls on their mobile phones in order to use services.”
The FCC concluded that while Lyft’s terms of service stated that consumers were not required to consent as a condition to using Lyft, in actuality, consumers could not refuse consent and remain Lyft users. Thus, the FCC cited Lyft, warning that it would be liable for any advertising text messages for which it did not collect proper, prior express written consent. The agency further stated that it would continue to monitor Lyft’s practices.
In FNB’s investigation, the FCC noted that consumers wishing to use FNB’s online banking services are required to agree to receive text messages and emails for marketing purposes at consumer-provided phone numbers. FNB customers wishing to enroll in the Apply Pay service are similarly required to consent to receive marketing-related text messages and emails. The FCC objected to FNB requiring consumers to agree to receive marketing text messages in order to use the online banking and Apple Pay services, and failing to inform consumers that they have the option to refuse consent. The agency reiterated that under FCC rules, prior express written consent to receive telemarketing messages requires that, among other things, consumers receive a clear and conspicuous disclosure informing the consumer of his or her right to refuse to provide consent.
When it comes to autodialed/prerecorded telemarketing calls and texts to mobile phones and prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential lines, companies need to be diligent in ensuring they have proper, defensible prior express written consent. The FCC’s citations to Lyft and FNB make clear that organizations may not rely on blanket mandatory opt-in agreements. While it may be acceptable to seek consent in terms of service, consumers must be informed of their opt-out abilities, and must be able to access the opt-out and still use the service or make the purchase.
Companies should review their service agreements and the operational mechanisms to make sure consumers have information on opting-out. Further, any opt-out mechanisms must work as promised. A user’s opt-out should not block services/purchases. Of course, the best way to obtain consent is to seek a separate, prior express written consent in an agreement that contains all the required elements, as follows:
- Is in writing (can be electronic);
- Has the signature (can be electronic) of the person who will receive the advertisement/telemarketing calls or texts;
- Authorizes the caller to deliver advertisements or telemarketing messages via autodialed calls, texts, or robocalls;
- Includes the telephone number to which the person signing authorizes advertisements or telemarketing messages to be delivered;
- Contains a clear and conspicuous disclosure informing the person signing that:
- By executing the agreement, the person signing authorizes the caller to deliver ads or telemarketing messages via autodialed calls, texts or robocalls; and
- The person signing the agreement is not required to sign the agreement (directly or indirectly) or agree to enter into such an agreement as a condition of purchasing any property, goods, or services.
As a reminder, the FCC repeatedly takes the position that the company claiming prior express written consent will bear the burden of providing that consent.
In what could become the largest ever settlement in a case brought in the 22 year history of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), Capital One and three collection agencies agreed to pay over $75 million into a settlement fund to settle a consolidated class action lawsuit alleging that the companies used an automatic telephone dialing system (“ATDS”) or prerecorded voices to call more than 21 million consumers’ cell phones without their consent.
Although the settlement covers several different lawsuits that were consolidated, the allegations in those suits are largely the same. The plaintiffs alleged that Capital One and the other defendants violated the TCPA by using an ATDS or prerecorded voices to call the plaintiffs about debt collection. Debt collection calls are treated differently than other telemarketing calls under the TCPA, but still require a prior express consent from the consumer. The plaintiffs alleged that no consent was ever obtained by the defendants.
Capital One and the three collection agencies are not admitting any liability in the litigation. The settlement agreement also requires the defendants to conform their telemarketing practices and procedures to comply with the TCPA. Capital One has already developed and implemented changes to its calling systems designed to prevent future violations of the TCPA.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois offered its preliminary approval of the settlement last week and it must still be given final approval. The final approval hearing is scheduled for December 2, 2014. Opposition to the settlement terms and size could emerge in the meantime.
This settlement is a valuable reminder of the expensive consequences that can occur if a company’s marketing practices are not closely monitored for compliance with applicable laws. TCPA litigation has been . Settlements like the one in this case will further encourage plaintiff’s attorneys to bring additional cases. All companies should review their calling campaigns – whether telemarketing, appointment setting, customer service, debt collection, or otherwise to ensure RCPA compliance. With more and more consumers opting to rely on mobile phone over residential lines, it is increasingly important to obtain prior consent for autodialed or prerecorded calls to mobile lines.
In a recent case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, the district court held that the plaintiff’s Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) claim should be dismissed. The court ruled that the plaintiff gave prior express consent when she agreed to the terms of her health insurance plan, which stated that the company could share her number with other businesses who work for the plan.
The plaintiff Suzy Elkins enrolled to receive prescription benefit management services through a group plan offered by her employer. The plaintiff then reenrolled after her employer changed plans to receive prescription management services from the Defendant, Medco Health Solutions, Inc. (“Medco”) through Coventry Health of Missouri (“Coventry”). On the reenrollment form, Elkins provided her cell phone number as her home phone number and certified that the information she provided was true and accurate. Ms. Elkins refilled several prescriptions using Medco’s retail pharmacy network.
Elkins filed a complaint alleging that the automated and prerecorded calls she received from Medco through her enrollment in her employer’s health insurance plan, Coventry, violated the TCPA’s prohibition on autodialed/prerecorded calls to mobile phones and the federal “do not call” rules. Elkins had registered her number in the federal do not call database. Elkins alleged that Medco called her cell phone twice utilizing autodialed, prerecorded calls in an attempt to sell prescription medications. Medco claimed that it was attempting to make Elkins aware of certain pharmacy benefits, such as obtaining refills at reduced prices. Both parties disputed whether the calls were actually autodialed or prerecorded, and the court did not address that issue.
Instead, the district court found that the plaintiff’s TCPA claim was barred because she gave her express prior consent to be called at the number she provided when she gave that number at the time of enrollment as hercontact number related to healthcare benefits. The court noted that the Certificate of Coverage that the plaintiff agreed to with Coventry stated that Coventry could use or share her personal information with “other businesses who work for the Plan . . . [t]o tell you about treatment options or health related services.” The Certificate of Coverage also provided that members have certain rights including the right to ask for restrictions.However, the plaintiff never provided notice requesting that she not be contacted at that number with respect to her health benefits.
The court concluded that the calls that were the basis of the complaint were made by a pharmacy benefits specialist on behalf of her existing health plan regarding the pharmacy benefits she was receiving on an ongoing basis. The court reasoned that the provision of her cell phone number reasonably evidenced prior express consent by the plaintiff to be contacted at that number regarding pharmacy benefits.
The district court also found that the plaintiff had an established business relationship with the defendant which barred liability under the “do not call” rules. The court held that it was uncontroverted that there was an established business relationship since the plaintiff had utilized Medco’s prescription benefit management services to fill twelve prescriptions in a six month period before the calls that served as the basis for the complaint.
This decision represents a victory for TCPA defendantsin that the court found that prior express consent was given by the plaintiff when she gave her phone number and agreed to the terms of the Certificate of Coverage, which authorized Coventry to share her phone number. TCPA litigation has been increasing significantly in the past few years. While this court did not address the recent changes that have gone into effect that placed stricter requirements on businesses that engage in marketing via mobile messaging and prerecorded telephone calls, this decision does serve as guidance for consent, at least to non-telemarketing calls.
It is unclear whether the consent in this case would pass muster as “prior express written” consent for prerecorded or autodialed telemarketing calls to mobile phones and residential lines under the new rules, but since the calls at issue in this case predated the new rules the court did not need to address that point. We recommend businesses obtain “prior express written” consent for TCPA-covered calls and texts, consistent with the requirements under the new rules. It is important to note, however, this this court acknowledged that express consent can be extended to third parties through the plaintiff’s agreement to the terms if those terms are sufficiently broad to cover third parties. Finally, for non-autodialed or prerecorded telemarketing calls to mobile phone and live telemarketing calls to residential lines, this case is a useful reminder that an existing business relationship still constitutes a valid defense.
Congress enacted the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) to protect consumers from unwanted telemarketing, fax marketing, and prerecorded/auto-dialed phone calls. Recently, there has been an explosion in TCPA litigation, including class action litigation. In response, several parties have asked the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) to clarify certain of the agency’s TCPA rules to provide relief from TCPA liability in certain enumerated circumstances. Two recent FCC rulings allow certain business communications under the TCPA.
The Cargo Airline Association (“CAA”), a trade association representing companies that deliver packages, filed a petition seeking clarification of the TCPA’s application to auto-dialed or prerecorded package delivery notification calls made to consumers’ wireless phones. The CAA asserted that the FCC should recognize the public interest in receiving time sensitive package notifications. Revised FCC rules that went into effect in October generally require that the sender of prerecorded or auto-dialed calls and text messages to mobile numbers have prior consent from the recipient to receive such calls and texts. If the calls or texts constitute telemarketing, prior express written consent is required.
The FCC granted the CAA’s request to exempt its notifications to consumers subject to certain conditions. In the order, the FCC observed that these notifications “are the types of normal, expedited communications the TCPA was not designed to hinder . . . we believe that consumers generally desire, expect, and benefit from, package delivery notifications.” The FCC order requires that the text messages must be sent only to the telephone number provided by the package recipient, and identify the name and include the contact information of the delivery company sending the message. Furthermore, the FCC’s order limits companies to sending one text message per package per delivery attempt. The notifications also cannot contain any advertising content and must provide consumers the ability and information on how to easily opt out of receiving future notifications.
In the second ruling, the FCC granted a petition by GroupMe concerning how consent is obtained. GroupMe is an app that allows users to create text message based group chats. A user who wants to create a group chat using GroupMe’s service must register with GroupMe and agree to its terms of service. The terms of service require the group creator to represent that each individual added to the group chat has consented to receive the text messages. In its petition to the FCC, GroupMe asked the FCC to clarify that consent to receive certain calls or text messages could be given through an intermediary, such as a group chat organizer.
The FCC granted GroupMe’s petition allowing for consent to be obtained through an intermediary. Interestingly, the FCC acknowledged in its order that “the TCPA is ambiguous as to how a consumer’s consent to receive an auto-dialed or prerecorded non-emergency call should be obtained.” However, the FCC stressed that this ruling does not mitigate the duty to obtain prior express consent of the called party. Further, a company can still be held liable even when relying on the assertion of an intermediary that a consumer has consented. The order states that, “[w]e further clarify that where the consumer has agreed to participate in a GroupMe group, agreed to receive associated calls and texts, and provided his or her wireless telephone number to the group organizer for that purpose, the TCPA’s prior express consent requirement is satisfied with respect to both GroupMe and the group members regarding that particular group, but only regarding that particular group.” Companies seeking to obtain consent through an intermediary should consider this potential liability when deciding if, or how to, rely on consent given by an intermediary. Companies may want to consider contractual representations and warranties and indemnifications where a third party obtains consent.
These two orders by the FCC represent positive news for businesses that utilize texts and prerecorded/auto-dialed communications. The orders eliminate some of the uncertainty surrounding compliance with the TCPA in the circumstances addressed by the FCC. While the agency has taken numerous enforcement actions against TCPA violators and promulgated strict rules, these recent rulings indicate that the FCC recognizes that there are circumstances in which strict interpretations of the TCPA and/or FCC rules do not comport with the realities of business communications. Companies should note, however, that these rulings are limited to the particular situations presented by the petitioners. Due to the enormous potential liability for violating the TCPA, companies should continue to review their policies and practices and make sure they are in compliance with all regulations before initiating any covered TCPA communications, including prerecorded and auto-dialed calls and texts to mobile phones, prerecorded telemarketing to residential lines, facsimile advertising, and live telemarketing.
A federal court in California recently ruled that a plaintiff who was required to enter her phone number to purchase a plane ticket online had consented to receive a text message, and dismissed her claim under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). A plaintiff’s prior express consent is a major issue in TCPA litigation and this decision represents a victory for companies that obtain phone numbers from consumers who are purchasing goods or services from them.
The plaintiff, Shaya Baird, booked flights online for herself and her family on the Hawaiian Airlines website. During the purchase, Baird was required to enter her contact information. The website required at least one phone number, which Baird provided by entering her mobile phone number. A few weeks later Baird received a text message inviting her to reply “yes” if she wanted to receive flight notification services. Baird did not respond and she did not receive any more text messages.
Baird then filed suit alleging that Sabre, which contracted with Hawaiian Airlines to provide traveler notification services to passengers, violated the TCPA by sending her the unsolicited text message. The TCPA bars the sending of autodialed or prerecorded “calls” (which the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has interpreted to include text messages) to mobile numbers without “prior express consent.” An individual’s granting of consent to receive texts constitutes an affirmative defense in a TCPA lawsuit.
Sabre moved for summary judgment on the ground that Baird consented to receive its text message when she made her flight reservation on the Hawaiian Airlines website. Baird responded that she did not voluntarily provide her cell phone number, but was instead told that she was required to enter a phone number. She further argued that she was not informed that by providing her cell phone number she was consenting to receiving text messages.
The court rejected Baird’s argument and found that although she was required to provide her phone number to book a flight on the Hawaiian Airlines website, the act of providing her phone number was a voluntary act. Baird was not forced to book a flight on the Hawaiian Airlines website. The court found that under the FCC’s interpretation of the TCPA, Baird had consented to be contacted on her cell phone about flight related matters. The court looked to the FCC’s 1992 Order implementing the TCPA to determine if the act of providing a cell phone number in connection with a transaction constitutes the required consent under the TCPA to receive autodialed calls. The court found that since it was undisputed that Baird “knowingly released” her cell phone number when she booked her tickets, under the FCC’s 1992 TCPA Order she had consented to receiving text messages.
This decision represents a victory for TCPA defendants. TCPA litigation has been increasing significantly in the past few years and recent changes have gone into effect that placed stricter requirements on businesses that engage in marketing via mobile messaging and prerecorded telephone calls. While we recommend businesses obtain “prior express written” consent for TCPA-covered calls and texts, now at least one court has recognized the knowing provision of a mobile number as consent. However, companies engaging in text messaging should proceed cautiously as the new rules do impose strict requirements when it comes to telemarketing messages in particular, different from the informational text messages Ms. Baird received here. Under the new TCPA rules purely informational calls/texts and calls/texts to mobile phones for non-commercial purposes require prior express consent – oral or written. “Telemarketing” calls/texts to mobile phones require prior express written consent. Covered telemarketing calls include those made by advertisers that offer or market products or services to consumers and calls that are generally not purely informational (such as “mixed messages” containing both informational content and offering a product, good, or service for sale).
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently ruled that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) does not violate the First Amendment by requiring robocallers to identify themselves when making calls.
Three months before the Maryland gubernatorial election in 2010, political consultant Julius Henson and his company Universal Elections, Inc., were hired to assist with efforts for the Republican candidate. On Election Day, Universal Elections made 112,000 robocalls to voters that did not identify the campaign as the source of the message, nor did the calls include the campaign’s phone number. The State of Maryland filed a civil suit against Henson and Universal Elections for violating the TCPA. The state alleged that the defendants violated the TCPA by failing to identify the campaign as the sponsor of the message as required under the statute.
The TCPA and its implementing regulations require that automated and prerecorded messages state clearly at the beginning of the message the identity of the business, individual, or other entity that is responsible for initiating the call. If a business or other corporate entity is responsible, the prerecorded voice message must contain that entity’s official business name. In addition, the telephone number of the business must be provided either during or after the prerecorded voice message. This disclosure applies regardless of the content of the message.
Political calls are exempt from some of the TCPA’s requirements, but other requirements do apply — including the disclosure requirement at issue here and the restrictions on autodialed or prerecorded calls or texts to wireless phones, which require prior express consent. Last year the Federal Communications Commission issued an enforcement advisory regarding political robocalls to cellphones and cited two marketing companies for making millions of illegal robocalls.
In its supplemental motion to dismiss, the defendants asserted a First Amendment defense, arguing that the TCPA is a content-based burden on political speech that cannot withstand a high strict-scrutiny standard of review. The United States intervened to defend the constitutionality of the TCPA. The district court ruled in favor of Maryland, holding that the TCPA withstands First Amendment challenges, and granted a $1 million judgment in favor of the state.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court. The appeals court had previously issued the opinion in July, but as an unpublished opinion. The court issued an order amending its previous opinion to change it to a published opinion after a request from the government that it be published.
The Fourth Circuit held that the TCPA provisions requiring all automated and prerecorded telephone messages to disclose the source of the message are content-neutral and thus subject to an intermediate scrutiny level of review. Content-neutral laws that regulate speech are valid if they further a substantial governmental interest. The Fourth Circuit noted that at least three important governmental interests are advanced by the TCPA’s identity disclosure provision, including protecting residential privacy, promoting disclosure to avoid misleading recipients of recorded calls, and promoting effective law enforcement. Since the TCPA advances important governmental interests and the appellants did not raise an argument to the contrary, the Fourth Circuit affirmed that the TCPA’s identity disclosure provisions are constitutional.
TCPA litigation continues to increase, and potential liability can be significant. All businesses should review their TCPA compliance policies carefully to ensure that their procedures and scripts comply with all requirements. In addition to the identification requirements that have been in effect for many years, companies should make sure that they are prepared for the upcoming TCPA rule changes. These changes will require a called party’s prior express written consent for autodialed or prerecorded calls to wireless phone numbers and for prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential lines, among other requirements.
Since 2003, online marketers and merchants have been gathering twice a year to take part in the Affiliate Summit Conferences. In recent years, Ifrah Law has become a fixture at these shows, and our associate Rachel Hirsch is not only widely recognized as the face of the Ifrah Law Power Booth station, but also as a well-respected and preferred attorney counseling online advertisers on compliance-related matters and representing them in nationwide litigation.
After Rachel recently returned from this year’s Affiliate Summit East conference in Philadelphia, we interviewed her about new and emerging trends at this conference and in the industry.
Q. What struck you about the crowd at the conference this year?
A. In addition to the new venue, there were plenty of new faces at the conference this year. Surprisingly, however, despite the conference’s name, there weren’t as many affiliates there as there have been in the past. Traditionally, affiliates, sometimes known as “publishers,” are independent third-parties who generate or “publish” leads either directly for an advertiser or through an affiliate network. This year, with a reported crowd of about 4,000 people, the conference included more individuals representing networks, brokers, and online merchants than affiliates. (Official conference statistics bear this out. Only 29 percent of attendees were affiliates.)
Q. What about vendors?
A. According to the organizers, one out of every 10 people there was a vendor. The term “vendor,” however, is something of a misnomer. A vendor can be another term for an online merchant – someone who is actually selling a product on the market – or it can be a generic category for marketers who do not fit into the traditional categories of affiliates, merchants, or networks.
Q. What new industry trends did you notice?
At every conference, one or two markets always seem to have a dominant presence. At the Las Vegas conference in January, there was a large turnout of marketers in the online dating space. This year, two different markets emerged– diet/health and downloads.
Some of the exhibitors this year were manufacturers of neutraceuticals, which can include weight-loss products or testosterone-boosting products. The trend seems to be for online marketers to “white label” or “private label” neutraceuticals from bigger manufacturers. What this means is that online marketers or advertisers actually attach their brand names to a product and product label that they purchase from a manufacturer, either based on their own formulations or based on the manufacturer’s product specifications. Well-known products that would fall into this category include Raspberry Ketone, Green Coffee Bean, and Garcinia Cambogia.
There were also a lot of individuals and companies there in the so-called “download” space. This often means the use of browser plug-ins that the consumer can download himself or herself. These can install targeted advertising (often pop-ups or pop-under ads) on an existing web page.
Q. Are there any risks involved in private labeling?
A. Definitely. If your name is on the label, it doesn’t matter that you didn’t manufacture the product. Your company and your label are subject to FTC scrutiny to the extent that you make claims about the product that you cannot substantiate. And beyond that, the Food and Drug Administration will also flex its enforcement power to the extent you or your manufacturer fail to institute good manufacturing practices, or “GMPs.” While many companies claim that they are GMP-certified, many do not have practices and processes in place to account for defective product batches, serious adverse events resulting from product use, or product recalls.
Q. What are some other hot areas of enforcement by the federal government?
A. Well, how you market your product may be as closely scrutinized as the underlying message. Online marketers who make outbound calls to consumers, or who engage third-party vendors (such as call centers) to make these calls can run afoul of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Under the TCPA, anyone who calls customers without their express advance consent, or who hires anyone else to do so, can be hit with a $500 fine for each violation. That adds up, and the TCPA can be enforced by the Federal Communications Commission or by private plaintiffs. Upcoming changes in the TCPA, which will be effective in October 2013, make it even harder to stay on the right side of the law.
Q. How would you put it all together as far as the legal issues?
A. It’s not just the FTC any more. These days, online marketers need to be aware of other agencies with broad enforcement powers, such as the CFPB, the FDA, and the FCC. And don’t forget about the threat of private consumer litigation.
On August 22, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled unanimously that under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), consumers may withdraw their consent to have robo-callers call them. The full text of the opinion is available here.
The appeals court ruled in favor of Ashley Gager, who was contacted by Dell Financial Services after she revoked her prior express consent to be contacted. In 2007, Gager applied for a line of credit from Dell, which she received and upon which she later defaulted. Gager’s application for a credit line required that she provide her home phone number. In that place in the application she listed her cell phone number. After she defaulted on her credit line, Dell began calling Gager from an automated telephone dialing system. In 2010, Gager sent Dell a letter listing her phone number, which she did not indicate was a cell number, asking Dell not to call her anymore. Gager alleged that after receiving her letter, Dell called her cell phone using an automated dialing system approximately 40 times over a three week period. The TCPA, among other things, bars companies from using an automatic telephone dialing system or a prerecorded voice to call mobile phones, absent prior express consent or an emergency.
The district court granted Dell’s motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, holding that Gager could not revoke her prior express consent to receive calls. The district court held that because Dell did not qualify as a “debt collector,” the revocation rules under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) did not apply. Thus, the court reasoned that since the revocation rules were inapplicable and the TCPA is silent on revocation of consent, such a right did not exist. The court also noted that the Federal Communications Commission, which has the power to implement rules and regulations under the TCPA, had not issued any advisory opinions at the time that specifically addressed the right to revoke consent.
The Third Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling and found that consumers do have a right to revoke consent. The court rejected Dell’s argument that because the TCPA is silent as to whether a consumer may revoke consent to be contacted via an autodialing system, such a right to revoke did not exist. The Third Circuit’s opinion emphasized that the TCPA is a remedial statute that was passed to protect consumers from unwanted calls and should be construed to benefit consumers. Preventing consumers from revoking their consent to receive calls would not be consistent with the purpose of the statute.
The Third Circuit also noted that the FCC issued a declaratory ruling In the Matter of Rules and Regulations Implementing the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, SoundBite Communications Inc., after the district court dismissed Gager’s claim, which primarily addresses other issues under the TCPA, but also touched on the issue of the right of consumers to revoke express consent. The SoundBite decision notes that neither the text of the TCPA, nor the legislative history, directly addresses how prior express consent can be revoked, but also notes that “consumer consent to receive . . . messages is not unlimited.” The Third Circuit relied on the SoundBite decision in finding that a consumer may revoke informed consent after it has been given and that there is no temporal limitation on the revocation period.
Dell will still be able to call Gager regarding her delinquent account, but the TCPA prohibits Dell from using an automated dialing system to do so, since the TCPA prohibits autodialed or prerecorded calls to mobile phones without express written consent (or in an emergency). Presumably, Dell can still contact Gager via live calls or through technology that does not amount to an automatic telephone dialing system.
In light of this decision in the Third Circuit, businesses should review their TCPA policies to ensure that they are complying with all rules and regulations. Additionally, on October 16, two additional changes to the TCPA rules will go into effect that impose stricter requirements on claiming exceptions to TCPA liability and all TCPA policies should be reviewed to account for these changes. Businesses should also specifically review their TCPA policies to endure that there is a procedure in place for consumers to opt out of receiving calls and text messages, even if they have previously provided consent. Taking and respecting opt-out requests is an important compliance practice that, if not followed, can lead to significant litigation — and potential damages and penalties.
On October 16, 2013, two changes will go into effect in the rules implementing the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Importantly, these rules impose stricter requirements on mobile messaging and prerecorded telemarketing calls. The rule changes, announced back in February 2012, may spur further litigation concerning the scope of the TCPA. All businesses should review the new requirements to ensure compliance or risk significant potential litigation expenses and negative publicity.
TCPA litigation has been increasing significantly in recent years. The number of TCPA-related cases filed in 2012 increased by 34 percent compared to 2011 and was more than three times the number of cases brought in 2010. Part of the reason fueling the uptick in TCPA litigation is the increasing use of mobile messaging, combined with the enormous potential damages possible under the statute. Every individual text, call or fax that is found to be in violation of the TCPA can result in damages from $500 to $1,500 and there is no limit on the number of violations that can be included in an individual suit. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and state attorney generals, as well as private litigants, may also enforce the TCPA.
Some major companies have been hit with significant penalties under the TCPA. In May, Papa John’s International agreed to pay $16.5 million as part of a settlement of a TCPA class action stemming from claims that the company sent unsolicited text messages to more than 200,000 people through a third-party marketer. Steve Madden and Domino’s Pizza have also both reached settlements this year agreeing to fines of nearly $10 million to settle TCPA claims.
The two changes going into effect in October are as follows. One exception from liability under the TCPA for phone calls or text messages using an autodialer or a prerecorded message is for those that are made with “prior express consent.” Under the new interpretation from the FCC of the prior consent exception, with limited exceptions, a business can only invoke the prior express consent exception for autodialed or prerecorded calls to a mobile phone or for prerecorded telemarketing calls to a residential line if the called party has physically or electronically signed an agreement that clearly authorizes calls or texts to be made to their phone number by that particular sender. Additionally, a recipient’s signing the agreement must be optional and cannot be tied to the purchase of any goods or services.
The other significant change to the TCPA rules is the elimination of the “established business relationship” exception for prerecorded telemarketing calls to residences. Previously, businesses could avoid TCPA liability for prerecorded telemarketing calls that otherwise were prohibited by claiming that they had an established business relationship with the consumer by virtue of a previous purchase or other business interactions. The new regulations have eliminated this exemption, meaning businesses are now required to obtain written consent for all prerecorded telemarketing to residential phone numbers, even those that are for previous customers. With this change, the FCC followed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which made a similar express consent requirement under the Telemarketing Sales Rule for prerecorded telemarketing calls a few years ago.
As some of the recent cases have shown, businesses can face enormous potential liability under the TCPA, including liability for actions of third-party marketers acting on behalf of them. The statistics demonstrate that plaintiffs’ lawyers are aggressively pursuing TCPA actions, and the changes in the rules may lead to yet more TCPA cases. Given the changes that will go into effect in October, businesses should review their TCPA policies to ensure that they are in compliance, so that they can avoid the possibility of paying onerous penalties.