The U.S. Supreme Court finally resolved a longstanding disagreement in the lower courts over what constitutes an automatic telephone dialing system under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA). The question, presented in Facebook Inc. v. Duguid, 141 S.Ct. 1163 (2021), was whether Facebook should be deemed to have used an autodialer under the TCPA because its platform has a security feature that sends users text messages to confirm authorized access to their accounts. The named plaintiff argued that Facebook's platform qualified as an autodialer and brought a putative class action against Facebook for sending unsolicited text messages.
An autodialer is defined in the TCPA as equipment that 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 resolution of the case turned on whether Congress' definition of an autodialer requires that in all cases, whether storing or producing numbers to be called, the equipment in question must use a random or sequential number generator. Due to a split of authority in the U.S. Courts of Appeals, the Supreme Court granted certiorari from the Ninth Circuit to decide the issue.
In reversing the Ninth Circuit's ruling, the Supreme Court read the TCPA's definition narrowly to say that an autodialer must have the capacity either to store a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator, or to produce a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator. In other words, the definition of an autodialer excludes equipment that does not use a random or sequential number generator. (The Supreme Court also rejected the idea that the focus of the Court’s inquiry should be on whether a device has the capacity to dial numbers without human intervention.)
Because the technology used by Facebook only sent automated text messages to numbers that had been stored on its database and did not use a random or sequential number generator, the Supreme Court held that Facebook did not use an autodialer under the TCPA.
The Supreme Court's decision in part relied on canons of interpretation and rules of sentence construction. However, the Supreme Court also explained that the TCPA was intended to target a unique type of telemarketing equipment. Expanding the definition of an autodialer to encompass any equipment that merely stores and dials telephone numbers would take a “chainsaw” to nuanced problems when Congress meant to use a “scalpel.” In practice, the Ninth Circuit's broader reading of an autodialer would mean that the TCPA's liability provisions (imposing statutory damages of $500 per violation) could affect ordinary cell phone owners in the course of commonplace usage, such as speed dialing or sending automated text message responses. This was not Congress' intent.
The Facebook decision has far ranging implications for the viability of pending and future TCPA cases. If you have questions regarding the impact of the Facebook decision or the TCPA on your business, please contact a member of the MMM litigation group.