On Friday, in a decision certain to please the business community as well as the Chair and new majority of the Federal Communications Committee, the D.C. Circuit struck down parts of the FCC’s October 30, 2014 Order, 29 F.C.C. Rcd. 13998 (FCC 14-164), requiring that solicited faxes (those sent with consent of the recipient) must contain opt-out notices in order to avoid violating the TCPA. See Bais Yaakov of Spring Valley, et al v. FCC (No. 14-1234). In a 2-1 decision, the majority held that the FCC lacked authority under the statute to regulate solicited faxes. The D.C. Circuit thus limits liability under the TCPA to just unsolicited fax advertisements, as its plain language states.
This ruling vindicates the two Republican FCC Commissioners, now Agency Chair Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Reilly, both of whom dissented in 2014 when the Commission’s fax Order was adopted. The ruling should also moot pending lawsuits based solely on the absence of an opt-out notice in faxes sent with the recipient’s express permission or invitation.
One caution is worth noting though. The decision does not eliminate the need to honor opt-out requests, thus creating a potential issue of fact for litigants. On the one hand, this should make it much harder for plaintiffs’ attorneys to succeed at class certification because whether any particular person opted out of receiving faxes is an individualized factual issue. On the other hand, however, it becomes harder for a defendant to refute a claim that a particular plaintiff revoked his or her consent before receiving an allegedly offending fax.
Under the FCC’s 2014 Order, onerous as the requirement to include an opt-out notice in every fax was, the business community had certainty as to what was required in communicating with customers or potential customers by fax. Now, it is incumbent on businesses to review their existing procedures or implement new procedures to defend against allegations that they have ignored or mishandled attempts by consumers to withdraw consent.
It is also worth pointing out that Bais Yaakov was argued before a three judge panel consisting of D.C. Circuit Judges Brett Kavanaugh and Nina Pillard, and Senior Circuit Judge Raymond Randolph on November 8, 2016. Oral argument in the all-important TCPA case ACA International, et al. v. FCC, also before the D.C. Circuit, was argued a few weeks earlier, on October 19, 2016, before Judges Pillard, Sri Srinivasan, and Harry Edwards. Now that Bais Yaakov has been decided, one can assume that decision in ACA cannot be far behind, and with it more certainty with respect to the definition of an “automatic telephone dialing system” and — hopefully — some much needed, practical relief, such as in the case of reassigned telephone numbers.
Before one starts uncorking the champagne, however, it is worth noting that Judge Pillard, the only judge on both the panel that heard Bais Yaakov and the panel that heard ACA, was the lone dissenter in the just decided fax case. In her dissent, Judge Pillard focused on consumer harm and the need to address what she referred to as “a fusillade of annoying and unstoppable advertisements.” In her view, Congress expressly delegated authority to the FCC to implement a prohibition on unsolicited fax advertisements, and the opt-out notice requirement gave practical effect to that ban.
In any event, it shouldn’t be long now until we see how Judge Pillard and the rest of the D.C. Circuit’s ACA panel weighs in on this ever-evolving area of the law.