The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has brought a bit of legal balance back to automated debt collection calls, and reminded lower courts that when it comes to claims under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), they must honor the validity of FCC rulings.
The 11th Circuit’s decision implicates a 2008 declaratory ruling by the FCC regarding automated debt collection calls under the TCPA. The TCPA and FCC rules implementing it prohibit autodialed and/or prerecorded calls to cell phones, unless there is prior express consent from the call recipient. The FCC’s Debt Collection Declaratory Ruling from early 2008 held that prior express consent exists where a consumer gives a company his/her cell phone number as part of a transaction, and the company later autodials/prerecorded-calls or texts the consumer in connection with a debt arising from that transaction.
In Mais v. Gulf Coast Collection Bureau, Mais alleged that defendants placed autodialed and/or prerecorded calls to his cellphone without consent, in violation of the TCPA. The calls followed from Mais’ emergency room treatment, during which his wife completed hospital admission documents and provided her husband’s cellphone number and other information. Defendants maintained before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida that the ensuing prerecorded calls to Mais to collect an outstanding balance arising from the emergency care were permissible under the FCC’s Debt Collection Declaratory Ruling.
The trial court granted partial summary judgment for Mais, ruling that the FCC’s ruling is inconsistent with the TCPA’s language. The trial court acknowledged that the Hobbs Act gives exclusive jurisdiction to federal Courts of Appeal to review final orders from the FCC. But it decided it had jurisdiction to review the FCC’s ruling, as the plaintiff’s chief purpose was not to attack the validity of the ruling itself, but to seek damages for defendants’ violations of the TCPA. Further, the district court held, regardless of whether the FCC’s Declaratory Ruling was in line with the TCPA, it was not applicable in the context of medical debts.
The district court’s ruling created concern that other courts could follow its lead, even though it flouted well-established law under the Hobbs Act. Fortunately, the Mais district court decision ultimately was rejected by virtually every court to which it was argued. But the case still served as bad precedent in south Florida.
The 11th Circuit’s reversal of the district court renders the prior Mais decision as no longer viable, even as an outlier. Applying traditional Hobbs Act analysis, the decision on appeal held that “the district court lacked the power to consider in any way the validity of the 2008 FCC Ruling.” It also held the FCC’s Debt Collection Declaratory Ruling controlled the outcome in this case, and reaffirmed that it covers medical debts, along with other debts more generally.
The 11th Circuit also expands upon the FCC Debt Collection Ruling in some respects, or at least establishes its logical extension, by holding it is not necessary for a debt collector to obtain the cellphone number directly from the called party. Specifically, the Court held it did not matter that Mais’ wife submitted admissions forms and his cellphone number to a treating hospital, or that a separate company that provided services to Mais at the hospital and that company’s debt collector obtained the cellphone number from the hospital to place the automated debt collection calls. Rather, the Court held, provision of a consumer’s cell phone number to a creditor (and/or its collection agent) can be through intermediaries – here, Mais’ wife acting for him, and the hospital acting for the entity that provided care to Mais.
Ultimately, the 11th Circuit’s ruling is a welcomed development that fosters uniformity on the issue of the Debt Collection Declaratory Ruling’s applicability, and the inability of district courts to reject it in situations where it should apply.