April 1, 2021

Supreme Court clarifies definition of automatic telephone dialing system under the TCPA

On April 1, 2021, the US Supreme Court, reversing a decision from the Ninth Circuit, ruled in favor of Facebook’s use of a text-messaging system.  The holding turned on the definition of “automatic telephone dialing system” (“ATDS”) within the meaning of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (“TCPA”), 47 USC  § 227(a)(1)(A), which the Court determined must be an instrument able either to store or to produce telephone numbers using a random or sequential number generator.  
The decision stems from a February 2017 action against Facebook, Inc. in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, in which the plaintiff claimed that a security feature that automatically sent text message alerts to stored telephone numbers was an ATDS and violated the TCPA.  In his putative class action, plaintiff Noah Duguid alleged that he had received text alerts from Facebook on his cellphone despite not ever having created a Facebook account or linking any such account to his cellphone number.  Facebook contended that the technology it used to dial Duguid’s number did not involve a random or sequential number generator and could not, therefore, be an ATDS within the meaning of the TCPA.  The district court dismissed Duguid’s case, but on appeal the Ninth Circuit reversed on the grounds that an ATDS need not have the capacity to generate or store random or sequential numbers, therefore the plaintiff’s amended complaint could state a claim under the TCPA if Facebook’s notification system automatically dialed stored numbers. 

Reasoning that neither a correct grammatical reading of the statute, nor the TCPA’s scope and purpose, would lead it to agree with the plaintiff’s interpretation, the Supreme Court ruled that “a necessary feature of an autodialer under § 227(a)(1)(A) is the capacity to use a random or sequential number generator to either store or produce phone numbers to be called.”  Facebook’s system merely stored numbers that were input individually by customers. 

Memorandum Opinion