On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in Facebook’s favor in a Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) suit, finding that Facebook did not violate the TCPA when it sent unsolicited text messages without prior consent.
Previously, in December, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments asking the Court to consider the constitutionality of the TCPA, which prohibits calls made using an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) without prior consent. The plaintiff claimed Facebook violated the TCPA by using an ATDS to text his cell phone without his prior consent because he never created a Facebook account. Specifically, the plaintiff asserted that Facebook mistakenly sent text messages to his phone pursuant to its policy to automatically send a computer-generated message to a user’s phone when their account is accessed from an unrecognized device. Facebook responded that the plaintiff’s phone number was most likely previously associated with a Facebook user that opted to receive these notifications.
The question before the Court was: “Whether the definition of ATDS in the TCPA encompasses any device that can ‘store’ and ‘automatically dial’ telephone numbers, even if the device does not ‘us[e] a random or sequential number generator.’”
Thursday’s Supreme Court opinion, authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, found that this definition does not encompass those items. In order to qualify as an ATDS under the TCPA “a device 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.” The Court noted that a natural reading of this text confirms Facebook’s assertion.
The Supreme Court Justices agreed with Facebook’s interpretation of this TCPA clause. Specifically, Facebook contended that the case should be dismissed because the text messages were not sent to “randomly or sequentially generated” numbers; instead, Facebook asserted it sent text messages to existing numbers in its database. Previously, the Ninth Circuit held that § 227(a)(1) “applies to a notification system like Facebook’s that has the capacity to dial automatically stored numbers.”
The Court held 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.” Thus, Facebook’s alleged conduct – sending text messages without prior consent – does not fit within the definition of prohibited conduct and Facebook’s equipment did not use this technology.
The lawsuit highlights the challenges of applying outdated laws to modern technology. Justice Sotomayor also noted that the plaintiff’s “quarrel is with Congress, which did not define an autodialer as malleably as he would have liked.”
The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.
Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined Justice Sotomayor’s opinion. Justice Alito issued a concurring opinion.