Despite a material question about whether the defendant had express consent to contact the plaintiff, a California federal court judge has ruled that a good faith belief that consent existed provided a complete defense to plaintiff’s Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) suit.
Pamela Chyba filed her TCPA complaint after she received four telephone calls from collection agency First Financial Asset Management to her cell phone over a two-week period. Chyba never answered the phone and FFAM left prerecorded messages about “an important business matter.”
FFAM said the calls were made in an effort to collect a debt owed to Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which contracted with the collection agency because Chyba allegedly owed money resulting from damage to a rental car. Although FFAM produced a rental agreement between Chyba and Enterprise, she claimed she did not give her phone number to Enterprise and could not recall if she rented a car.
In addition to TCPA claims, Chyba alleged the defendant violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and its California equivalent. Finding that the alleged calls failed to meet the requirement “to annoy, abuse, or harass” the recipient, U.S. District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez granted FFAM summary judgment on most of the FDCPA and state law claims.
Turning to the TCPA, the parties agreed that an automatic dialing system was used and that the calls were made to a cell phone. One issue remained for the court: whether Chyba gave prior consent to be called. There would not be liability if Chyba gave her consent, which for debt collection calls could mean that she provided her telephone number to Enterprise.
Despite the production of a rental agreement between Chyba and Enterprise, the court said a material question remained because Chyba disputed that she ever gave consent, denied giving Enterprise her phone number, and stated that she “cannot recall” whether or not she rented a car. Therefore, Judge Benitez noted, a reasonable fact finder could determine that Chyba “never gave express consent because she never gave her phone number to Enterprise.”
FFAM’s affirmative good faith defense argument proved to be a winner, however. The debt collection agency argued it had a good faith belief that Chyba had given Enterprise her consent. “[T]he documents provided gave [FFAM] a good-faith basis to believe that it had consent to contact [Chyba] at that number. The court also notes that not only was the cell number listed as her ‘home’ number, a different number had been listed in the box for a cell phone number. There appears to have been little that [FFAM] could have done to further ascertain whether there was consent, except to call [Chyba] at her home number,” the court said.
“Thus, although [Chyba] did not give consent directly to [FFAM] to call her cell phone number, it is sufficient that [FFAM] had a good-faith basis to believe that [Chyba] had provided consent to the creditor on whose behalf [FFAM] sought to collect a debt,” Judge Benitez concluded. “Even if [Chyba] is correct in stating that she never gave [FFAM] or Enterprise consent to call, and there was no actual prior consent from [her], [FFAM] is not liable for acting in good faith upon the information provided to it.”
To read the decision in Chyba v. First Financial Asset Management, click here.
Why it matters: A victory for TCPA defendants, the Chyba decision illustrates that a good faith defense can provide a complete defense to a TCPA claim. The Southern District of California court’s decision that there would not be strict liability under the TCPA when a company believed it had the right consent to make autodial calls to a consumer’s cell phone provides a stark contrast to decisions issuing out of the Seventh Circuit. Moreover, this decision should encourage defendants who believe they have a good faith defense to ensure that such a defense is asserted and developed early in the litigation, as here it provided grounds for summary judgment.