In today’s world of ever-conflicting TCPA rulings, it is important to remember that, where courts are asked to determine the TCPA’s ATDS definition, their inquiry will revolve around the question of whether that definition includes only devices that actually generate random or sequential numbers or also devices with a broader range of functionalities. However, it is also important to remember that, when courts are trying to determine whether a calling/text messaging system meets the ATDS definition, focusing on the level of human intervention used in making a call or sending a text message is a separate decisive inquiry that also must be made.

As we’ve previously mentioned, this latter inquiry is important in all types of TCPA cases, but recently the issue has been given special attention in cases regarding text messages and text messaging platforms. Indeed, this happened again yesterday when the court in Duran v. La Boom Disco determined a nightclub’s use of text messaging did not violate the TCPA because of the level of human involvement exhibited by the nightclub in operating the software and scheduling the sending of messages.

Background

In Duran v. La Boom Disco, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York was tasked with analyzing the ExpressText and EZ Texting platforms, which are text messaging software platforms offered to businesses and franchises, whereby the business can write, program, and schedule text messages to be sent to a curated list of consumer mobile phone numbers.

At first glance, the facts in Duran appear to signal a slam dunk case for the plaintiff. The defendant nightclub had used the ExpressText and EZ Texting platforms to send marketing text messages to the plaintiff after he replied to a call-to-action advertisement by texting the keyword “TROPICAL” to obtain free admission to the nightclub for a Saturday night event. Importantly, though, after the plaintiff texted this keyword, he never received a second text messaging asking whether he consented to receive recurring automated text messages (commonly referred to as a “double opt-in” message). He did, however, receive approximately 100 text messages advertising other events at the nightclub and encouraging him to buy tickets, which ultimately led him to bring a TCPA action against the club.

Accordingly, the initial issue that the Duran court was tasked with deciding was whether the defendant nightclub had texted the plaintiff without his prior express written consent. The court quickly dispensed with it, determining that the nightclub had not properly obtained written consent from the plaintiff, as it had failed to use a double opt-in process to ensure the plaintiff explicitly agreed to receive recurring automated marketing text message and could not otherwise prove that the plaintiff explicitly consented to receiving recurring messages or a marketing nature (which, under the TCPA, the nightclub had the burden to prove).

At this stage, then, things were looking bad for the nightclub. However, this was not the end of the court’s analysis, as the nightclub could only be liable for sending these non-consented-to messages if they had been sent using an ATDS. Thus, the court turned to its second – and much more important – line of inquiry: whether the ExpressText and EZ Texting software, as used by the nightclub to text the plaintiff, qualified as an ATDS.

Defining the ATDS Term in the Aftermath of ACA International

In order to determine whether the ExpressText and EZ Texting platforms met the TCPA’s ATDS definition, the court performed an analysis that has become all too common since the FCC’s 2015 Declaratory Order was struck down in ACA International: determining what the appropriate definition of ATDS actually is. With respect to this issue, the litigants took the same positions that we typically see advanced. The plaintiff argued that the ExpressText and EZ Texting platforms were the equivalent of “predictive dialers” that could “dial numbers from a stored list,” which were included within the TCPA’s ATDS definition. The Nightclub countered that predictive dialers and devices that dialed from a database fell outside of the ATDS definition, meaning the nightclub’s use of the ExpressText and EZ Texting platforms should not result in TCPA liability.

The court began the inquiry with what is now the all-too-familiar analysis of the extent to which the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in ACA International invalidated the FCC’s prior 2003 and 2008 predictive dialer rulings. After examining the opinion, the court found that those prior rulings still remained intact because “the logic behind invalidating the 2015 Order does not apply to the prior FCC orders.” The court then concluded that, because the 2003 and 2008 ATDS rulings remained valid, it could use the FCC’s 2003 and 2008 orders to define the ATDS term, and that, based on these rulings, the TCPA also prohibited defendants from sending automated text messages using predictive dialers and/or any dialing system that “dial numbers from a stored list.”

However, the fact that the ExpressText and EZ Texting platforms dialed numbers from a stored list did not end the inquiry since, under the 2003 and 2008 orders, “equipment can only meet the definition of an autodialer if it pulls from a list of numbers, [and] also has the capacity to dial those numbers without human intervention.” And it was here where the plaintiff’s case fell apart, for while the ExpressText and EX Texting platforms dialed from stored lists and saved databases, these platforms could not dial the stored numbers without a human’s assistance. As the court explained:

When the FCC expanded the definition of an autodialer to include predictive dialers, the FCC emphasized that ‘[t]he principal feature of predictive dialing software is a timing function.’ Thus, the human-intervention test turns not on whether the user must send each individual message, but rather on whether the user (not the software) determines the time at which the numbers are dialed…. There is no dispute that for the [ExpressText and EZ Texting] programs to function, ‘a human agent must determine the time to send the message, the content of the messages, and upload the numbers to be texted into the system.’

In sum, because a user determines the time at which the ExpressText and EZ Texting programs send messages to recipients, they operate with too much human involvement to meet the definition of an autodialer.

Human Intervention Saves the Day (Again) 

In Duran, the district court made multiple findings that would ordinarily signal doom for a defendant: it broadly defined the ATDS term to include predictive dialers and devices that dialed numbers from a stored list/database and it found the nightclub’s text messages to have been sent without appropriately obtaining the plaintiff’s express written consent. However, despite these holdings, the nightclub was still able to come out victorious because of the district court’s inquiry into the human intervention issue and because the ExpressText and EZ Texting platforms the nightclub used required just enough human involvement to move the systems into a zone of protection. In many ways, this holding – and the analysis employed – is unique; however, with respect to the focus on the human intervention requirement, the district court’s decision can be seen as another step down a path that has been favorable to web-based text messaging platforms.

Indeed, over the course of the last two years, several courts have made it a point to note that the human intervention analysis is a separate, but equally important, determination that the court must analyze before concluding that a device is or is not an ATDS. With respect to the text-messaging line of cases, this has especially been the case, with numerous courts noting that, no matter whether the ATDS definition is or is not limited to devices that randomly or sequentially generate numbers, the numbers must also be dialed without human intervention. What is interesting, though, is that the courts that have interpreted this line of cases have focused on different actions as being the key source of human intervention.

As we already discussed, the court in Duran noted that the key inflection point for determining whether human intervention exists is based off of the timing of the message and whether a human or the device itself gets to determine when the text message is sent out. And in Jenkins v. mGage, LLC, the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia reached a similar conclusion, finding that the defendant’s use of a text messaging platform involved enough human intervention to bring the device outside of the ATDS definition because “direct human intervention [was] required to send each text message immediately or to select the time and date when, in the future, the text message will be sent.” The District Court for the Middle District of Florida also employed this line of thinking in Gaza v. Auto Glass America, LLC, awarding summary judgment to the defendant because the text messaging system the company employed could not send messages randomly, but rather required a human agent to input the numbers to be contacted and designate the time at which the messages were to be sent.

In the case of Ramos v. Hopele of Fort Lauderdale, however, the District Court for the Southern District of Florida found a separate human action to be critical, focusing instead on the fact that “the program can only be used to send messages to specific identified numbers that have been inputted into the system by the customer.” And another court in the Northern District of Illinois echoed this finding in Blow v. Bijora, Inc., determining that, because “every single phone number entered into the [text] messaging system was keyed via human involvement … [and because] the user must manually draft the message that the platform will sent” the text messaging platform did not meet the TCPA’s ATDS requirements.

Indeed, with the entire industry still awaiting a new ATDS definition from the FCC, there is still much confusion as to how the ATDS term will be interpreted and applied to both users of calling platforms and users of texting platforms. Fortunately, though, there appears to be a trend developing for text message platforms, with multiple courts finding that human intervention is a crucial issue that can protect companies from TCPA liability. Granted, these courts have not yet been able to agree on what human action actually removes the platform from the ATDS definition, and, as we’ve noted previously, even if human intervention remains the guiding standard, determining precisely what qualifies as sufficient intervention and when in the process of transmitting a message the relevant intervention must occur remains much more an art than a science. However, the cases mentioned above are still useful in pointing marketers everywhere in the right direction and present guidelines for ensuring they send text messages in compliance with the TCPA.