The Second Circuit has affirmed a lower court decision that a flu shot reminder sent by text message by a medical provider did not violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (the “TCPA”). The decision is important because it interprets the 2012 FCC Healthcare Exemption as providing an exemption as to prior written consent rather than a wholesale exemption from consent. Latner v. Mount Sinai Health System, Inc., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 114 (2nd Cir. Jan. 3, 2018).

The limited record indicates that Mr. Latner visited Mt. Sinai in 2003 for a routine health examination. At that time, he filled out new patient forms including a “New Patient Health Form” which contained his contact information, as well as an “Ambulatory Patient Notification Record” granting the hospital and its facilities consent to use his health information “for payment, treatment and hospital operations purposes.” In 2011, Mr. Latner visited Mt. Sinai again and declined any immunizations. In 2014, Mt. Sinai, through a third-party vendor, sent Mr. Latner the following text message: “Its flu season again. Your PCP at WPMG is thinking of you! Please call us at 212-247-8100 to schedule an appointment for a flu shot…” Latner at *3.The message was sent to all active patients, including Mr. Latner, that had visited the office in the three years prior to the date of the text.

Mr. Latner filed a putative class action, alleging that the text message violated the TCPA. The hospital moved for judgment on the pleadings and asserted, as an affirmative defense, Mr. Latner’s prior express consent. Latner, 1:16-cv-00683 (S.D.N.Y.), Dkt. No. 42.

In affirming the district court’s ruling, the Second Circuit did a two-step analysis. It first determined whether the communication was covered by the 2012 FCC Healthcare Exemption and secondly, determining whether Mr. Latner had provided effective consent.

The Second Circuit concluded that the communication was covered by the 2012 FCC Healthcare Exemption. Under the 2012 FCC Telemarketing Rule, prior written consent is required for autodialed or prerecorded telemarketing calls. The Rule, however, contains an exemption for covered healthcare providers in certain instances. The court determined that the Healthcare Exemption exempts from written consent “calls to wireless cell numbers if the call ‘delivers a ‘health care’ message made by, or on behalf of, a ‘covered entity’ or its ‘business associate’ as those are defined in the HIPPA Privacy Rule.” “HIPPA defines health care to include ‘care, services, or supplies related to the health of an individual’… and exempts from its definition of marketing all communications made ‘[f]or treatment of an individual by a health care provider… or to direct or recommend alternative treatments’ to the individual.” Id. at *5.Both the district court and the Second Circuit concluded that the text message qualified for the FCC’s Healthcare Exemption.

The Second Circuit then moved to the issue of prior express consent and reviewed the terms of the consent provided by Mr. Latner in his 2003 consent forms. Of particular importance to the court, the forms provided consent to use Latner’s information “to recommend possible treatment alternatives or health-related benefits and services.” Id. at *6-7. The court concluded that the language of the forms therefore provided prior express consent to receive text messages concerning a “health related benefit” such as a flu shot.

The opinion is important for a few reasons. First, it clarifies that the Healthcare Exemption only exempts covered communications from written consent and is not a wholesale exemption as to consent. Secondly, the opinion emphasizes the importance of carefully worded consent provisions. All business verticals which use automated messaging, calls or text messages should review their intake documents to ensure that consent is properly addressed as to the scope of any contemplated telecommunications and then should again review any contemplated mass communications prior to being made in light of their consent documents. Finally, the opinion notes by footnote that the text message (which was sent in 2014) was not covered by the FCC’s 2015 Healthcare Treatment Exception because “there is no language in the 2015 FCC order suggesting any intent to make the Exception retroactive, much less justification for any asserted retroactivity, precluding its application in this instance.” Id. at FN 2.