On March 22, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss TCPA claims against a student loan administrator (defendant), finding that the administrator could be held vicariously liable for a contractor’s alleged debt collection attempts. The plaintiff claimed in her suit that the companies hired by the contracted student loan servicer violated the TCPA by using an autodialer when attempting to contact borrowers to collect payment. The plaintiff argued that the defendant was “vicariously liable” for the alleged TCPA violations of the companies that were hired to collect the plaintiff’s debts, and that the defendant was “similarly liable under the federal common law agency principles of ratification and implied actual authority.” The claims against the collectors and the servicer were dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction, and the lower court ruled on summary judgment that a jury could not hold the defendant responsible for the actions of the servicer.
On appeal, the split three-judge panel held that a reasonable jury could find that the defendant knew of the alleged TCPA violations, and that because the defendant “ratified the debt collectors’ calling practices by remaining silent,” or alternatively, willfully ignored potential violations through its collections arrangement with the servicer, a jury could find a “principal-agent” relationship—even if one did not exist in the contract—and the court should hold it liable for the collectors’ TCPA violations. According to the panel, there was evidence in the record that the defendant “had actual knowledge” of the alleged violations through audit reports provided by the servicer and “did nothing” to ensure that the debt collectors complied with the law. However, the entire panel agreed that the defendant was not per se vicariously liable for the debt collectors’ alleged TCPA violations.
In dissent, Judge Bybee agreed with the panel that the defendant is not per se vicariously liable for the debt collectors’ practices, and noted in addition that there is not enough evidence to show that the defendant consented to practices that violate the TCPA or that it granted the debt collectors authority to violate the law. He wrote, “there is no evidence whatsoever that [the defendant] approved of such practices. In fact, the only evidence in the record is to the contrary: when [the defendant] learned of wrongful practices, it reported them to [the servicer] and asked [the servicer] to correct the problem.”