Supreme Court Answers the Call: Clarifies Meaning of “Automatic Telephone Dialing System” under the TCPA
On April 1, 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Facebook Inc. v. Duguid et al., No. 19-511, and held that in order for a device to be an “automatic telephone dialing system” (ATDS), a key term in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. § 227, it must have the capacity to use a random or sequential number generator to either store or produce phone numbers to be called. This decision represents a significant victory for entities defending against TCPA claims.
The TCPA prohibits making calls or sending text messages to mobile telephones using an ATDS (often simply referred to as an “autodialer”) without the prior express consent of the recipient. What precisely that means has become a heated dispute in TCPA litigation because using an ATDS to place a call is an essential component of many TCPA claims. The statute defines an ATDS as “equipment which has the capacity—(A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.” Lower courts had split on the provision’s meaning. The Third, Seventh, and Eleventh Circuits interpreted the provision narrowly, holding that an ATDS must have the capacity to generate random or sequential phone numbers, not merely to store and dial the numbers automatically. The Second, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits had taken a broad approach, holding that an ATDS need only have the capacity to store numbers to be called and to dial those numbers automatically.