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Supreme Court Led by Justice Sotomayor Declines to Use a ‘Chainsaw’ Against Facebook in Robocall Case


The Supreme Court of the United States, in its third opinion of the day on Thursday, decided not to expand the definition of a robocall (“autodialer”) in a case against Facebook. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the 9-0 court, said that Congress intended that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) be a “scalpel” and not a “chainsaw.”

In an extraordinary show of judicial agreement in a partisan age, none of the three high court rulings today had a dissent.

Facebook petitioned the court in Oct. 2019 after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found in favor of Noah Duguid. In a class action lawsuit filed against Facebook, plaintiff Duguid argued that automated text messages he received from Facebook (alerting him to a possible unauthorized login) violated the TCPA. Duguid said he wasn’t a Facebook user and received the security warnings messages in error.

Facebook argued that while the texts to Duguid and others may have been automatically-triggered, they did not constitute the kind of randomly-generated robocalls contemplated by Congress in passing the TPCA. The TCPA outlaws certain robocalls and robotexts sent to cell phones. Extending liability to the kind of calling involved in the case, argued the social media giant, would mean exposing every cell phone owner to liability for automatically dialing someone on their contact list. The Supreme Court agreed Duguid’s interpretation could have far-reaching consequences for the average cell phone user.

Facebook asked the Supreme Court to answer two questions:

Whether the TCPA’s prohibition on calls made using an [automatic telephone dialing system, or ATDS] is an unconstitutional restriction of speech, and if so whether the proper remedy is to broaden the prohibition to abridge more speech.

Whether the definition of ATDS in the TCPA encompasses any device that can “store” and “automatically dial” telephone numbers, even if the device does not “us[e] a random or sequential number generator.”

SCOTUS primarily focused on addressing the second clause of the second question: “even if the device does not ‘us[e] a random or sequential number generator.'”

RELATED: Supreme Court Justices Appeared Dazzled by Legal Celebrity at Oral Arguments in Robocall Case Against Facebook

“The question before the Court is whether that definition encompasses equipment that can ‘store’ and dial telephone numbers, even if the device does not ‘us[e] a random or sequential number generator,'” the opinion began. “It does not.”

Justice Sotomayor spelled out the court’s analysis clearly in a summary:

“In sum, Congress’ definition of an autodialer requires that in all cases, whether storing or producing numbers to be called, the equipment in question must use a random or sequential number generator. This definition excludes equipment like Facebook’s login notification system, which does not use such technology.”

To have found otherwise, Sotomayor said, would have been to wield a “chainsaw” rather than the “scalpel” that Congress intended.

“Expanding the definition of an autodialer to encompass any equipment that merely stores and dials telephone numbers would take a chainsaw to these nuanced problems when Congress meant to use a scalpel. Duguid’s interpretation of an autodialer would capture virtually all modern cell phones, which have the capacity to ‘store . . . telephone numbers to be called’ and ‘dial such numbers,” Sotomayor wrote. “The TCPA’s liability provisions, then, could affect ordinary cell phone owners in the course of commonplace usage, such as speed dialing or sending automated text message responses. See §227(b)(3) (authorizing a $500 fine per violation, increased to $1,500 if the sender acted ‘willfully’ or ‘knowingly’).”

“We hold that a necessary feature of an autodialer under §227(a)(1)(A) is the capacity to use a random or sequential number generator to either store or produce phone numbers to be called. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” the court concluded.

Justice Samuel Alito, concurring in the judgment, wrote that he agreed: an “‘automatic telephone dialing system,’ as defined in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, must have the capacity to ‘store . . . telephone numbers’ by ‘using a random or sequential number generator.'”

Read the document below:

Elura Nanos contributed to this report.

[Image via Alex Wong/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.