Are Your Robocalls Legal? Following Federal Law May Not Be Enough

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Last week’s Seventh Circuit ruling in Patriotic Veterans v. State of Indiana  confirms that businesses should check both federal and state laws before using automatic dialing systems (ATDS) to deliver prerecorded or synthetic voice messages known as “robocalls”.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) is a federal law that generally prohibits robocalls to residential telephone lines without the prior express consent of the party receiving the call.  However, calls that are not made for a commercial purpose, including calls made for political purposes, are exempt from the TCPA.

The TCPA contains a preemption clause that states “nothing in this section . . . shall preempt any State law that imposes more restrictive intrastate requirements or regulations on, or which prohibits:

  • the use of automatic telephone dialing systems;
  • the of artificial or prerecorded or prerecorded voice messages;” (emphasis added)

Notably, the State of Indiana’s Automated Dialing Machine Statute imposes “more restrictive” requirements, because while it does have some limited exemptions, it does not contain the TCPA’s exemption for political calls.

In Patriotic Veterans, an Illinois based non-profit sought to make robocalls for political purposes across state lines to Indiana residents.  Not wanting to pay for the live callers that would be required under the Indiana law, Patriotic Veterans filed a complaint in federal court against the State of Indiana and the Indiana Attorney General, seeking a declaration that the Indiana law was, among other things, pre-empted by the TCPA.

The District Court agreed with Patriotic Veterans, holding that the TCPA preempted the Indiana statute and granting Patriotic Veteran’s request for an injunction against enforcement of Indiana’s law with respect to political messages, but stayed the injunction pending the appeal.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.  The Court concluded that there was no express preemption in the statutory language because “the TCPA says nothing about preempting laws that regulate the interstate use of automatic dialing systems. Therefore, we must conclude that they are not preempted. The plain language of the text reinforced by the presumption against preemption prevents this court from looking any further[.]”  The Court further concluded that there was no implied preemption for two reasons: (1) the federal regulatory scheme is not so pervasive or dominant as to make clear that Congress intended to occupy the entire legislative field, and (2) it is possible to comply with both laws (even if inconvenient or expensive for Patriotic Veterans).

What Does This Mean for Businesses?

The ruling in Patriotic Veterans further confirms that mere compliance with the TCPA is not enough.  Courts are unlikely to strike down state laws that are more restrictive than the TCPA, so it is important for businesses that are developing a robocalling strategy to check the laws of the states where they plan to contact residents.  Any such strategy should include a plan to comply with both the TCPA and the applicable state law requirements.