Supreme Court Agrees to Hear TCPA Case on Binding Effect of FCC Rulings

The Supreme Court will review a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision to determine whether other judges must follow the Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC”) interpretations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), or if judges can interpret the meaning of the statute themselves without regard to what the FCC has said.

The case, Carlton & Harris Chiropractic, Inc. v. PDR Network, LLC, 883 F.3d 459 (4th Cir. 2018), involved a company’s receipt of a fax offering a free book. The plaintiff claimed the fax violated the TCPA because the fax was an “unsolicited advertisement” and was sent without consent.

In 2006, the FCC ruled that faxes that promoted goods or services—even if free—are “unsolicited advertisements” under the TCPA. But the district court held that it did not have to follow that ruling because the language of the TCPA is clear that offers of free goods or services are not advertisements. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and held that the district court must follow the FCC’s interpretation.

While it is difficult to predict how the Supreme Court may rule, it seems likely that it will reverse the Fourth Circuit’s decision and find that a district court does not have to follow the FCC’s interpretation of a statute if the statute’s meaning is clear.

Not only could this have lasting effects on district courts’ interpretations of an “unsolicited advertisement” under the TCPA, but it could also affect their decisions on the interpretation of an “automatic telephone dialing system” under the TCPA, which is a hotly contested issue with various interpretations in different district courts.