United States: Court Holds That Providing Cellphone Number For An Online Purchase Constitutes "Prior Express Consent" Under TCPA

A federal district court in California recently ruled that a consumer who voluntarily provided a cellphone number in order to complete an online purchase gave "prior express consent" to receive a text message from the business's vendors under the TCPA. See Baird v. Sabre, Inc., No. CV 13-999 SVW, 2014 WL 320205 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 28, 2014).

In Baird, the plaintiff booked flights through the Hawaiian Airlines website. In order to complete her purchase, the plaintiff provided her cellphone number. Several weeks later she received a text message from the airline's vendor, Sabre, Inc., inviting the plaintiff to receive flight notification services by replying "yes." The plaintiff did not respond and no further messages were sent. The plaintiff sued the vendor claiming that it violated the TCPA by sending the single text message.

The central issue in Baird was whether, by providing her cellphone number to the airline, the plaintiff gave "prior express consent" to receive autodialed calls from the vendor under the TCPA. In 1992, the FCC promulgated TCPA implementing rules, including a ruling that "persons who knowingly release their phone numbers have in effect given their invitation or permission to be called at the number which they have given, absent instructions to the contrary." In re Rules & Reg's Implementing the Tel. Consumer Prot. Act of 1991, 7 F.C.C.R. 8752, 8769 ¶ 31 (1992) ("1992 FCC Order"). In support of this ruling, the FCC cited to a House Report stating that when a person provides their phone number to a business, "the called party has in essence requested the contact by providing the caller with their telephone number for use in normal business communications." Id. (citing H.R.Rep. No. 102–317, at 13 (1991)).

The court found that, while the 1992 FCC Order "is not a model of clarity," it shows that the "FCC intended to provide a definition of the term 'prior express consent.'" Id. at *5. Under that definition, the court held that the plaintiff consented to being contacted on her cellphone by an automated dialing machine when she provided the number to Hawaiian Airlines during the online reservation process. Id. at *6. Under the existing TCPA jurisprudence, a text message is a "call." Id. at *1. Furthermore, although the plaintiff only provided her cellphone number to the airline (and not to Sabre, Inc., the vendor), the court concluded that "[n]o reasonable consumer could believe that consenting to be contacted by an airline company about a scheduled flight requires that all communications be made by direct employees of the airline, but never by any contractors performing services for the airline." Id. at *6. The Judge was likewise unmoved by the fact that the plaintiff was required to provide a phone number (though not necessarily a cellphone number) to complete the online ticket purchase. Indeed, the court observed that the affirmative act of providing her cellphone number was an inherently "voluntary" act and that, had the plaintiff objected, she could simply have chosen not to fly Hawaiian Airlines. Id.

Baird does not address the October 2013 TCPA regulatory amendments that require "prior express written consent" for certain types of calls made to cellular phones and residential lines (a topic that previously has been covered on this blog). See 47 CFR § 64.1200(a)(2), (3) (emphasis added). "Prior express written consent" is defined as "an agreement, in writing, bearing the signature of the person called that clearly authorizes the seller to deliver or cause to be delivered to the person called advertisements or telemarketing messages using an automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial prerecorded voice, and the telephone number to which the signatory authorized such advertisements or telemarketing messages to be delivered." 47 CFR § 64.1200(f)(8). Whether the Baird rationale would help in a "prior express written consent" case likely would depend on the underlying facts such as whether the consumer/plaintiff agreed when making a purchase to be contacted by the merchant at the phone number provided, and whether the consumer/plaintiff provided an electronic signature. See 47 CFR § 64.1200(f)(8)(ii).

Nonetheless, Baird is a significant win for the TCPA defense bar and significantly reduces TCPA risk for the defendants making non-telemarketing calls (or texts) to cellphones using an automated dialer (for which "prior express consent" is the principal affirmative defense). If that cellphone number is given by the consumer voluntarily (and, given the expansive logic of Baird, we wonder when it could be considered "coerced"), the defendant has obtained express consent. Baird leaves open a number of questions worth watching, including how far removed the third-party contractor can be from the company to whom a cellphone number was voluntarily provided. Judge Wilson seemed to think it was obvious to the consumer that a third-party might be utilized by an airline to provide flight status information, but how far does that go? We'll be watching.

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