Fourth Circuit Strikes Down TCPA’s Government Debt Collection Exemption

The 2015 amendments to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) allowed calls to collect debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government to be exempt from regulations on automatic telephone dialing systems (“ATDS”). A group of political organizations subsequently filed suit and alleged that the government debt collection rule violated the First Amendment’s free speech clause. Because it is unconstitutional, they argued, the TCPA’s autodialer restrictions should be completely invalidated. The trial court rejected that claim and upheld the debt collection exemption.

In a recent Opinion, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Striking down the debt collection exemption, the Court found that the exemption deviated from the purpose of the TCPA and “subverts the privacy protections” of its autodialer restrictions. Underlying the Court’s conclusion was the fact that nearly 80% of all outstanding student loan debt is owed to or guaranteed by the government and the exemption would lead to millions of autodialed calls. However, despite finding the exemption violated the First Amendment, the Court found it could be severed from the statute and therefore rejected the plaintiff’s request to strike all ATDS regulations based on this single flawed portion’s unconstitutionality.

Whether the parties will challenge this Opinion remains to be seen. At the moment, the impact of this decision is geographically limited and its impact on calls to other parts of the country is unknown. Callers should seek advice of knowledgeable legal counsel before placing any calls that could fall under the umbrella of the TCPA. We will continue to monitor and report developments in this case.