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It took a while to get to this point, but at the first public meeting of the Pai FCC, the Commission voted today to eliminate the requirement that stations maintain “Letters and Emails from the Public” in their public inspection files. As discussed below, that decision will have differing impacts on TV and radio stations, and even among radio stations.

When the FCC charged ahead to move television public inspection files online in 2012, there didn’t seem to be any upside for broadcasters, who objected loudly. Those objections were primarily based upon the fact that the FCC had managed to find a way to expend even more of a broadcaster’s resources on the rarely-read file, requiring that it now also be uploaded to an online FCC database. Uploading a public file is no small task, as an FCC review of TV public files in Baltimore in 2012 revealed that some contained more than 8,000 pages. In response to those objections, the FCC announced when it adopted the change that it would automatically upload applications, kidvid reports, and other documents it had access to, reducing the number of documents stations would need to upload themselves.

Continue reading →

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Last May, Jessica Nyman and I wrote about the potential impact of an FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to eliminate the requirement that stations keep “Letters and Emails from the Public” in their Public Inspection File.  In moving public inspection files online, the FCC recognized that posting such letters and emails online creates privacy concerns, and required that stations continue to maintain such correspondence at the main studio in the local public file.  The result was that many stations had to maintain and provide public access to a local public file solely to provide this one category of document.

Earlier today, the FCC released the tentative agenda for its January 31 meeting, and the sole item on it is:

Streamlining the Public File Rules: The Commission will consider a Report and Order that would eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain copies of letters and emails from the public in their public inspection file and the requirement that cable operators retain the location of the cable system’s principal headend in their public inspection file.

While we are still waiting to hear who will be chairing that post-inaugural meeting, for broadcasters, it’s a nice way to start the year.  For more background on the proceeding and information on the likely benefits for stations, please check out our earlier post on the subject.

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If trying to maintain the required paperwork for political advertising aired by your station gives you a headache, prepare for a migraine of biblical proportions.

With the departure of Commissioner Rosenworcel leaving the FCC in a 2-2 partisan split, there are really only two types of broadcast orders coming out of the FCC these days—those having the unanimous support of all four remaining commissioners, and those that can be done by the Media Bureau on delegated authority with or without the support of the two Republican commissioners.  That was evidenced twice last week.  The first was the Media Bureau’s rejection of various petitions seeking reconsideration of increased ownership reporting requirements for noncommercial stations.  That action generated an immediate response from Republican commissioners Pai and O’Rielly, who released a joint statement chiding the Media Bureau for taking the action right before the FCC changes control, and encouraging the rejected petitioners to appeal the decision to the full Commission for reversal:

The Commission’s ruling no longer enjoys the support of the majority of Commissioners—nor is there a majority that supports today’s Media Bureau decision—so it was wrong for the Bureau to bypass Commissioners and reaffirm these reporting requirements unilaterally. . . . The good news is that today’s decision need not be the final word. We encourage public broadcasters to file an application for review so that the newly constituted Commission will have an opportunity to revisit this matter. It is pointless to require board members of NCE stations to report sensitive personal information (like the last four digits of individual Social Security numbers) to the Commission and will only serve to discourage these volunteers from serving their communities.

We might now be headed down a similar path with the political file.  This past Friday evening, the Media Bureau released an Order expanding the recordkeeping associated with airing political advertising.  Perhaps simply an error, but contributing to the appearance that the Order was rushed out to beat the change in administrations, is the fact that the formatting and text of the Friday night version deteriorates badly in the last third of the Order, with no text at all in the last 49 footnotes, the paragraph numbering changing, and the text of some paragraphs being in bold type and/or all capitals.  The cleaned up version can now be found here.  The Order responds to complaints filed by activist groups against eleven different stations owned by a Who’s Who of television broadcasters, with the FCC admonishing nine of the eleven stations for political ad recordkeeping violations.  A separate order admonishing a twelfth station in response to a more recent complaint was also released Friday night.

But why would an order admonishing stations for alleged recordkeeping violations (which originated from complaints sitting at the FCC since mid-2014) need to be rushed out?  Perhaps because it also “clarifies” that the admittedly vague rules on political ad recordkeeping require much more expansive political file records than most anyone has previously suggested (at least anyone who wasn’t trying to use the records for other than their intended purpose; for example, as a proxy for overall political ad expenditures).  The clarifications apply not just to broadcasters, but to cable, DBS, and satellite radio providers as well.

Read without an understanding of the current political ad landscape, the clarifications probably seem dryly mundane.  They include the following: Continue reading →

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

  • Broadcaster Loses Appeal of $20,000 FCC Fine
  • FCC Issues Citation for Violations of Radio Frequency Equipment Authorization and Labeling Rules
  • FCC Proposes $392,930 Fine to Telecom Provider for Excessive USF Fees, Unauthorized Transfers, and Delinquent Regulatory Fees

Ninth Circuit Upholds $20,000 Fine Against FM Broadcaster for Unauthorized Operation

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a $20,000 FCC fine against a New Mexico FM broadcaster for operating outside the parameters of the broadcaster’s construction permit.

Section 301 of the Communications Act bans the unlicensed transmission of “energy or communications or signals by radio.” Section 503 of the Act authorizes monetary fines where the FCC finds “willful[] or repeated[]” failure to comply “with the terms and conditions of any license, permit, certificate, or other instrument or authorization” issued by the FCC.

In November 2009, the FCC issued a $20,000 fine to the broadcaster for operating at variance from the broadcaster’s construction permit. Specifically, the FCC found that the station was broadcasting without authorization, and was being operated at a facility 34 miles from its authorized location.

When the broadcaster failed to pay the $20,000 fine, the FCC referred the matter for collections to the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), which, in turn, sued the broadcaster in Nevada District Court to recover the $20,000. The District Court granted the DOJ’s motion for summary judgment, and in doing so upheld the fine against the broadcaster. The broadcaster, representing himself in court, subsequently appealed the District Court’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling, stating that the DOJ provided “substantial” evidence that, for more than a year, the broadcaster “willfully and repeatedly” transmitted radio signals from a different location and at different technical parameters than those specified in the broadcaster’s construction permit. In contrast, the court explained, “taking his submissions in the most generous light, [the broadcaster has] not shown a genuine issue of material fact for trial.” The broadcaster failed to contradict any of the facts underlying the alleged unauthorized operation: (1) because his construction permit required FCC approval before commencing program testing—which the FCC never granted—the transmissions were not valid under the FCC’s Rules; and (2) because the broadcaster transmitted at variance from the terms of the permit, he was not conducting valid equipment tests, which only allow transmission to assure compliance with the permit’s terms. In reviewing the amount of the fine, the Ninth Circuit found the FCC’s decision to impose the full $10,000 base fine for each of the two instances of unauthorized operation “reasonable and not an abuse of discretion.”

Going, Going, but Not Gone: FCC’s Parting Gift to Company Winding Down Business Is Citation for Equipment Authorization and Labeling Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued a citation to a company for marketing radio frequency (“RF”) transmitters that were not properly certified or labeled.

Section 302 of the Communications Act prohibits the manufacture, import, sale, or shipment of home electronic equipment and devices that fail to comply with the FCC’s regulations. Section 2.803 of the FCC’s Rules provides that a device subject to FCC certification must be properly authorized, identified, and labeled in accordance with Section 2.925 of the Rules before it can be marketed to consumers. Continue reading →

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Being close observers of the FCC, Congress, and the federal government in general, we get a lot of questions about what the next year will likely bring in DC.  While changes in administrations tend to increase the number of questions like that, rarely have I been as deluged with such requests as this year.  Everyone wants to know what a Trump presidency will bring, particularly to the FCC.  In the absence of solid information, many have rushed in to fill the information vacuum.

These prognosticators tend to fall into two camps: those who project onto the new FCC all their hopes and wishes (and who inevitably will be disappointed when the FCC charts its own path), and those who are just plain guessing, figuring that they will turn out to be right 50% of the time (overlooking the fact that there are way more than two answers to most problems in Washington).  As a result, the only somewhat reliable chatter remains characteristically vague, focusing on very general trends (deregulation anyone?) and avoiding specifics.

However, even with a level of uncertainty at the FCC rarely seen in its 82-year history, there are quite a few things we can predict for 2017 with near certainty.  You’ll find all of them in the Pillsbury 2017 Broadcasters’ Calendar, published earlier this week.

For example, without even knowing what proceedings a reconstituted FCC will elect to launch this coming year, we can already predict with a high degree of certainty that the most likely day for the FCC’s filing system to implode will be December 1.  Why?  Because with the FCC’s announcement this week that NCE stations will join commercial stations in having a unified December 1 ownership report filing deadline (yes, our Broadcast Calendar is that up-to-the-minute), pretty much every station in America will be making at least one filing by that deadline, with most making multiple filings (it is also the deadline for TV stations to file their DTV Ancillary Services Reports, and for stations in eleven states to file Mid-Term EEO Reports).

There are many other deadlines and requirements spelled out in the Broadcasters’ Calendar, so at least in that regard, broadcasters will know what is coming at them in 2017.  And, as new developments occur in what promises to be a singularly interesting year at the FCC, you can be certain we’ll be discussing them here at CommLawCenter.

So if all the uncertainty is stressing you out, keep a copy of the Broadcasters’ Calendar close at hand, stay tuned to CommLawCenter, and remind yourself that 2017 isn’t a complete unknown.

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Noncommercial stations caught a break today.  For many years, broadcast stations filed annual ownership reports on the anniversary date of their license renewal deadline.  Since those deadlines varied from state to state (and even between radio and TV in the same state), determining whether a station had filed its reports on time could be challenging.  That task was further complicated by the fact that a licensee owning stations in multiple states could elect to consolidate the filing of its ownership reports for all stations on the license renewal date for any one state in which it had a station.

Ultimately, the FCC concluded that the reports didn’t need to be filed annually, and made them biennial.  The result was that it became even more difficult for the FCC to keep track of whether a station had filed on time.  In fact, a licensee that had consolidated its ownership report filing date across multiple states might not even be filing in the same year as the FCC would normally expect.

Ultimately, the FCC gave up and decided to adopt a unified national deadline for commercial TV and radio stations in 2009.  At the same time, it expanded the list of entities that were required to file the reports (previously, sole proprietorships, general partnerships composed only of individuals, and LPTV licensees were exempt).  It set November 1 of odd-numbered years as the consolidated filing deadline, and indicated that it planned to eventually adopt a unified national deadline for noncommercial stations as well.

However, the FCC quickly discovered that given the increased complexity of the reports, and the fact that the information reported in them was required to reflect a station’s ownership as of October 1 of that same year, broadcasters were having trouble generating all of the required ownership reports in just 30 days.  The FCC also had some teething pains with the new electronic form, with the result that the November 1, 2009 deadline ended up being extended multiple times, ultimately resulting in a deadline for the 2009 reports of July 8, 2010.

After that painful ordeal, the FCC in 2011 permanently moved the commercial station deadline to December 1 of odd-numbered years, providing stations with a 61-day period to file the reports.  Perhaps because of how difficult and drawn out the process of establishing a unified deadline for commercial stations had been, the FCC moved very slowly in establishing the promised unified deadline for noncommercial stations.  It wasn’t until January 8, 2016 that the FCC moved forward on that front, adopting an Order creating a new online form (FCC Form 2100, Schedule 323-E) and establishing a unified national deadline for noncommercial stations to file it.  Because the new form had to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget (and that approval published in the Federal Register) before it could be used, it has still not gone into effect, meaning that throughout 2016, noncommercial stations have continued to file on a state-by-state basis using the old form.  It therefore seemed likely that a lot of noncommercial stations would end up filing two sets of ownership reports in 2017—one set on a station’s license renewal anniversary, and one set on the likely December 1, 2017 unified filing date.

Thankfully, the FCC announced this afternoon that it would not be burdening noncommercial stations with dual filings in 2017, releasing an Order suspending all 2017 biennial ownership reporting deadlines for noncommercial stations and announcing that 2017 will indeed be the year that noncommercial stations will finally have a common ownership reporting deadline.  That deadline will be December 1 of odd-numbered years, the same as the deadline for commercial stations.

That’s good news for noncommercial stations in general, and particularly for those with limited resources to make such filings.  Consider it an early Christmas gift from the FCC.

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‘Twas the night before Christmas,
a
nd all through the station,
s
taffers laughed and sang carols,
a
nd enjoyed jubilation.

Except for the staffers in charge of the file,
w
ho were sweating and cursing a deadline most vile.
A Christmas Eve deadline that was set by the fed,
a
public file deadline that kept them from bed.

With December 24 approaching, radio stations across the country are checking their quarterly programs/issues lists twice, lest the FCC leave coal in their stocking this holiday season (and no, nothing even comes close to rhyming with “quarterly programs/issues lists”).

As we’ve posted previously and detailed in our Public Inspection File Special Advisory, the FCC adopted a Report and Order earlier this year extending its online public file requirements to broadcast radio stations, starting with commercial radio stations in the Top-50 Nielsen Audio markets with five or more full-time employees.

Beginning June 24, 2016, these “First-Wave” radio stations were required to upload, on a going-forward basis, all public file materials created on or after that date (with the exception of letters and emails from the public, which, as we’ve explained before, should not be uploaded to the online file due to privacy concerns and instead must be maintained in the local public file).  The online public file requirements won’t kick in for all other radio stations until March 1, 2018.

These First Wave radio stations have until December 24, 2016 to upload all public file documents created prior to June 24.  There are a few exceptions.  The first (for the reason noted above) is letters and emails from the public.  The FCC has had a proceeding pending since May to eliminate this requirement entirely, but has not yet done so.  The other exception is political file materials, which stations need only upload on a going-forward basis.  First Wave stations may continue to retain political file documentation that existed prior to June 24 in their local public files until the expiration of the two-year retention period.

On the TV side, where online public files have been the norm since 2012, the FCC has handed out admonishments and thousands of dollars in fines to stations for failing to upload all required materials on time.  While many Americans try to save money by delaying their shopping until after Christmas, missing this Christmas Eve rush could be quite expensive.  The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau doesn’t believe in post-holiday discounts.

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At the end of Stage 2 of the Spectrum Auction, I wrote about bidder fatigue and the hope that the FCC would drop its spectrum clearing target a couple of notches for Stage 3 to expedite the conclusion of a now seemingly interminable auction.  Unfortunately, the FCC held fast to its incremental approach.  As a result, the FCC attempted to clear 108 MHz in Stage 3, leading to a reverse auction that lasted 30 days and resulted in a $40.3B target for the forward auction.  That was roughly double the amount of money bid in the forward auction in Stages 1 and 2.  Also, with the Stage 2 forward auction concluding after only one round of bids, it seemed unlikely the skies would suddenly open up and start raining big-dollar forward bidders in Stage 3.

That has now proven true, as the Stage 3 forward auction commenced at 10am this morning and officially ended at 12:01pm.  Like Stage 2, it lasted only a single round of bidding.  Technically, it concluded even faster than Stage 2, which took 2 hours and 14 minutes before being declared over, a whole 13 minutes longer than today’s auction.  Having taken six years to reach this point, the fact that we are measuring entire auction stages in minutes is disappointing to say the least.

The good news?  The FCC is apparently feeling at least some urgency to move the auction along to a conclusion, announcing today that it anticipates launching the Stage 4 reverse auction on Tuesday, December 13.  Unfortunately, with the Stage 1, 2, and 3 reverse auctions taking 28 days, 30 days, and 30 days respectively, even a fast-moving Stage 4 can’t conclude the auction in 2016.

While the forward auction bid totals have dropped in every stage of the auction as the amount of spectrum being sold has dropped ($23.1B in Stage 1, $21.5B in Stage 2, and now $19.7B in Stage 3), the totals have been fairly consistent.  To declare the auction concluded, the FCC will at a minimum need forward auction payments to cover the reverse auction total, the $1.75B for repacking, and the several hundred million in auction expenses incurred.

As a result, the spectrum clearing target will likely need to drop until the total bids in the reverse auction are less than $17B.  That would allow the FCC to cover the reverse auction payments for spectrum plus the roughly $2B in repacking costs and auction-related expenses if the forward auction still brings in $19B or so.  However, since the total forward bids have dropped a bit in each stage, it’s reasonable to assume that trend will continue, meaning total reverse auction bids will need to drop significantly below $17B for the auction to finally conclude.  That’s quite a way from today’s $40+B target and, barring some surprises, makes it likely the auction will see a Stage 5 and perhaps a Stage 6, taking us far into 2017.

When the National Broadband Plan was announced by the FCC in 2010 as a way of repurposing spectrum while reducing the federal deficit, broadcasters were, for the most part, decidedly uninterested in the reverse auction.  Only after the FCC presented sky-high valuations for broadcast spectrum in the Greenhill Report did shareholders insist broadcast companies take a closer look.  It now looks like that initial disinterest was fully justified, with most broadcasters having spent more on their auction participation and forgoing deal opportunities during the “quiet period” than they can ever hope to derive from the auction itself.

So broadcasters’ first instinct regarding the Spectrum Auction may well have been the right one.  And that part about the excess auction proceeds reducing the federal budget deficit?  Turns out that’s not happening either.

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

  • Broadcaster Agrees to Pay $100,000 Fine for Filing Applications Under False Names
  • FCC Proposes $13,000 Fine for Late License Renewal Application and Unauthorized Operation
  • Failure to Register with the FCC Results in $100,000 Fine for Telecom Provider

Catch Me If You Can: Broadcaster Settles Long-Running Investigation into the Use of Pseudonyms in FCC Applications

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a radio broadcaster to resolve an investigation into whether the broadcaster filed numerous applications using fake names and refused to cooperate with FCC investigations.

Section 1.17 of the FCC’s Rules requires that written and oral statements to the FCC be truthful and accurate. Section 1.65 of the Rules requires applicants to amend applications as needed for continuing accuracy and completeness. In addition, Section 73.1015 requires applicants to respond to FCC inquiries regarding broadcast applications.

The Consent Decree explains that, since 1982, there has been a “cloud of unanswered questions” about whether applications filed by the broadcaster were accurate. In 1993, the FCC sent the broadcaster a letter inquiring into: (1) his role in certain entities; (2) apparent misrepresentations he made to the FCC; (3) his prior failure to respond to certain site availability allegations; and (4) the operation of several FM translators. The broadcaster never responded to the letter, and since that time, the broadcaster’s real name has not appeared in any FCC application as a principal of any applicant. Instead, the broadcaster used pseudonyms, as well as the names of his wife, mother, and grandmother.

In addition, the Consent Decree states that a 1997 complaint filed by another broadcaster was never answered or disclosed by the broadcaster. The complaint alleged that the broadcaster was the real party in interest behind a certain licensee, and that the broadcaster had violated several other FCC Rules.

Under the terms of the Consent Decree, the broadcaster admitted to being the real party in interest on numerous applications for which he had used pseudonyms, and admitted to several other violations of FCC Rules. The broadcaster agreed to (1) pay a $100,000 fine; (2) the cancellation of licenses for an AM station and two low power FM stations; and (3) the dismissal of petitions for reconsideration involving two dismissed FM applications. In return, the FCC agreed to grant the license renewal applications for another AM station and seven FM translator stations, each with a shortened license term of one year so that the FCC can closely monitor the licensee’s operation of the stations in the future.

FCC Proposes $13,000 Fine for Unauthorized Operation Caused by Late License Renewal Application

The FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) against an Ohio FM licensee for failing to timely file its license renewal application and for continuing to operate the station after its license had expired. The FCC proposed a fine for the violations and simultaneously issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order regarding the licensee’s license renewal application.

Section 301 of the Communications Act provides that “[n]o person shall use or operate any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio . . . except under and in accordance with this [Act] and with a license in that behalf granted under the provisions of [the Act].” Section 73.3539(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires that broadcast licensees file applications to renew their licenses “not later than the first day of the fourth full calendar month prior to the expiration date of the license sought to be renewed.”

In this case, the station’s license expired on October 1, 2004, rendering the license renewal application due by June 1, 2004. The licensee, however, did not file the renewal application until July 30, 2004. The FCC dismissed the application due to the licensee’s “red light” status for owing a debt to the FCC. Red light status prevents the FCC from providing any government benefit to a licensee, including license renewal. The licensee did not seek reconsideration of the dismissal and, as a result, the station’s license expired on October 1, 2004.

In January 2011, the FCC staff was told that the station was off the air. On January 12, 2011, the FCC wrote a letter to the former licensee inquiring into the operating status of the station, and requested a response within 30 days. The station did not respond until March 25, 2011, and stated that it was on-air as of the date of the FCC letter. However, the station explained that it had in fact suspended operations on February 23, 2011, after its transmitter was damaged during the theft of its copper feed lines.

In May 2011, the licensee filed a request for Special Temporary Authority (“STA”) to resume operations, stating that its transmitter repair was almost complete. The licensee also noted that it was unaware its 2004 license renewal application had been dismissed, and that it would file another license renewal application “once it [could].” The licensee submitted a license renewal application in July 2011, and the FCC subsequently granted the station’s STA request through March 2012.

In February 2012, the licensee filed another STA request to operate with reduced facilities, stating that the damage to the transmitter was far worse than previously thought, and would cost more than the value of the station to repair. The licensee also stated that the landlord of its transmitter site had declined to renew the station’s lease, but it had found an alternative, temporary location from which it could operate the station. The FCC granted the STA, and set an expiration date of August 2012. The licensee continued to operate under the STA facilities even after the August 2012 expiration date. The licensee did not file a request to extend the STA until February 2013. That request was granted as a new STA in March 2013, and the licensee has operated under a series of extensions to that STA ever since.

Based on the facts of this case, the FCC proposed the full base fine amount of $3,000 for failure to file a required form, and the full base fine amount of $10,000 for unauthorized operations. The FCC explained that while it typically assesses fines of $7,000 for unauthorized operations, the length of the first unauthorized period in this case—over six years—followed by a second unauthorized period, warranted a $10,000 fine.

The FCC stated that it would grant the station’s license renewal application upon the conclusion of the forfeiture proceeding “if there are no issues other than the apparent violation that would preclude grant of the applications.”

FCC Fines Prepaid Calling Card Company $100,000 for Failing to Register as Service Provider

The FCC fined a New Jersey provider of international prepaid calling card services $100,000 for failing to register as a telecommunications service provider and adhere to all registration requirements.

Section 64.1195(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires that companies providing interstate telecommunications services file an FCC Form 499-A, also known as the Annual Telecommunications Reporting Worksheet, with the Universal Service Administrative Company prior to providing service. The Form 499-A instructions state that “[w]ith very limited exceptions, all intrastate, interstate, and international providers of telecommunications in the United States must file this Worksheet.”

According to the FCC, compliance with the registration requirement is critical to determining a provider’s payment obligations to the Universal Service Fund, Telecommunications Relay Service Fund, and numbering support mechanisms. The FCC further stated that registration is a way to recover costs, and is a central repository for important details about providers.

Calling it a “dereliction of its responsibilities,” the FCC determined that the provider willfully operated for years without filing a Form 499-A, giving the provider an unfair economic advantage over its competitors. The FCC stated that the misconduct started when the provider began providing service in 1997 and continues until the provider files its initial Form 499-A. The FCC proposed a $100,000 fine for the provider’s transgressions.

In addition to the fine, the FCC instructed the provider to immediately register as a telecommunications provider, and to come into full compliance with all of its federal regulatory obligations. The FCC also warned that the fine was “a very limited action that does not reflect the full extent of [the service provider’s] potential forfeiture liability and that does not in any way preclude the Commission from imposing additional forfeitures … in the future.”

A PDF version of this article can be found at FCC Enforcement Monitor November 2016.

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What a difference a day makes.

As previously discussed in CommLawCenter, the Department of Labor announced in May a change to its overtime regulations.  That change would more than double the minimum salary needed to qualify an employee as exempt from overtime pay, and was scheduled to go into effect on December 1, 2016.  Because the change in the overtime-exempt minimum salary was so dramatic (moving from  $23,660 to $47,476 annually) the business community has been seeking to block it or at least mitigate its impact.  As part of that effort, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee recently introduced S.3464 in the Senate, which would phase in the higher salary threshold over several years, and offer some relief to nonprofits, colleges and universities, certain health care providers, and state and local governments.

As we noted a few weeks ago, however, the likelihood of that legislation becoming law before December 1 is slim, particularly given that President Obama is likely to veto any bill that threatens to undercut the goal of using more overtime pay to help rebuild the middle class.  Taking a different tack, the State of Nevada and twenty other states brought suit against the Department of Labor’s new regulations in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.  A similar suit brought in that court by the Plano Chamber of Congress and over fifty other business organizations was recently consolidated with the 21 States’ suit.

In response to a motion filed by the 21 States, the District Court today granted a nationwide preliminary injunction, preventing the new salary threshold (and scheduled increases to it in future years) from going into effect until the court has had an opportunity to rule on the legality of the rule change.  In doing so, the court made clear that the Department of Labor will have a hard time defending it.  Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Congress exempted from overtime pay those employees who are employed in a “bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity”, and authorized the Department of Labor to adopt, and from time to time update, regulations defining which employees fall into those categories.

In granting the preliminary injunction, the court found that the Department of Labor had exceeded that authorization by including a salary component in addition to the “duties” test embedded in the statute:

After reading the plain meanings together with the statute, it is clear Congress intended the EAP exemption to apply to employees doing actual executive, administrative, and professional duties. In other words, Congress defined the EAP exemption with regard to duties, which does not include a minimum salary level.

***

[The FLSA] authorizes the Department to define and delimit these classifications because an employee’s duties can change over time….  While this explicit delegation would give the Department significant leeway to establish the types of duties that might qualify an employee for the exemption, nothing in the EAP exemption indicates that Congress intended the Department to define and delimit with respect to a minimum salary level. Thus, the Department’s delegation is limited by the plain meaning of the statute and Congress’s intent. Directly in conflict with Congress’s intent, the Final Rule states that “[w]hite collar employees subject to the salary level test earning less than $913 per week will not qualify for the EAP exemption, and therefore will be eligible for overtime, irrespective of their job duties and responsibilities.”  With the Final Rule, the Department exceeds its delegated authority and ignores Congress’s intent by raising the minimum salary level such that it supplants the duties test.

Further buttressing his preliminary findings, the judge added that:

The Department has admitted that it cannot create an evaluation “based on salary alone.”  But this significant increase to the salary level creates essentially a de facto salary-only test. For instance, the Department estimates 4.2 million workers currently ineligible for overtime, and who fall below the minimum salary level, will automatically become eligible under the Final Rule without a change to their duties.  Congress did not intend salary to categorically exclude an employee with EAP duties from the exemption.  [Cites omitted for clarity.]

It seems likely the Department of Labor will seek an immediate appeal of the preliminary injunction for two reasons.  First, of course, is the fact that the federal government hoped that once the rule change went into effect on December 1, it would be politically impossible to reduce the salary threshold without incurring the ire of millions of employees now receiving overtime pay.  Second, and a more recent development, is that if the preliminary injunction holds, and the court case continues beyond January 20 (as it will), a Department of Labor within the Trump administration might no longer be interested in defending the rule change, effectively letting the preliminary injunction become permanent.

On top of that, if the final result of the court case is a ruling that any increase over the existing $23,660 annual salary requirement is impermissible without a statutory change, then the drastic increase in the salary threshold attempted by the Department of Labor will have backfired.  Any effort to adopt a more moderate increase in the salary threshold would run headlong into the court’s decision here.  And the law of unintended consequences strikes again.