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:
- FCC Proposes $116,156,250 Robocalling Fine for Over 20,000 Calls to Toll Free Numbers
- Illinois Class A TV Station Pays Nearly Six-Figure Penalty for FCC Violations
- FCC Proceeds with $4,000 Civil Penalty Against Alaska Broadcaster Following Investigation
Robocaller Fined Over $116 Million for TCPA Violations
The FCC issued a Forfeiture Order imposing a $116,156,250 penalty against one individual and three related companies (the Companies) for making 9,763,599 illegal robocalls to toll free numbers without the called party’s prior express consent. The robocalls claimed to be a “Public Service Announcement” warning toll free customers about the dangers of illegal robocalls, and would repeat for up to ten hours unless the receiving party terminated the call. This is one of the largest Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) robocall fines ever issued by the FCC.
As we discussed here, in July 2022 the FCC adopted a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NALF) in which it proposed a $116 million penalty. The individual contested it, stating that he struggled to find anything in the NALF that is accurate, but offering no counterarguments to the FCC’s findings. The individual asserted that he was not the party the FCC was after, that the calls were permissible because they were made in good faith, that he did not violate the TCPA “with intent” because he was purportedly advised by a lawyer that the robocalling operation did not violate the TCPA, and that the FCC should have issued a warning prior to releasing the NALF.
When the FCC assesses fines, it considers the “nature, circumstances, extent, and gravity of the violation and, with respect to the violator, the degree of culpability, any history of prior offenses, ability to pay, and such other matters as justice may require.” After fully considering the individual’s responses to the NALF, the FCC affirmed the fine, stating that it was in accordance with Section 503(b) of the Communications Act of 1934 (the Act), Section 1.80 of the Commission’s Rules, and the FCC’s Forfeiture Policy Statement (Forfeiture Policy).
The TCPA, Section 227(b)(1)(A)(iii) of the Act, and Section 64.1200(a)(1)(iii) of the FCC’s Rules prohibit making prerecorded voice calls to numbers for which the called party is charged for the call (including toll free numbers) unless there is an emergency, or the recipient has given prior express consent to receive the call. The FCC found that the Companies made 9,763,599 illegal robocalls to toll free numbers, and the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau (the Bureau) staff verified at least 20,650 of those calls were violations of the TCPA.
The FCC dismissed the individual’s ‘mistaken identity’ argument as meritless, explaining that its investigation identified the Companies as the source of the 20,650 verified robocalls. In October 2020, an industry group tasked by the Bureau with tracing illegal robocalls alerted the Bureau that a caller was apparently targeting toll free services with robocalls. The calls were traced to a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) which identified the sources of the calls as two of the Companies. The CLEC supplied records showing that the individual signed a service agreement with the CLEC in July 2020 for several thousand direct inward dial telephone numbers and VoIP service. Additionally, call records produced by the CLEC showed millions of calls to toll free numbers originating from the Companies’ account between January and March 2021. The CLEC paid one of the Companies $0.0001 (one ten thousandth of a cent) for each minute of outbound calls that it made to toll free numbers. The individual then used the revenue from the robocalls to fund telephone denial of service (TDoS) attacks against other companies. The individual offered no evidence to refute these findings, and the FCC concluded that the Companies made the calls identified in the NALF.
The FCC also dismissed the argument that the calls were permissible because the toll free customers receiving them were not charged for calls. The FCC reviewed a number of the toll free service providers’ publicly available billing practices, and found that the providers do indeed charge their toll free customers on a per call basis or in bundles of minutes. Thus, the robocalling scheme resulted in actual financial losses to the toll free customers receiving the calls. Finally, the FCC explained that there is no “good faith” or “public safety doctrine” exception in the TCPA that would permit the calls, rejecting the individual’s claim that he “acted in good faith.”
Section 227(b)(4)(E) of the Act provides that the statute of limitations is four years (rather than one year) if the violation was committed “with the intent to cause such violation.” In the NALF, the FCC stated that the Companies made prerecorded calls with the intent to violate the TCPA because the Companies (1) targeted protected toll free numbers; and (2) had no reasonable basis to believe they had consent for the calls. The FCC noted that the individual’s response refuted neither of those findings, as he did not contest that he targeted toll free numbers, and merely argued that reliance on legal advice constituted a defense against liability. The FCC disagreed, and cited the Companies’ complex calling scheme as further evidence of intentionality.
Despite the individual’s claim that he was entitled to a warning, the Commission noted that the TRACED Act allows the FCC to issue a Notice of Apparent Liability for violations of Section 227(b) of the Act without first issuing a warning citation. The FCC affirmed its decision in the NALF, concluding that the $116,156,250 fine was warranted due to the Companies’ egregious conduct. After considering the relevant factors and its Forfeiture Policy, the FCC found that the proposed base fine and upward adjustments applied in the NALF were consistent with the FCC’s rules. The Commission therefore found the individual and Companies jointly and severally liable, and the $116,156,250 fine must be paid within 30 calendar days after the release of the Forfeiture Order.
Rule Violations by Illinois Class A TV Station Result in Consent Decree and $97,000 Penalty
In the course of processing the license renewal application of an Illinois Class A TV station, the FCC’s Media Bureau determined that (1) the license renewal application was filed nearly a month after the filing deadline; (2) the applicant certified that there had been no violations by the licensee of the Act or the rules or regulations of the FCC during the preceding license term; and (3) the applicant certified that all required documentation had been uploaded to the station’s Public Inspection File when required. According to the Media Bureau, however, the licensee failed to timely upload 28 issues and programs lists, all of its records concerning commercial limits compliance in children’s programming, 23 children’s television programming reports, and copies of documents related to a 2014 forfeiture order issued to the licensee.
Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules lists the materials a Class A TV station must upload to its Public Inspection File and the deadlines for making those submissions. Under Sections 73.3514(a) and 1.65(a) of the FCC’s Rules, applications filed with the FCC must include all information called for by the application form, and the applicant must ensure the continuing accuracy and completeness of its application by making any necessary amendments within 30 days of a response becoming inaccurate.