The Seventh Circuit has issued a unanimous decision in Gadelhak v. AT&T Services, adopting a narrow interpretation of a key definitional term in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).  This decision is in line with a recent ruling from the Eleventh Circuit (which we analyzed here) but departs from the Ninth Circuit’s approach—deepening a circuit split that increases the possibility the Supreme Court will review the issue.

As we previously explained, the TCPA generally prohibits the use of an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) to place calls or text messages to mobile numbers without the recipient’s prior express consent.  The TCPA includes a multi-part definition for the term ATDS, and how to interpret this statutory definition has resulted in a circuit split.  The question boils down to whether an ATDS includes dialing equipment that can store telephone numbers and dial them even if a random or sequential number generator is not used (e.g., because the numbers come from a database of stored numbers).

In a unanimous decision, the Seventh Circuit held that the most natural interpretation of the statutory text limits the ATDS definition’s scope to dialing equipment capable of storing or producing telephone numbers using a random or sequential number generator.  This holding accords with the Eleventh Circuit’s interpretation in Glasser v. Hilton Grand Vacations Company, which was decided last month.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s proposed interpretation, which would have included within the ATDS definition any equipment with the capacity to store telephone numbers to be called and to dial those numbers.  This is the more expansive approach that the Ninth Circuit adopted in Marks v. Crunch San Diego, LLC, 904 F.3d 1041 (9th Cir. 2018).  The Seventh Circuit, however, reasoned that this interpretation was “atextual” and would amount to “a significant judicial rewrite” of the statute.  The court also noted the practical difficulties of such a sweeping interpretation—for example, it “would create liability for every text message sent from an iPhone.”

This growing split among the Circuit Courts of Appeals regarding the correct interpretation of the TCPA, a federal statute, increases the likelihood that the Supreme Court will intervene to resolve the meaning of an ATDS.