WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991's (TCPA) "permissive grant of jurisdiction to state courts" does not deprive federal district courts of federal question jurisdiction over private TCPA lawsuits, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled Jan. 18 (Marcus D. Mims v. Arrow Financial Services, LLC, No. 10-1195, U.S. Sup.).
In reversing and remanding an 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals order affirming a U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida ruling dismissing consumer Marcus D. Mims' complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction over his TCPA claims against debt collector Arrow Financial Services LLC, the Supreme Court held that 28 U.S. Code Section 1331 grants federal district courts jurisdiction over "Mims's complaint unless the TCPA, expressly or by fair implication, excludes federal-court adjudication."
The Supreme Court also rejected Arrow's contention that the U.S. Congress eliminated Section 1331 jurisdiction over private TCPA actions, finding that "Title 47 U.S.C. [U.S. Code] §227(b)(3)'s language may be state-court oriented, but 'the grant of jurisdiction to one court does not, of itself, imply that the jurisdiction is to be exclusive.'"
"Nothing in §227(b)(3)'s permissive language makes state-court jurisdiction exclusive, or otherwise purports to oust federal courts of their §1331 jurisdiction. The provision does not state that a private plaintiff may bring a TCPA action 'only' or 'exclusively' in state court. In contrast, 47 U.S.C.A. §227(g)(2) (Supp. 2011) vests 'exclusive jurisdiction' over state-initiated TCPA suits in the federal courts. Section 227(g)(2)'s exclusivity prescription 'reinforce[s] the conclusion that [47 U.S.C. §227(b)(3)'s] silence . . . leaves the jurisdictional grant of §1331 untouched. For where otherwise applicable jurisdiction was meant to be excluded, it was excluded expressly,'" the Supreme Court said.
The Supreme Court also ruled that Arrow's assertion that Congress lacked any reason to provide for a private action "'in an appropriate [state] court' . . . if it did not mean to make the state forum exclusive, for state courts would have concurrent jurisdiction even if Congress had said nothing at all" fails because "as already noted, Congress had simultaneously made federal-court jurisdiction exclusive in TCPA enforcement actions brought by state authorities, and may simply have wanted to avoid any argument that federal jurisdiction was also exclusive for private actions."
"Moreover, by providing that private actions may be brought in state court 'if otherwise permitted by the laws or rules of court of [the] State,' 47 U.S.C. §227(b)(3), Congress arguably gave States leeway that would otherwise lack to decide whether to entertain TCPA claims," the Supreme Court stated.
The Supreme Court also rejected Arrow's argument that making state court jurisdiction over Section 227(b)(3) claims exclusive serves Congress' objective of enabling states to control telemarketers whose interstate operations evaded state law, ruling that "[e]ven so, jurisdiction conferred by 28 U.S.C. §1331 should hold firm against 'mere implication flowing from subsequent legislation.'"
"Furthermore, had Congress sought only to fill a gap in the States' enforcement capabilities, it could have provided that out-of-state telemarketing calls directed into a State would be subject to the receiving State's laws. Instead, Congress enacted detailed, uniform, federal substantive prescriptions and provided for a regulatory regime administered by a federal agency," the Supreme Court explained.
The Supreme Court further held that "Arrow's reliance on a state by Senator [Fritz] Hollings [D-S.C.], the TCPA's sponsor, is misplaced."
"The remarks nowhere mention federal-court jurisdiction or otherwise suggest that 47 U. S. C. §227(b)(3) is intended to divest federal courts of authority over TCPA claims. Even if Hollings and other TCPA supporters expected private actions to proceed solely in state courts, their expectation would not control this Court's judgment on §1331's compass. Arrow's arguments that federal courts will be inundated by $500-per-violation TCPA claims or that defendants could use federal-court removal to force small-claims court plaintiffs to abandon suit seem more imaginary than real," the Supreme Court said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court.
Mims sued Arrow in the District Court, alleging that Arrow violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), the Florida Consumer Collection Practices Act (FCCPA) and the TCPA by failing to disclose "its name, that it was a debt collector and the purpose of its communication in telephone messages" to Mims in its attempt to collect on a debt.
Both parties stipulated to dismissal of the FDCPA and FCCPA claims, and on April 5, 2010, the District Court dismissed Mims' TCPA claim, ruling that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the TCPA claims.
Mims appealed the ruling to the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which affirmed.
Subject Matter Jurisdiction
In particular, an 11th Circuit panel rejected Mims' contention that although the Circuit Court had previously ruled that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over private actions under the TCPA, two Supreme Court rulings and a Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling required the 11th Circuit to reconsider its precedent.
Mims then appealed to the Supreme Court, filing a petition for writ of certiorari on March 30; the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal on June 27.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Nov. 28.
The National Consumer Law Center and National Association of Consumer Advocates filed a brief as amici curiae on behalf of Mims, while ACA International and the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center filed briefs as amici on behalf of Arrow Financial.
Mims is represented by Nelson and Deepak Gupta of the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington.
Arrow is represented by Garre and Barbara A. Sinsley of Barron, Newburger & Sinsley in Austin, Texas.
Amici National Consumer Law Center and National Association of Consumer Advocates are represented by Richard J. Rubin of Santa Fe, N.M. Amicus ACA International is represented by Peter E. Pederson of Hinshaw & Culbertson in Chicago. Amicus National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center is represented by Lisa S. Blatt of Arnold & Porter in Washington.
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