FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (McClatchy) — The growing robocall menace is proving difficult to contain, but thousands of victims are finding a way to get even — by getting paid.
Federal class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of recipients of unwanted calls and texts are multiplying, compelling companies that violate the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) to agree to cash settlements.
Boca Raton, Florida-based attorney Michael Greenwald, representing a class of recipients of unwanted calls from medical debt collector NPAS Solutions LLC, appeared in federal court in West Palm Beach, Monday, to secure final approval for a $1.4 million settlement that will pay nearly 10,000 people $80 each. U.S. District Judge Robin L. Rosenberg approved the settlement after the hearing, according to a signed order.
Greenwald’s firm, Greenwald Davidson Radbil PLLC, focuses on class-action suits against telemarketers who violate the consumer protection act.
“When the caller is a legitimate business, like a bank or debt collector, existing federal law allows us to go after them,” Greenwald said. “In some instances, we’ve been able to get millions of dollars in compensation for those called.”
Most recorded debt collection calls are legal as long as the recipient is the caller’s customer. Just about every service agreement signed by customers of banks, credit cards, hospitals, gyms and so on includes a statement giving those companies the right to make automated phone calls.
It’s when the companies call people who aren’t customers that they open themselves to litigation, Greenwald said.
Lawsuits filed under the consumer protection act increased by 46 percent — from 2,127 to 3,121 — between August 2015 and December 2016, according to an Aug. 31 report by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, which believes the litigation has become abusive.
The increase was triggered by a 2015 declaratory order by the Federal Communications Commission, the chamber report says, which “loosened the standards for filing such suits.”
According to Greenwald, consumer protection act-based lawsuits started increasing along with the number of robocalls about a decade ago, after cellphones became our primary means of communication, and outbound calling became “infinitely cheaper” than it was when the act was enacted in 1991. While the law allows plaintiffs to pursue financial damages from “legitimate businesses” that violate the act, the most egregious players — the scammers who set up robocall operations overseas — remain out of reach.
“Unfortunately, when the callers are scams or other illegitimate entities, we don’t have a very good solution, and more attention needs to be given to that issue,” he said.
The case against NPAS Solutions was filed in March 2017 on behalf of anyone who had received cellphone calls from the debt collector’s “automatic telephone dialing system” between March 28, 2013 and Dec. 4, 2017.
According to the complaint, the consumer protection act restricts use of automated telephone equipment and nonemergency prerecorded voice calls without “prior express consent” of the called party.
NPAS Solutions, which operates a call center in Kentucky, violated the act by routinely dialing “wrong or reassigned telephone numbers that do not belong to the intended recipients of the calls,” the complaint stated. The company denied any wrongdoing prior to agreeing to settle, court records show.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Charles T. Johnson of Lantana, Fla., received numerous automated prerecorded calls to his cellphone from the company, which was trying to reach a third party named “Stephanie,” the suit stated.
When he answered the calls, Johnson was greeted by a voice recording instructing “Stephanie” to hold for the next available operator. The calls continued even after Johnson told a company representative it was calling the wrong person and demanded that the calls stop, the suit stated.
Anyone who received more than one call from NPAS Solutions that was intended for someone not assigned to the phone number was eligible to become a member of the class of plaintiffs.
To find those plaintiffs, Greenwald’s firm sent a settlement notice to everyone in NPAS Solution’s automated call database that had a “wrong number” notation, and those recipients only needed to check a box confirming they received wrong number calls, Greenwald said.
Anyone who didn’t get a claim form but thought they were class members could provide their phone number to see if it matched one of the “wrong numbers” in NPAS’ call records.
Other settlements reached by Greenwald’s firm for similar wrong-number robocalls include a $19.7 million agreement with debt collection firm Navient Solutions LLC in July 2017; a $30.4 million settlement with Wells Fargo Bank in May 2017; and a $3.8 million settlement with JPMorgan Chase Bank in June 2017.
Cruise lines Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean agreed in August to create a settlement fund worth $7 million to $12.5 million to settle a consumer protection act case that claims the companies contracted with a telemarketing company that placed unwanted calls between 2009 and 2014 claiming recipients had won free cruises, court records show.
Suits under the consumer protection act currently in litigation involve Ally Financial, Nationstar, Capital One, ADT Security, Gold’s Gym, Bank of America and Dish Network, according to a class-action lawsuit news site, topclassactions.com.
The website — which accepts ads from law firms and carries a disclaimer stating it’s a member of the American Bar Association — also includes links by which potential class members can connect to attorneys involved in the cases it reports about and possibly get paid if settlements are reached.
Those opportunities might recede if the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform succeeds in persuading Congress to act.
“American businesses have been besieged by litigation under the TCPA,” the institute said on its website. “A central theme with the unchecked expansion of the TCPA’s prohibitions is that it is not the unscrupulous scam telemarketers that are being targeted by TCPA litigation, but rather legitimate domestic businesses.”