Limiting Junk Fax Class Actions: Online Fax Services Outside Scope of TCPA FCC Rules
On December 9, 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) issued a declaratory ruling In the Matter of Amerifactors Financial Group, LLC (“Amerifactors”) concluding that modern faxing technologies are not within the scope of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). The Amerifactors ruling, which follows the express language of the TCPA, determines that faxes received via an online fax service as electronic messages are effectively email and therefore are not faxes received on a “telephone facsimile machine” under the statute. This narrows the scope of the TCPA to traditional fax machines and will make it more difficult for attorneys to certify classes of fax recipients under the TCPA, ideally curbing the plethora of TCPA Fax class action lawsuits.
In 2017, Amerifactors filed a petition for an expedited declaratory ruling asking the FCC to “clarify that faxes sent by “online fax services” are not faxes sent to “telephone facsimile machines” therefore, outside of the scope of the TCPA. While faxing has declined in usage significantly, many of those who still receive faxes do so through cloud-based services that send the document via an attachment to an email. At the time of Amerifactors’ declaratory filing, they were defending a class action suit with claims that Amerifactors violated the TCPA by sending unsolicited fax messages, the bulk of which were sent to consumers from online fax services.
FCC Ruling and Logic
In the Amerifactors ruling, the FCC explained that faxes sent by online fax services do not lead to the “specific harms” Congress sought to address in the TCPA’s Junk Fax Protection Amendment and concluded that “a fax received by an online fax service as an electronic message is effectively an email.”
Unlike printed fax messages that require the recipient to supply paper and ink, the FCC concluded consumers can manage faxes sent by online fax services the same way they manage their email by blocking senders or deleting incoming messages without printing them, short-circuiting many of the specific harms envisioned by the original legislation. With online fax services, there is no phone-line that is occupied and therefore unavailable for other purposes, and no paper or ink used that must be supplied by the recipient. Clarifying legislative intent, the FCC stated:
“The House Report on the TCPA makes clear that the facsimile provisions of the statute were intended to curb two specific harms: “First, [a fax advertisement] shifts some of the costs of advertising from the sender to the recipient. Second, it occupies the recipient’s facsimile machine so that it is unavailable for legitimate business messages while processing and printing the junk fax.”
In many ways, the FCC ruling in Amerifactors demonstrates FCC recognition of the changes in faxing technology. Steven Augustino of KelleyDrye, one of the attorneys who represented Amerifactors, points out that the language we use now does not match the technology that has largely replaced traditional faxing technology, instead offering a short-hand that has roots in an earlier era—and that references dead technologies. Augustino says:
“Amerifactors argued that the term “faxing” has outlived the actual technology of faxing, much in the same way that we still dial a telephone even though no one has a rotary telephone, or we “cc” people on emails but we aren’t using carbon copies. In many ways, saying ‘I sent a fax’ is similar to that, the term has outlived the technology that has supported it.”
There is reason to believe that this is the first of many declaratory rulings on fax matters under the TCPA. As of November 2019, there are thirty-six petitions in front of the FCC, and six of those petitions specifically address “junk” faxing rules. These petitions represent a variety of faxing issues, such as consent and the definition of an advertisement. The declaratory ruling in Amerifactors and the FCC’s reasoning related to technological changes will likely impact the FCC’s rule-making on similar issues.
Implications for Future TCPA Fax Class Action Lawsuits
“While the traditional fax machine has faded out of today’s business communications, online fax services provide secure communications that are critical to providing consumers with secure information about their finances, health and other important matters. The FCC’s ruling allows for these communications to continue without interference from debilitating class-action lawsuits.”
Per Samantha Duke of RumbergerKirk who also represented Amerifactors:
“First, according to the Hobbs Act, federal district courts are bound to enforce the FCC’s rules, regulations, and orders relating to the TCPA. Thus, this declaratory ruling may impact all fax class actions filed in the district courts in the country.”
The Amerifactors ruling requires a closer look at how faxes are being received complicating how class actions are certified under the TCPA. Per Duke:
“The Amerifactors ruling now makes the method by which the fax was received key to determining whether any particular unsolicited facsimile violates the TCPA. This individualized determination will most certainly complicate any attempt to certify a TCPA-fax class action as the question of whether the facsimile was sent to an online fax service will predominate over any common issue.”
In short, unless a fax comes through an old-school fax machine, it’s outside the reach of the TCPA per the FCC’s Amerifactors ruling.
 See Petition for Expedited Declaratory Ruling of Amerifactors Financial Group, LLC, CG Docket Nos. 02-278, 05-338, at 2 (filed July 13, 2017) (Petition).
 Amerifactors Financial Group, LLC was represented by Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, PA attorneys Douglas B. Brown and Samantha Duke, along with attorney Steven A. Augustino of Kelley Drye & Warren LLP.