Spooktacular Severability Ruling Raises Barr From The Dead, Buries TCPA Claims Arising Between November 2015 and July 2020
A few weeks ago, the Eastern District of Louisiana held that courts cannot impose liability under Sections 227(b)(1)(A) or (b)(1)(B) of the TCPA for calls that were made before the Supreme Court cured those provisions’ unconstitutionality by severing their debt collection exemptions. The first-of-its-kind decision reasoned that courts cannot enforce unconstitutional laws, and severing the statute applied prospectively, not retroactively. Plaintiffs privately panicked but publicly proclaimed that the Creasy decision was “odd” and would not be followed.
So much for that. Yesterday, the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Ohio followed Creasy and dismissed another putative class action. The new case—Lindenbaum v. Realgy—arose from two prerecorded calls, one to a cellphone and another to a landline. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that “severance can only be applied prospectively,” that Sections 227(b)(1)(A) and (b)(1)(B) were unconstitutional when the calls were made, and that courts lack jurisdiction to enforce unconstitutional statutes. The plaintiff opposed the motion, arguing, among other things, that a footnote in Justice Kavanaugh’s plurality opinion in Barr v. AAPC suggests “that severance of the government-debt exception applies retroactively to all currently pending cases.”
The court sided with the defendant. It began by agreeing with Creasy that this issue “was not before the Supreme Court,” and the lone footnote in Justice Kavanaugh’s plurality opinion is “passing Supreme Court dicta of no precedential force.” It then surveyed the law and found “little, if any, support for the conclusion that severance of the government-debt exception should be applied retroactively so as to erase the existence of the exception.” It reasoned that, while judicial interpretations of laws are “given full retroactive effect in all cases still open on direct review and as to all events,” severance is different because it is “a forward-looking judicial fix” rather than a backward-looking judicial “remedy.” In short, severance renders statutes “void,” not “void ab initio.”
Defendants are now two-for-two in seeking dismissal of claims based on the now-undeniable unconstitutionality of the debt-collection exceptions in Section 227(b)(1)(A) or (b)(1)(B). With more such motions pending in courts across the country, this may become a powerful weapon against whatever claims remain after the Supreme Court’s decision in Facebook v. Duguid.