Matushek Nilles attorneys Mike Martinez and Vincenzo Chimera recently prevailed in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in a case alleging their client, a national telemarketing firm, illegally solicited donations on behalf of a “sham charity” in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227 (“TCPA”). Spiegel v. Associated Community Services, Inc., 733 Fed. Appx. 311 (7th Cir. 2018).
Plaintiff Marshall Spiegel had sued telemarketing firm Associated Community Services, Inc. (“ACS”) in an attempted class-action lawsuit alleging violations of the “Do Not Call” provision of the TCPA, which prohibits businesses from calling numbers listed on the national Do Not Call Registry to solicit “the purchase or rental of, or investment in, property, goods, or services,” unless the call is made by or on behalf of a “tax exempt nonprofit organization.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(a)(4); 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200(f)(14)(iii).
Summary judgment was entered on behalf of ACS because ACS’ telephone calls to Spiegel’s residence were made on behalf of BCS, which the district court found was recognized at all relevant times as a § 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization by the Internal Revenue Service. Spiegel appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing the district court erred in granting summary judgment to ACS because was BCS not a true “nonprofit” organization but rather a “sham charity” not subject to the exemption.
Mike Martinez was retained to defend ACS on appeal and, with the assistance of associate Vincenzo Chimera, successfully argued that the district court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of ACS should be upheld because district courts lack authority to overturn IRS tax-exempt designations and because plaintiff Spiegel failed to properly preserve his arguments for appeal. Following oral arguments on July 6, 2018, the Seventh Circuit panel issued a unanimous decision affirming summary judgment in favor of ACS. Spiegel v. Associated Community Services, Inc., 733 Fed. Appx. 311 (7th Cir. 2018).
Despite this victory, litigation under the TCPA continues to spin out of control, having “blossomed into a national cash cow for plaintiff’s attorneys specializing in [such] disputes.” Bridgeview Health Care Ct., Lt.d. v. Clark, 816 F.3d 935, 941 (7th Cir. 2016). Due largely to the prospect of uncapped statutory damages, TCPA litigation has spiked in recent years, particularly actions against small businesses not engaged in the telemarketing industry. The risk of TCPA liability has intensified in recent years with the emergence of new communications technologies, such as text messaging, which did not exist when the TCPA was enacted in 1991.
Although we succeeded in preventing the plaintiffs’ bar from further expanding the scope of liability in this Seventh Circuit case, it is expected that TCPA plaintiffs will continue seeking to expand TCPA liability by re-litigating the issue of whether district courts can overturn IRS designations of tax-exempt nonprofit status in cases where waiver cannot be claimed as a defense. If your business is facing the prospect of harassing TCPA litigation, or is uncertain of its exposure in this area of law, the attorneys at Matushek Nilles are available to discuss your options and defenses.
For additional information on this decision, the TCPA or appellate practice in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and appellate courts of Illinois, Indiana and Missouri, please contact Mike Martinez or Vincenzo Chimera.