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Supreme Court sides with Facebook in class-action dispute over robo-texts

Facebook had argued to the Supreme Court that a lower court’s definition of an auto-dialer could have imposed massive damages for what the social media giant characterized as minor inconveniences. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)
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The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Facebook in a complaint about unwanted text messages and dismissed Florida’s long-running claim that Georgia’s upstream consumption of river water ruined the oyster industry in the Florida Panhandle.

In a third unanimous decision, the court said the Federal Communications Commission complied with the law in its rules easing limits on the ownership of local television and radio stations.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court in the Facebook case, saying a 1991 federal ban on robocalls did not cover Facebook’s system of sending text messages to inform that someone had logged into an account from an unknown device or browser.

The court was interpreting the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which Sotomayor said was passed to govern the then-recent technology that “infamously” allowed companies to make calls “using artificial or prerecorded voices, obviating the need for live human callers.”

Noah Duguid said it also covered the unwanted text messages he received from Facebook. ­Duguid did not have an account with the company and thus had not given it permission to text him. (Sotomayor said it was likely he had been assigned a cellphone number recycled from someone who had).

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Unable to stop the notifications, he filed a putative class-action suit in 2014, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said it could go forward.

The TCPA defines an “automatic telephone dialing system” as equipment with the capacity “to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator,” and to dial those numbers.

Because Facebook’s system doesn’t use a random or sequential number generator, Sotomayor wrote, it does not qualify.

In passing the law, Congress was targeting “a unique type of telemarketing equipment that risks dialing emergency lines randomly or tying up all the sequentially numbered lines at a single entity,” such as a business, Sotomayor wrote.

“Expanding the definition of an auto-dialer to encompass any equipment that merely stores and dials telephone numbers would take a chain saw to these nuanced problems when Congress meant to use a scalpel.”

Facebook had argued that the 9th Circuit’s definition could have imposed massive damage awards for minor inconveniences.

The case is Facebook v. Duguid.

A costly water dispute

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the court’s order dismissing Florida’s claim that Georgia’s overuse of water by farmers in the southwest portion of that state has ruined the once-vibrant oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay.

“Considering the record as a whole, Florida has not shown that it is ‘highly probable’ that Georgia’s alleged overconsumption played more than a trivial role in the collapse of Florida’s oyster fisheries,” Barrett wrote for the unanimous court.

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It was the second time in three years that the justices have considered the nearly decade-long dispute, in which the two states have spent upward of $100 million in legal fees. In 2018, the court sent the case back for further fact-finding by a special master.

Apalachicola Bay, an estuary recognized by the United Nations for its uniqueness, once produced 10 percent of the nation’s oysters and 90 percent of those from Florida. But it requires a delicate balance of fresh water from rivers that run through Georgia and salt water from the Gulf of Mexico.

The oyster industry was devastated in 2013, and Florida said Georgia’s consumption of fresh water was largely to blame, citing agricultural use in southwest Georgia and water demand in metro Atlanta. (The latter was dropped in the latest challenge.)

“The precise causes of the bay’s oyster collapse remain a subject of ongoing scientific debate. As judges, we lack the expertise to settle that debate and do not purport to do so here,” Barrett wrote.

But she said expert testimony pointed more clearly to drought and Florida’s decision to allow greater harvesting of oysters in 2012 than to Georgia’s water use. Florida recently banned oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay for up to five years as part of a $20 million restoration effort.

Georgia officials praised the court’s ruling. “Today the Supreme Court of the United States, in a unanimous decision, affirmed what we have long known to be true: Georgia’s water use has been fair and reasonable,” Attorney General Chris Carr said in a statement.

The case is Florida v. Georgia.

FCC rules on media ownership

The court was also unanimous in ruling for the FCC, which in 2017 eased ownership limits on local media by rewriting rules that predated the rise of cable and the Internet.

One rule prevented a single entity from owning a radio or television station and a daily newspaper in the same market. Another limited the number of combined radio and television stations a company could own locally, and the third restriction involved the number of local television stations.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit agreed with a group challenging the rules that the commission did not properly evaluate how the changes could affect minority and female ownership.

But Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote that the commission did the best it could and met the requirements of federal law.

“FCC repeatedly asked commenters to submit empirical or statistical studies on the relationship between the ownership rules and minority and female ownership,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Despite those requests, no commenter produced such evidence indicating that changing the rules was likely to harm minority and female ownership.”

The court concluded that “the FCC made a reasonable predictive judgment based on the evidence it had.”

Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the decision but wrote separately to say there was another reason the appeals court decision should be overturned.

“The Third Circuit improperly imposed nonstatutory procedural requirements on the FCC by forcing it to consider ownership diversity in the first place,” Thomas wrote. “The FCC had no obligation to consider minority and female ownership.”

The case is FCC v. Prometheus Radio Project.