Plaintiff’s TCPA Suit Stays in Federal Court

TCPA Connect

A plaintiff could not get his Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) class action remanded to state court after a Pennsylvania federal court found he had standing to remain in federal court.

The case is Walker v. Highmark BCBSD Health Options, Inc. The plaintiff, Christopher James Walker, accused Highmark of placing unsolicited automated/prerecorded calls to his cellphone, and those of putative class members, without consent.

Walker filed suit in Pennsylvania state court in November 2020. Highmark removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania the following month.

In response, Walker filed a motion to remand. He argued that Highmark (as the party seeking removal) failed to demonstrate that his complaint satisfied the injury in fact requirement necessary for Article III standing.

U.S. District Judge Christy Criswell Wiegand sided with Highmark and denied the motion to remand.

Standing under Article III is a necessary prerequisite to subject matter jurisdiction, she agreed, citing Spokeo v. Robins for the three elements necessary: an injury in fact, that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.

Judge Wiegand also relied on a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decision, Susinno v. Work Out World, Inc., where the federal appellate panel reversed dismissal of a TCPA complaint and ruled that a single unsolicited call to a cellphone, coupled with a one-minute, prerecorded voicemail message, was sufficient to constitute injury in fact to satisfy Article III.

The plaintiff in Susinno alleged the very injury the statute was intended to prevent, the court said, an injury that was closely related to a violation of privacy rights, a harm traditionally recognized under common law.

Applying Susinno, the district court found that Walker had standing under Article III.

“Plaintiff’s Complaint alleges multiple violations of the TCPA by Defendant, including six specifically alleged instances of unsolicited, pre-recorded calls and/or voicemail messages to Plaintiff’s cellphone from September through November 2020,” Judge Wiegand wrote. “And, although Plaintiff does not explicitly claim that these calls were an invasion of privacy, the Complaint states that Plaintiff was never a customer of Defendant and ‘Plaintiff never provided consent to Defendant for the calls and does not know how Defendant obtained his number,’ thereby implicating Plaintiff’s privacy interests.”

Walker “has alleged injuries that are both clearly delineated by statute and closely related to a harm traditionally recognized at common law,” the court said. “Therefore, the injury in fact element of standing is apparent from the face of the Complaint.”

Further, the remaining standing elements were also satisfied, Judge Wiegand noted: The alleged TCPA violations were attributed to Highmark making unsolicited, prerecorded calls to Walker’s cellphone, and the alleged injury was redressable through statutory and—if the violations are proven to have been willful—treble damages.

To read the memorandum opinion and order in Walker v. Highmark BCBSD Health Options, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: Although it may seem counterintuitive for a plaintiff to argue that he lacks injury in fact to maintain jurisdiction, various plaintiffs have attempted this argument as of late to avoid federal jurisdictions, like the Third Circuit, where the law on what constitutes an “automatic telephone dialing system” under the TCPA is defendant-friendly. Some (as in the Eleventh Circuit) have had success with it, but many others have not. Here, Walker tried to convince the court that the six calls he allegedly received from the defendant were insufficient to keep his case in federal court. This court disagreed, denying his motion to remand. If the plaintiff in Susinno stayed in federal court after receiving only one phone call and one voicemail, Walker’s alleged six calls clearly satisfied the injury in fact requirement of Article III standing, the court said.

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