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Stauffer v. Navient Solutions, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 13, 2017



          Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge

         Plaintiff Crystal Stauffer ("Stauffer") commenced the instant action against defendant Navient Solutions, LLC ("Navient"), [1] under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, 47 U.S.C. § 227. Stauffer contends that Navient initiated several calls to her personal cellular telephone in violation of the Act. (Doc. 1). Before the court is Navient's motion (Doc. 33) for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The court will grant the motion.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History[2]

         On April 20, 2010, Stauffer applied for federal student loans to cover the cost of her education at Everest College. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 1; Doc. 36 ¶ 1). Stauffer executed a master promissory note to obtain the loans. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 2; Doc. 36 ¶ 2). Therein, she authorized the school, the Department of Education ("Department"), or their respective agents to contact her regarding the loans "at the current or any future number that [she] provide[s] for [her] cellular telephone or other wireless device using automated telephone dialing equipment . . . ." (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 3; Doc. 36 ¶ 3). Stauffer provided a telephone number ending in "5039." (Doc. 33-2 at 15).

         Stauffer executed an unemployment deferment request on February 26, 2012. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 4; Doc. 36 ¶ 4). In connection with her request, Stauffer again authorized the Department, her school, her lender, and any guarantor to contact her about the loans. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 5; Doc. 36 ¶ 5). Like the 2010 note, the deferment request granted those parties permission to contact Stauffer at the telephone number listed on the request and "any future number" that she provides. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 5; Doc. 36 ¶ 5). Stauffer provided a telephone number ending in "1687" in connection with her request. (Doc. 33-2 at 24).

         Stauffer thereafter sought additional federal student loans to enroll in courses at Ashford University. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 6; Doc. 36 ¶ 6). Stauffer executed a second master promissory note on January 10, 2014 to obtain the new loans. (See Doc. 33-1 ¶ 7; Doc. 36 ¶ 7). Stauffer listed a third telephone number ending in "3005" in the 2014 note. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 8; Doc. 36 ¶ 8). The 2014 note granted permission to the school, the Department, and their "agents and contractors" to contact Stauffer concerning her loans at the 3005 number or "any future number" she supplies. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 9; Doc. 36 ¶ 9).

         Navient has serviced both of Stauffer's federal student loans pursuant to a contract with the Department of Education since May 2013. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 11; Doc. 36 ¶ 11). Navient services loans at the account level rather than by individual loan. (See Doc. 33-1 ¶ 12; Doc. 36 ¶ 12). It uses any telephone number provided by the debtor as a contact number for all loans on the debtor's account. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 12; see Doc. 36 ¶ 12). Navient first called the 3005 number on February 14, 2014. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 19; Doc. 36 ¶ 19). During this call, Stauffer requested a student loan deferment. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 26; Doc. 36 ¶ 26). Thereafter, Navient did not call the 3005 number again for more than one year. (See Doc. 33-1 ¶ 20; Doc. 36 ¶ 20). Beginning in February 2015, Navient attempted to contact Stauffer concerning past-due payments for the 2010 Everest loans. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 25; Doc. 36 ¶ 25). Between February 19, 2015 and May 26, 2015, Navient called the 3005 number 81 times. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 22; Doc. 36 ¶ 22). Stauffer answered only one of the 81 calls: on May 26, 2015, she spoke with a Navient representative and advised that Navient had dialed an incorrect number. (Doc. 33-1 ¶ 26; Doc. 36 ¶ 26). Stauffer did not tell Navient to stop calling the 3005 number.[3] (Doc. 33 ¶¶ 28-32; Doc. 36 ¶¶ 28-32). Nonetheless, Navient did not call the 3005 number after May 26, 2015. (See Doc. 33-2 at 68-70).

         Stauffer commenced the instant action with the filing of a complaint (Doc. 1) on August 7, 2015. She filed an amended complaint (Doc. 31) on May 27, 2016. Therein, Stauffer asserts a single statutory claim, to wit: that Navient knowingly violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. (Id. ¶¶ 26-33). Stauffer contends that she did not consent to calls at the 3005 number concerning the loans issued in 2010. (See id.) Navient filed the pending motion for summary judgment on July 29, 2016. (Doc. 33). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine dispute as to any material fact" and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The burden of proof tasks the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings, " in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon. 331 F.Supp.2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett. 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby. Inc.. 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp.. 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. See Pappas, 331 F.Supp.2d at 315.

         III. Discussion

         Congress enacted the Telephone Consumer Protection Act in 1991 with the principal purpose of protecting consumers from "intrusive and unwanted calls." Gager v. Dell Fin. Servs.. LLC. 727 F.3d 265, 268 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Mims v. Arrow Fins. Servs.. LLC. 565 U.S. 368, 372-73 (2012)). Through the Act, Congress sought to harmonize individual privacy rights with the freedom of commercial speech. See Telephone Consumer Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 102-243, § 2(9), 105 Stat. 2394 (1991) (codified as amended at 47 U.S.C. § 227); see Levse v. Bank of Am. Nat. Ass'n, 804 F.3d 316, 326 (3d Cir. 2015).

         The Act proscribes four principal practices. See 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1). Pertinent sub judice, the Act forbids placement of "any call (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with the prior express consent of the called party) using any automatic telephone dialing system ... to any telephone number assigned to a . . . cellular telephone service." Id. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). The Act does not define "prior express consent." See id. However, Congress has empowered the Federal Communications Commission ("FCC" or "commission") to implement and enforce the Act, Gager, 727 F.3d at 268-69 (citing 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(2)), and the FCC has propounded extensive guidance on the subject. District courts are bound by the FCC's interpretive guidance. See Hartley Culp v. Green Tree Servicing, LLC, 52 F.Supp.3d 700, 703 (M.D. Pa. 2014); see also Mais v. Gulf Coast Collection Bureau, Inc., 768 F.3d 1110, 1119-21 (11th Cir. 2014).

         The FCC first explored prior express consent in a 1992 rulemaking. See In the Matter of Rules and Regulations Implementing the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, 7 FCC Red. 8752 (Oct. 16, 1992) ("1992 Ruling"). The FCC resolves therein that a business may lawfully place autodialed calls to "persons who knowingly release their phone numbers" thereto. Id. at 8769. The commission holds that such persons have invited calls to the number given "absent instructions to the contrary." IcL The FCC highlights the Act's legislative history, which notes that "in such instances, 'the called party has in essence requested the contact by providing the caller with their telephone number for use in normal business communications.'" Id. (quoting H.R. Rep. 102-317, at 13 (1991)). The 1992 Ruling distinguishes permissible contacts (made to a number "knowingly released") from the impermissible, providing as an example the "capturing" of a telephone number from caller Id.Id. The commission reasons that, in the latter circumstance, "the caller cannot be considered to have given an invitation or permission" to be called. Id., The FCC operated under the 1992 Ruling for more than ten years until the commission's next substantial rulemaking in 2003. See In the Matter of Rules and Regulations Implementing the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, 18 FCC Red. 14014 (July 3, 2003) ("2003 Ruling"). The cardinal purpose of the 2003 Ruling is to establish, in connection with the Federal Trade Commission, a national do-not-call registry. IcL at 14017. The bulk of the ruling is inapposite sub judice, but one ...

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