U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court rules for Facebook in dispute over texts; justices spar over 'series-qualifier canon'

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for Facebook on Thursday in a dispute over the reach of a law that restricts calls to cellphones made with an “automatic telephone dialing system.”

The high court ruled that the provision in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 did not apply to Facebook’s targeted texts alerting users that an unrecognized browser had attempted to use their Facebook account.

The law applies only to autodialers that can store numbers “using a random or sequential number generator” or that can produce phone numbers using the random generator, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court.

Sotomayor’s April 1 opinion was joined by seven other members of the court. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. concurred in the judgment but objected to the court’s description of a grammar guideline used to decide the case.

The name plaintiff in the lawsuit, Noah Duguid, received several texts from Facebook notifying him of login attempts, even though he never had a Facebook account and never gave the social media company his phone number.

Facebook had suggested that Duguid received the texts because he had a recycled phone number that belonged to a previous Facebook user who opted to receive the login notifications and provided a contact number.

The case turned on the wording of the TCPA, grammar guidelines and a canon of statutory interpretation known as the “series-qualifier canon.”

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

The issue was whether the definition includes equipment that can “store” and dial phone numbers, even if the device does not use a random or sequential number generator.

Facebook had argued that the clause “using a random or sequential number generator” modifies both the words “store” and “produce.” The plaintiff argued that the number-generator clause modified only the closest verb, “produce,” so Facebook could be liable for its automated texts to stored phone numbers.

The Supreme Court agreed with Facebook in concluding that devices without a random generator aren’t covered by the law. One rule of grammar supporting Facebook’s interpretation, Sotomayor said, is the series-qualifier canon.

The canon holds that when there is a parallel series of verbs or nouns followed by a modifier, the modifier normally applies to the whole series. As applied to the autodialer definition, the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” modifies “store” and “produce,” Sotomayor said.

Applying the series-qualifier canon to the definition also “produces the most natural construction,” Sotomayor wrote. She also cited the placement of the comma before the modifier as further evidence that the modifying phrase applies to “store” and “produce.”

In his concurrence, Alito agreed with the court’s decision but wrote separately to express concerns about its “heavy reliance” on the series-qualifier canon. The canon is not a rule of grammar but rather a presumption that depends on context, he said.

Alito went on to list sentences that go against the canon:

• “At the Super Bowl party, she ate, drank, and cheered raucously.”

• “On Saturday, he relaxes and exercises vigorously.”

• “When his owner comes home, the dog wags his tail and barks loudly.”

• “It is illegal to hunt rhinos and giraffes with necks longer than 3 feet.”

• “She likes to swim and run wearing track spikes.”

“Statutes are written in English prose, and interpretation is not a technical exercise to be carried out by mechanically applying a set of arcane rules,” Alito wrote. “Canons of interpretation can help in figuring out the meaning of troublesome statutory language, but if they are treated like rigid rules, they can lead us astray.”

In the fifth footnote, Sotomayor agreed that linguistic canons are tools, rather than inflexible rules. But courts “should approach these interpretive problems methodically, using traditional tools of statutory interpretation,” she said.

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