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SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
FACEBOOK, INC., PETITIONER v.
NOAH DUGUID, et al.
on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit
[April 1, 2021]
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) proscribes abusive telemarketing practices by, among other things, imposing restrictions on making calls with an “automatic telephone dialing system.” As defined by the TCPA, an “automatic telephone dialing system” is a piece of equipment with the capacity both “to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator,” and to dial those numbers.
47 U. S. C. §227(a)(1). The question before the Court is whether that definition encompasses equipment that can “store” and dial telephone numbers, even if the device does not “us[e] a random or sequential number generator.” It does not. To qualify as an “automatic telephone dialing system,” a device must have the capacity either to store a telephone number using a random or sequential generator or to produce a telephone number using a random or sequential number generator.
In 1991, Congress passed the TCPA to address “the proliferation of intrusive, nuisance calls” to consumers and businesses from telemarketers. §2, ¶¶1, 6,
2394, note following
47 U. S. C. §227. Advances in automated technology made it feasible for companies to execute large-scale telemarketing campaigns at a fraction of the prior cost, dramatically increasing customer contacts. Infamously, the development of “robocall” technology allowed companies to make calls using artificial or prerecorded voices, obviating the need for live human callers altogether.
This case concerns “automatic telephone dialing systems” (hereinafter autodialers), which revolutionized telemarketing by allowing companies to dial random or sequential blocks of telephone numbers automatically. Congress found autodialer technology to be uniquely harmful. It threatened public safety by “seizing the telephone lines of public emergency services, dangerously preventing those lines from being utilized to receive calls from those needing emergency services.” H. R. Rep. No. 102–317, p. 24 (1991). Indeed, due to the sequential manner in which they could generate numbers, autodialers could simultaneously tie up all the lines of any business with sequentially numbered phone lines. Nor were individual consumers spared: Autodialers could reach cell phones, pagers, and unlisted numbers, inconveniencing consumers and imposing unwanted fees.[1
Against this technological backdrop, Congress made it unlawful to make certain calls “using any automatic telephone dialing system” to “emergency telephone line[s],” to “guest room[s] or patient room[s] of a hospital,” or “to any telephone number assigned to a paging service [or] cellular telephone service” without the “prior express consent of the called party.”
47 U. S. C. §227(b)(1)(A).[2
] The TCPA creates a private right of action for persons to sue to enjoin unlawful uses of autodialers and to recover up to $1,500 per violation or three times the plaintiffs’ actual monetary losses. §227(b)(3).
Petitioner Facebook, Inc., maintains a social media platform with an optional security feature that sends users “login notification” text messages when an attempt is made to access their Facebook account from an unknown device or browser. If necessary, the user can then log into Facebook and take action to secure the account. To opt in to this service, the user must provide and verify a cell phone number to which Facebook can send messages.
In 2014, respondent Noah Duguid received several login-notification text messages from Facebook, alerting him that someone had attempted to access the Facebook account associated with his phone number from an unknown browser. But Duguid has never had a Facebook account and never gave Facebook his phone number.[3
] Unable to stop the notifications, Duguid brought a putative class action against Facebook. He alleged that Facebook violated the TCPA by maintaining a database that stored phone numbers and programming its equipment to send automated text messages to those numbers each time the associated account was accessed by an unrecognized device or web browser.
Facebook moved to dismiss the suit, arguing primarily that Duguid failed to allege that Facebook used an autodialer because he did not claim Facebook sent text messages to numbers that were randomly or sequentially generated. Rather, Facebook argued, Duguid alleged that Facebook sent targeted, individualized texts to numbers linked to specific accounts. The U. S. District Court for the Northern District of California agreed and dismissed Duguid’s amended complaint with prejudice. 2017 WL 635117, *4–*5 (Feb. 16, 2017).
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. As relevant here, the Ninth Circuit held that Duguid had stated a claim under the TCPA by alleging that Facebook’s notification system automatically dialed stored numbers. An autodialer, the Court of Appeals held, need not be able to use a random or sequential generator to store numbers; it need only have the capacity to “ ‘store numbers to be called’ ” and “ ‘to dial such numbers automatically.’ ” 926 F.3d 1146, 1151 (2019) (quoting Marks
v. Crunch San Diego, LLC
, 904 F.3d 1041, 1053 (CA9 2018)).
We granted certiorari to resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals regarding whether an autodialer must have the capacity to generate random or sequential phone numbers.[4
] 591 U. S. ___ (2020). We now reverse the Ninth Circuit’s judgment.
Section 227(a)(1) defines an autodialer as:
“equipment which has the capacity—
“(A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and
“(B) to dial such numbers.”
Facebook argues the clause “using a random or sequential number generator” modifies both verbs that precede it (“store” and “produce”), while Duguid contends it modifies only the closest one (“produce”). We conclude that the clause modifies both, specifying how the equipment must either “store” or “produce” telephone numbers. Because Facebook’s notification system neither stores nor produces numbers “using a random or sequential number generator,” it is not an autodialer.
We begin with the text. Congress defined an autodialer in terms of what it must do (“store or produce telephone numbers to be called”) and how it must do it (“using a random or sequential number generator”). The definition uses a familiar structure: a list of verbs followed by a modifying clause. Under conventional rules of grammar, “[w]hen there is a straightforward, parallel construction that involves all nouns or verbs in a series,” a modifier at the end of the list “normally applies to the entire series.” A. Scalia & B. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 147 (2012) (Scalia & Garner) (quotation modified). The Court often applies this interpretative rule, usually referred to as the “series-qualifier canon.” See Paroline
v. United States
572 U.S. 434
, 447 (2014) (citing Porto Rico Railway, Light & Power Co.
253 U.S. 345
, 348 (1920)); see also United States
404 U.S. 336
, 339–340 (1971). This canon generally reflects the most natural reading of a sentence. Imagine if a teacher announced that “students must not complete or check any homework to be turned in for a grade, using online homework-help websites.” It would be strange to read that rule as prohibiting students from completing homework altogether, with or without online support.
Here, the series-qualifier canon recommends qualifying both antecedent verbs, “store” and “produce,” with the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator.” That recommendation produces the most natural construction, as confirmed by other aspects of §227(a)(1)(A)’s text.
To begin, the modifier at issue immediately follows a concise, integrated clause: “store or produce telephone numbers to be called.” See Cyan, Inc.
v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund
, 583 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2018) (slip op., at 21–22). The clause “hangs together as a unified whole,” id.,
at ___ (slip op., at 21), using the word “or” to connect two verbs that share a common direct object, “telephone numbers to be called.” It would be odd to apply the modifier (“using a random or sequential number generator”) to only a portion of this cohesive preceding clause.
This interpretation of §227(a)(1)(A) also “heed[s] the commands of its punctuation.” United States Nat. Bank of Ore.
v. Independent Ins. Agents of America, Inc.
508 U.S. 439
, 454 (1993). Recall that the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” follows a comma placed after the phrase “store or produce telephone numbers to be called.” As several leading treatises explain, “ ‘[a] qualifying phrase separated from antecedents by a comma is evidence that the qualifier is supposed to apply to all the antecedents instead of only to the immediately preceding one.’ ” W. Eskridge, Interpreting Law: A Primer on How To Read Statutes and the Constitution 67–68 (2016); see also 2A N. Singer & S. Singer, Sutherland Statutes and Statutory Construction §47:33, pp. 499–500 (rev. 7th ed. 2014); Scalia & Garner 161–162. The comma in §227(a)(1)(A) thus further suggests that Congress intended the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” to apply equally to both preceding elements.
Contrary to Duguid’s view, this interpretation does not conflict with the so-called “rule of the last antecedent.” Under that rule, “a limiting clause or phrase . . . should ordinarily be read as modifying only the noun or phrase that it immediately follows.” Barnhart
540 U.S. 20
, 26 (2003); see also Lockhart
v. United States
577 U.S. 347, 351 (2016). The rule of the last antecedent is context dependent. This Court has declined to apply the rule where, like here, the modifying clause appears after an integrated list. See Jama
v. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
543 U.S. 335
, 344, n. 4 (2005) (collecting cases). Moreover, even if the rule of the last antecedent were relevant here, it would provide no help to Duguid. The last antecedent before “using a random or sequential number generator” is not “produce,” as Duguid needs it to be, but rather “telephone numbers to be called.” There is “no grammatical basis,” Cyan
, 583 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 22), for arbitrarily stretching the modifier back to include “produce,” but not so far back as to include “store.”
In sum, Congress’ definition of an autodialer requires that in all cases, whether storing or producing numbers to be called, the equipment in question must use a random or sequential number generator. This definition excludes equipment like Facebook’s login notification system, which does not use such technology.[5
The statutory context confirms that the autodialer definition excludes equipment that does not “us[e] a random or sequential number generator.”
47 U. S. C. §227(a)(1)(A). Consider the TCPA’s restrictions on the use of autodialers. As previously noted, §227(b)(1) makes it unlawful to use an autodialer to call certain “emergency telephone line[s]” and lines “for which the called party is charged for the call.” §227(b)(1)(A). It also makes it unlawful to use an autodialer “in such a way that two or more telephone lines of a multiline business are engaged simultaneously.” §227(b)(1)(D). These prohibitions target a unique type of telemarketing equipment that risks dialing emergency lines randomly or tying up all the sequentially numbered lines at a single entity.
Expanding the definition of an autodialer to encompass any equipment that merely stores and dials telephone numbers would take a chainsaw to these nuanced problems when Congress meant to use a scalpel. Duguid’s interpretation of an autodialer would capture virtually all modern cell phones, which have the capacity to “store . . . telephone numbers to be called” and “dial such numbers.” §227(a)(1). The TCPA’s liability provisions, then, could affect ordinary cell phone owners in the course of commonplace usage, such as speed dialing or sending automated text message responses. See §227(b)(3) (authorizing a $500 fine per violation, increased to $1,500 if the sender acted “willfully” or “knowingly”).[6
Duguid’s counterarguments cannot overcome the clear commands of §227(a)(1)(A)’s text and the statutory context. The crux of Duguid’s argument is that the autodialer definition calls for a construction that accords with the “sense” of the text. Brief for Respondents 11, and n. 3. It makes the most “sense,” Duguid insists, to apply the phrase “using a random or sequential number generator” to modify only “produce,” which, unlike the verb “store,” is closely connected to the noun “generator.” Dictionary definitions of “generator,” for instance, regularly include the word “produce,” which carries a very different meaning than “store.” Duguid also claims that, at the time of the TCPA’s enactment, the technical meaning of a “random number generator” invoked ways of producing numbers, not means of storing them.
Perhaps Duguid’s interpretive approach would have some appeal if applying the traditional tools of interpretation led to a “linguistically impossible” or contextually implausible outcome. Encino Motorcars, LLC
, 584 U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (slip op., at 8); see also Advocate Health Care Network
, 581 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (slip op., at 11) (noting that a “sense of inconceivability” might “urg[e] readers to discard usual rules of interpreting text”). Duguid makes a valiant effort to prove as much, but ultimately comes up short. It is true that, as a matter of ordinary parlance, it is odd to say that a piece of equipment “stores” numbers using a random number “generator.” But it is less odd as a technical matter. Indeed, as early as 1988, the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office issued patents for devices that used a random number generator to store numbers to be called later (as opposed to using a number generator for immediate dialing).[7
] Brief for Professional Association for Customer Engagement et al. as Amici Curiae
15–21. At any rate, Duguid’s interpretation is contrary to the ordinary reading of the text and, by classifying almost all modern cell phones as autodialers, would produce an outcome that makes even less sense.
Duguid’s reliance on the distributive canon fails for similar reasons. That canon provides that “[w]here a sentence contains several antecedents and several consequents,” courts should “read them distributively and apply the words to the subjects which, by context, they seem most properly to relate.” 2A Singer, Sutherland Statutes and Statutory Construction §47:26, at 448. Set aside for a moment that the canon’s relevance is highly questionable given there are two antecedents (store and produce) but only one consequent modifier (using a random or sequential number generator). See Encino Motorcars
, 584 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 8) (“[T]he distributive canon has the most force when the statute allows for one-to-one matching”). As just explained, the consequent “using a random or sequential number generator” properly relates to both antecedents.
Duguid next turns to legislative purpose, but he merely gestures at Congress’ “broad privacy-protection goals.” Brief for Respondents 28 (emphasizing that Congress prohibited calls made using an autodialer without “ ‘prior express consent of the called party’ ” (quoting
47 U. S. C. §227(b)(1)(A))). That Congress was broadly concerned about intrusive telemarketing practices, however, does not mean it adopted a broad autodialer definition. Congress expressly found that the use of random or sequential number generator technology caused unique problems for business, emergency, and cellular lines. See supra,
at 2. Unsurprisingly, then, the autodialer definition Congress employed includes only devices that use such technology, and the autodialer prohibitions target calls made to such lines. See §227(b)(1)(A).[8
] The narrow statutory design, therefore, does not support Duguid’s broad interpretation.
Duguid last warns that accepting Facebook’s interpretation will “unleash” a “torrent of robocalls.” Brief for Respondents 38 (quotation modified). As Duguid sees it, the thrust of congressional action since the TCPA’s enactment has been to restrict nuisance calls. Because technology “adapt[s] to change,” Duguid argues, the TCPA must be treated as an “ ‘agile tool.’ ” Id.,
at 38, 41. To this end, Duguid asks this Court to focus not on whether a device has the “senescent technology,” id.,
at 41, of random or sequential number generation but instead on whether it has the “capacity to dial numbers without human intervention,” id.
, at 39 (internal quotation marks omitted).
To begin with, Duguid greatly overstates the effects of accepting Facebook’s interpretation. The statute separately prohibits calls using “an artificial or prerecorded voice” to various types of phone lines, including home phones and cell phones, unless an exception applies. See 47 U. S. C. §§227(b)(1)(A) and (B). Our decision does not affect that prohibition. In any event, Duguid’s quarrel is with Congress, which did not define an autodialer as malleably as he would have liked. “Senescent” as a number generator (and perhaps the TCPA itself ) may be, that is no justification for eschewing the best reading of §227(a)(1)(A). This Court must interpret what Congress wrote, which is that “using a random or sequential number generator” modifies both “store” and “produce.”
* * *
We hold that a necessary feature of an autodialer under §227(a)(1)(A) is the capacity to use a random or sequential number generator to either store or produce phone numbers to be called. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.