Supreme Court avoids resolving question about a district court’s power to determine the legality of an agency regulation subject to judicial review in a court of appeals under the Hobbs Act

Thursday, June 20, 2019 - 9:30pm

Among other things, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act prohibits “unsolicited commercial faxes” and allows recipients to sue the sender.  In 2006, the FCC issued an order that interpreted “unsolicited commercial faxes” to include any faxes that promote goods or services, even for free.  Under a statute called “the Hobbs Act,” any challenge to the validity of orders like these from the FCC (and some other agencies) must be brought in a U.S. Court of Appeals within 60 days.  No one challenged the 2006 order.

Years later, the company that publishes the Physicians’ Desk Reference sent unsolicited faxes announcing the availability of the free version of the book online.  A group of plaintiffs who received the fax sued.  The defendant argued the fax wasn’t “commercial” because it wasn’t selling anything.  The federal district court agreed.  But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed, holding that the district court was bound to follow the FCC’s interpretation because no one challenged the 2006 order within the time allowed under the Hobbs Act. 

In this case, PDR Network v. Carlton & Harris Chiropractic, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to answer the question whether “the Hobbs Act required the District Court in this case to accept the FCC’s legal interpretation of the TCPA.”  The U.S. Chamber filed an amicus brief at the merits stage in support of neither party, encouraging the Court to protect reliance interests by holding that the Hobbs Act generally prohibits collateral challenges to agency rules, while also recognizing private defendants’ due process rights in district court proceedings to contest the applicability of agency regulations enforced against them.

The Court sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit to determine whether the FCC’s order was truly the type of binding order addressed by the Hobbs Act and, if so, whether defendants may have another avenue for challenging its validity.