ST. LOUIS — A district judge has certified a lawsuit as class-action that claims millions of robocalls with a message purportedly from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee were unlawfully sent to landlines across the country.
U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber certified the suit in January, which was filed by the Chesterfield-based law firm Schultz & Associates LLP in the U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. This follows an earlier dismissal by the judge and an appellate court reversal of that decision.
The suit alleges violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). In the complaint, the plaintiffs say they unlawfully received telephone messages initiated by the defendants, which include Texas billionaire Dr. James Leininger and two limited liability companies, Veritas Entertainment and Veritas Marketing,
It is unlawful under the TCPA to send unsolicited messages of commercial content via the telephone.
If found liable, the defendants could be on the hook for between $500 and $1,500, the greater the amount if the actions are found to be willful, for each of the four million calls made in September 2012. Damages could potentially run as high as $2 billion.
"Any resolution of the case before the federal court in St. Louis is a long way off," Mary Ann Wymore, a St. Louis-based lawyer, told the St. Louis Record.
Wymore has acted for the defense in hundreds of lawsuits alleging breaches of the TCPA.
"The 1991 act, which tried to legislate against unwanted calls, has spawned decades of confusion, no significant trials and no rulings at the U.S. Supreme Court level," Wymore said.
There are a number of issues surrounding the TCPA, including what is considered protected speech, the line crossed to commercial advertising, the debate over whether the damage done is so small that it fills the suit and the identification of the defendant, Wymore said.
“It all comes to a crossroads in this case,” Wymore said, adding that she thinks it will end up in law school examinations in the future.
The message in the robocalls, which were apparently recorded by Huckabee, began as a survey asking people about their beliefs in freedom and liberty, for example. But, the plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit, it became apparent as the message continued that it was an advertisement for the Christian-themed movie Last Ounce of Courage.
The movie was largely financed by Leininger, who also paid for the robocalls, according to the lawsuit. While Huckabee was originally a defendant, he has since been removed from the case.
Wymore said the case asks questions such as who the sender is, whether it is commercial or protected speech and whether there was any real injury.
But it is not just about parsing the content between the survey and the information about the movie Wymore said. For example, she said, movies are protected by free speech.
The movie tells the story of a city mayor who wants to honor his dead son by bringing Christian values to city hall. He is opposed by a lawyer from the ACLO, likely based on the ACLU.
After opening in 2012, the film grossed $3.3 million on unknown production costs, according to Box Office Mojo. It likely took in money from various other platforms.