By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - Consumers have a right under a federal law to revoke their consent to being contacted on their cell phones by automated dialing systems, a U.S. appeals court decided on Thursday in a defeat for computer maker Dell Inc.
Reversing a lower court ruling, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania woman, Ashley Gager, who complained that Dell hounded her with more than 40 calls in less than three weeks to collect a delinquent debt after she had sent a letter asking it to stop.
Circuit Judge Jane Roth said Congress intended the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 to protect consumers from unwanted automated calls, a conclusion supported by a 2012 Federal Communications Commission ruling in an unrelated case.
She rejected Dell's argument that because the law did not address whether consumers may revoke consent to be contacted by an autodialing system, such a right to revoke did not exist.
"We find that the TCPA provides consumers with the right to revoke their prior express consent to be contacted on cellular phones by autodialing systems," Roth wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. "Because the TCPA is a remedial statute, it should be construed to benefit consumers."
Dell, which is based in Round Rock, Texas, and its law firm did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Cary Flitter, a lawyer for Gager, did not immediately respond to a similar request.
According to court papers, Gager had in 2007 filled in her cellphone number in place of her home number on an application for a Dell credit line, which the Honesdale, Pennsylvania resident used to buy thousands of dollars of computer equipment.
After Gager defaulted, Dell began leaving the automated messages, and continued doing so even after receiving a letter in December 2010 from Gager asking it to stop, the papers show.
In May 2012, U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani dismissed Gager's lawsuit, saying that she should have told Dell at the time she gave her cellphone number not to make automated calls.
The 3rd Circuit sent the case back to Mariani's courtroom for further proceedings, and said Dell remains entitled to pursue the unpaid debt.
"Dell will still be able to telephone Gager about her delinquent account," Roth said. "The only limitation imposed by the TCPA is that Dell will not be able to use an automated dialing system to do so."
The case is Gager v. Dell Financial Services LLC, 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-2823.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)