ST. LOUIS – A federal judge in St. Louis on Thursday ordered a Virginia man and his companies to pay $32.4 million in damages for improper robocalls narrated by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee that promoted a religious-themed movie.
U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber said in the ruling that Gabriel Joseph III and his companies violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by making commercial calls to more than 3.2 million recipients without their consent.
The calls made in 2012 promoted the movie "Last Ounce of Courage," a drama about the "war on Christmas." The calls in question begin with Huckabee — a Southern Baptist minister turned Republican politician who ran for president in 2008 and 2016 — saying he has a "45-second survey," according to court documents. Huckabee was dismissed from the suit.
"Do you believe in American freedom and liberty? ... Would you, like me, Mike Huckabee, like to see Hollywood respect and promote traditional American values?" Huckabee said in the calls, according to court documents. "I am an enthusiastic supporter of a new movie called 'Last Ounce of Courage.' It is a film about faith, freedom, and taking a stand for American values."
The Telephone Consumer Protection Act allows for a fine of $500 per violation; Webber's ruling amounted to a fine of $10 per call.
Kevin Carnie Jr., an attorney for Ron and Dorit Golan of St. Louis County, the couple who filed the suit that eventually represented the class of call recipients, said the damage amount is far too low.
"We do believe there isn't any discretion for the judge to reduce it from $500 per call, which would amount to $1.6 billion," Carnie said. An appeal is planned.
Email messages seeking comment from Joseph's attorneys were not returned.
The Golans didn't answer calls they received about the movie, according to court documents, so they instead heard the automated message, "Liberty. This is a public survey call. We may call back later."
Webber wrote that $1.6 billion in damages would be "obviously unreasonable and wholly disproportionate to the offense." He said the $10 per call penalty "reflects the severity of the offense," and will help deter "invasions of privacy, unwanted interruptions and disruptions at home, and the wasted time spent answering unwanted solicitation calls or unwanted voice messages."
Webber ruled on the case last month, but didn't award damages until Thursday.
The ruling marked the second time in three months that a federal judge has awarded millions of dollars in a robocall case. In June, U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough of Illinois ordered Dish Network Corp. to pay $280 million to the U.S. and four states for using robocalls to consumers on do-not-call lists.
Also in June, the Federal Communications Commission proposed a $120 million fine, its largest ever, for a Florida-based robocall network accused of making more than 1 million calls per day to promote timeshare services and other products.
In March, the FCC announced a crackdown on robocalls. The commission said Americans received 2.4 billion robocalls per month in 2016 and called them "consistently the top source of consumer complaints received by the FCC."