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Kansas woman sues Democratic National Committee over robotexts and wins $60,000

Lawsuit documents are spread across the background while a hand holds a phone with a blurry screen. A torn part of a document covers the front of the image and it highlights the words "text messages had 'fatal consequences'" and "one elderly person died."
Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree rejected Ursula Lenhardt's claims for damages based on "pain and suffering," but found that the DNC had violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which was enacted in 1991, generally prohibits unsolicited, automated telemarketing calls.

A Kansas woman who claimed unsolicited text messages from the Democratic National Committee blocked her cellphone and prevented her from providing needed herbal treatment to a cancer patient has been awarded a $60,000 default judgment against the DNC.

Mankato resident Ursula Lenhardt sued the DNC last year, alleging the raft of unsolicited robotexts violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which allows consumers to recover $500 for each phone solicitation that violates the law.

The TCPA, which was enacted in 1991, generally prohibits unsolicited, automated telemarketing calls.

The DNC never responded to Lenhardt’s lawsuit, which she filed without an attorney, and last week, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree awarded her $500 in damages for each of the 120 text message violations Lenhardt alleged.

Lenhardt claimed in her complaint that, as a result of the unsolicited messages from the DNC, she was unable “to make an urgently needed phone call” around Election Day Nov. 3, 2020, to an elderly cancer patient whom she was treating.

The person died, “as Miss Lenhardt was unable to provide the herbal remedy for this cancer suffering person,” Lenhardt’s complaint stated. “Her cell phone was blocked completely. That person has been refused treatment at a Salina hospital, he has been send (sic) home — the herbs that just had arrived and urgently needed to be picked up were his only hope and chance.”

Lenhardt did not respond to questions sent to her via email. The DNC did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.

Bill Raney, a Kansas City lawyer who specializes in TCPA cases, said he was surprised the DNC didn’t respond to Lenhardt’s lawsuit.

“I’ve represented at least 10 pro se (parties who represent themselves) and otherwise more serious actions against politicians and political parties,” Raney said. “It’s impossible that they were unaware of the law, and it’s just shocking to me that a default would be taken.”

Lenhardt is a German citizen, according to her complaint. She is an artist whose work was displayed at Blue Earth Studios and Gallery in Mankato in December 2016. The paintings were being offered at $2,250 apiece. The gallery described her on its Facebook page as having studied art, theater, filmmaking, linguistics and literature in Indonesia, England and Germany.

Lenhardt has also sued the city of Mankato and the Federal Republic of Germany, according to court records. The suit against Mankato, which alleged the city had allowed “an unpermitted go-cart-rally” in her backyard for five hours in 2018, was dismissed. The suit against the Federal Republic of Germany, which sought $12 million in damages and alleged Germany had wrongfully failed to issue her a passport, also was dismissed.

In addition to the DNC, Lenhardt’s original lawsuit named as defendants President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, former President Barack Obama, former Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Elizabeth Warren “as leading members of the Democratic National Party.”

Crabtree, however, found that Lenhardt had no standing to sue them and dismissed them from the lawsuit. But he found that Lenhardt did assert plausible claims under the TCPA against the DNC and allowed those to proceed.

Lenhardt asked for a total of $720,000 in damages, but Crabtree rejected her request for damages based on “the additional stress, pain and suffering” that she claimed she incurred from the TCPA violations.

To back up that claim, Lenhardt provided a statement from a neighbor of the cancer patient claiming that Lenhardt was unable to send the neighbor a message to pick up the herbal remedy for the patient because her phone was blocked.

Crabtree, however, said those allegations were “too attenuated from the TCPA violations” to support Lenhardt’s pain and suffering request.

"That would have no relevance on the damages," Raney said. "The damages are statutory."

Crabtree also rejected Lenhardt's claim for triple damages based on “willful and knowing” violations of the TCPA. Crabtree ruled that Lenhardt failed to prove the DNC’s violations were willful and knowing.

But he did find that she was entitled to statutory damages of $500 for each TCPA violation. And he also awarded her post-judgment interest.

Oddly, on the same day that Crabtree issued his ruling, another federal judge in Texas ruled in a similar case brought against the Republican National Committee. Unlike the DNC, however, the RNC defended itself and the judge found in its favor.

The plaintiff in the Texas case, Savannah Berger, claimed that unsolicited text messages sent by the RNC to encourage her to vote for Donald Trump were sent to her cell phone without her consent. The judge found that Berger had abandoned her claim that the texts were made using an automated telephone dialing system. The judge also found that political texts are not covered by the TCPA’s DNC — which in this context does not stand for Democratic National Committee but for “do not call.”

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