W.D.Pa.: Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives Are Exempt “Outside Salesmen” Notwithstanding The Fact That They Do Not Consummate Sales

Baum v. AstraZeneca LP

Addressing the oft-raised (recently) issue of whether pharmaceutical sales representative employees are subject to the Outside Sales exemption, the District Court answered the question in the affirmative and granted Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment on the issue. The Court went through a strained analysis of the pharmaceutical industry to reach this conclusion, and ultimately, seems to have refused to follow the long-standing mandate of FLSA construction that exemptions be narrowly construed against employers asserting them. The Court ultimately determined that the promotional work that sales reps do as their primary duty represents “sales” within the meaning of the FLSA, despite the fact that the sales reps do not actually obtain sales from anyone.

“The Court now returns to the definition of “sale”, and the somewhat related question of when a sale actually occurs. Obviously, a pharmaceutical sale is not exactly final until the patient herself completes a transaction by taking the physician permission slip (prescription) to a pharmacist for completion of the sale. However, the statutory language does not require a final sale, complete and consummated. Thus, pursuant to the above industry specifics, the Court believes that a “sale” may be defined as substantially occurring at the moment a physician commits to prescribing a particular pharmaceutical when treating a particular patient. In Clements v. Serco, in considering this question under the FLSA, the Tenth Circuit explained: “the touchstone for making a sale, under the Federal Regulations, is obtaining a commitment.” 530 F.3d 1224, 1227 (10th Cir.2008). Importantly, the facts of the case sub judice illustrate that the PSS’s were trained and employed for the purpose of obtaining a commitment, which is the “touchstone” for making a sale.

The Court concludes that in the pharmaceutical industry, the strongest evidence for sales activity and being employed for the purpose of making sales, is that the employee obtains commitments from physicians. Ms. Baum did precisely that: after carefully preparation and planning, she skillfully asked physicians for commitments to prescribe AstraZeneca products in appropriate situations. The capacity of a salesperson to obtain such commitments, in any field, is rare, and consequently well-compensated by private industry; the effort and charisma required to successfully close, as will be discussed infra, is a hallmark of professional sales activity.

Consequently, the Court holds that in the pharmaceutical context, given the realities of the professional paradigm, a sale occurs when a physician commits to prescribe a certain product in a certain situation. Therefore, the Court believes that a pharmaceutical sales representative, upon obtaining a commitment from a physician, has “in some sense” made a sale. See Dep’t of Labor, Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees; Final Rule, Fed.Reg. 22122, 22162-63 (Apr. 23, 2004). Relatedly, where a pharmaceutical sales representative seeks to obtain a physician’s professional commitment to prescribe certain pharmaceuticals, that representative was engaged in making sales. Importantly, Ms. Baum was not visiting the physician only to provide some education or background to pave the way, or prepare the physician for another appointment with a primary salesperson.

This Court believes that other courts, and perhaps regulatory agencies, underestimate the significance of this oral commitment from physicians. In part, this error emerges from a misunderstanding of the ways in which human beings are socially and informally motivated. Sometimes lawyers and judges forget that a person’s word means something; remarkably, many people do not actually need a 400-page contract to bind themselves to their word. Yale’s Yochai Benklar, a thinker with incisive prescience, explains that non-market intrinsic factors can serve as a more powerful motivating force than typical extrinsic economic incentives; applying such a theory to this situation, it is possible to imagine one business that thrives over time, enjoying ongoing, non-contractual relationships with its clientele, while a nearly identical business falters, its obsession with formalized contracts driving away a clientele socially frustrated with the non-trusting relationship. In short, this Court believes that one professional’s commitment may be worth more in sales volume than a hundred firm orders from a insolvent or dishonest source. A proper critique of this interpretation of “sale” is that such reasoning, if applied in a broader sense across industries, would quickly arrive at an unsustainable breaking point. However, this Court is not broadening the definition of “sale”, but simply seeking to understand and apply the definition within this particular industry. See In Re Novartis Wage and Hour Lit., 593 F.Supp.2d 637, 659 (“Reps make sales in the sense that sales are made in the pharmaceutical industry.”). For all of the above reasons, this Court, in performing its own construction and application of this statutory exemption, finds that in the pharmaceutical context, where a representative asks for a commitment from a physician, such activity is sales activity for the purposes of the Pennsylvania outside sales exemption.

Admittedly, this construction and application has its weaker points: obviously, not every sale defined this way will actually result in the delivery of a pharmaceutical in exchange for legal tender. Furthermore, other courts, assessing different industries, have held that individuals seeking to obtain commitments are not necessarily performing exempt sales activity. See, e.g., Clements v. Serco, 530 F.3d 1224, 1227 (10th Cir.2008). Ms. Baum’s briefing hopes to capitalize upon this particular weak point, arguing that even when a physician commits to writing a prescription for AstraZeneca’s pharmaceuticals, this commitment is certainly not binding upon either the physician or a patient. However, the rationale of such a critique could be equally applied to sales transactions in simpler fields. For instance, where a hypothetical Mr. Loman sells a widget, but the widget is ultimately returned six months later under a warranty claim, did a sale actually occur? Was the sale binding? Given this country’s aggressive implied warranty laws, is any sale ever binding? While the Court is certain that Mr. Loman engaged in the process of making sales or obtaining orders, the question presents itself: is any traditional sale more or less binding than a commitment sought and obtained from a honest and thoughtful physician? Admittedly, in the pharmaceutical context, obtaining a commitment from a doctor may not be a formal, binding contract that inexorably leads to the exchange of goods and services. However, the Court believes such formalities are simply not necessary for a “sale” to occur. The Court notes that private companies perhaps have a wiser approach to discerning what constitutes a sale: rather than wasting effort and energy arguing about how to apply abstract and reduced definitions to diverse industries, such companies simply find and execute the methods that work to increase sales; notably, pharmaceutical companies have all decided to employ large, direct sales forces to visit physicians.

The Court also acknowledges that physicians are not the only customer involved in the sale of pharmaceuticals. However, it cannot be argued that physicians are not an integral and essential gatekeeper within this sales process. In some, likely most, instances, physicians will be the dispositive force behind a sale. Furthermore, in all instances, a physician’s approval and consent to the sale is ultimately necessary. Other courts, in expressing their analyses of this pharmaceutical sales dynamic, have similarly stated the integral role of physicians in the sale of a pharmaceutical. See Barnick v. Wyeth, 522 F.Supp.2d 1257, 1264 (C.D.Cal.2007)(explaining that because physicians “determine whether or not a patient will buy a prescription product”, the physicians themselves are the appropriate target of sales efforts); see also D’Este v. Bayer Corp., No. 07-cv-3206, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87229, at *14 (C.D.Cal. Oct. 9, 2007) (emphasizing that the doctor places the order for the prescription product by writing a prescription).

In sum, in a determination unnecessary to present to a jury, and following an analysis of the dynamics of the industry, this Court finds that where pharmaceutical representatives seek to obtain physician commitments to write prescriptions, these representatives make sales and are engaged in the process of making sales for purposes of Pennsylvania’s outside sales exemption. In the alternative, this Court notes that a similar analysis could also be applied to pharmaceutical sales representatives “obtaining orders.” Consequently, a pharmaceutical sales representative performing duties similar to those performed by Ms. Baum, including visiting the offices of physicians for the purposes of obtaining commitments, meets this requirement of the outside sales exemption.”

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