7th Cir.: Pharma Reps Are Administratively Exempt

Schaefer-LaRose v. Eli Lilly & Co.

This case was before the Seventh Circuit on the consolidated appeals of two different summary judgment orders in two different cases. In one case, the trial court had granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment holding that, as a matter of law, pharmaceutical reps were not administratively exempt employees. In the other case, the trial court held that the pharmaceutical reps were subject to the administrative exemption, and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Resolving this issue, at least in the Seventh Circuit, the court agreed with the latter and held that pharma reps do in fact meet both of the duties prongs of the administrative exemption. In so doing, the court joined the Third Circuit and furthered the split with the Second Circuit which had previously held that pharma reps with virtually identical duties are not subject to the administrative exemption.

Initially, the court examined the first duties prong of the administrative exemption and held that the reps’ primary duty as pharmaceutical sales representatives was performance of office work directly related to their employers’ general business operations. In so doing, the Seventh Circuit seems to have taken a particularly broad view of the first prong, in line with other recent Seventh Circuit authority, but in contrast to other circuits such as the Second and Eleventh, which typically require that an administrative employee “run of service” the employer’s business or at least some aspect of it in order to fall under the exemption.

In holding that they exercised the requisite independent judgment and discretion, the court cited the arguments raised by the defendants that:

the pharmaceutical companies assert that the representatives had a host of core duties committed to their discretion, including determining how best to gain access to particular physicians and managing their limited discretionary budgets. Their primary argument, however, focuses on the discretion that an individual representative must employ in the course of an individual sales call with a physician to communicate effectively his employer’s core message to the specific audience and to address a physician’s particular concerns.

As in other recent cases regarding the administrative exemption, the Seventh Circuit seems to have lowered the bar for the level of discretion that an employee must exercise in order to qualify for the exemption. Whereas § 541.202(b) explains:

The phrase “discretion and independent judgment” must be applied in the light of all the facts involved in the particular employment situation in which the question arises. Factors to consider when determining whether an employee exercises discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance include, but are not limited to: whether the employee has authority to formulate, affect, interpret, or implement management policies or operating practices; whether the employee carries out major assignments in conducting the operations of the business; whether the employee performs work that affects business operations to a substantial degree, even if the employee’s assignments are related to operation of a particular segment of the business; whether the employee has authority to commit the employer in matters that have significant financial impact; whether the employee has authority to waive or deviate from established policies and procedures without prior approval; whether the employee has authority to negotiate and bind the company on significant matters; whether the employee provides consultation or expert advice to management; whether the employee is involved in planning long- or short-term business objectives; whether the employee investigates and resolves matters of significance on behalf of management; and whether the employee represents the company in handling complaints, arbitrating disputes or resolving grievances.

the court seemed to simply conclude that the plaintiffs’ duties were sufficient because they exercised some level of discretion, a fact that the parties did not dispute. Discussing the discretion exercised by the plaintiffs, the court reasoned:

Beyond these physician interactions, which we consider to be the critical function of the job and the place in which discretion is most evident, the representatives’ other duties related to the actual call on the physician also manifest a substantial measure of judgment. Although representatives are given specific call plans identifying the physicians to be visited and the degree of frequency or priority category for each physician, several representatives testified that they apply a measure of strategic analysis to their work, choosing to see physicians not on their call plans or non-physicians who may influence prescribing patterns. See supra note 14 (describing discretion applied to call plans). They work collaboratively with one another, proposing comprehensive visit plans for the territories and checking in regularly by phone to keep each other abreast of developments in particular visits with physicians. Representatives also spend the vast majority of their time entirely unsupervised. Although they keep extensive records, through which management can and does monitor their progress, neither the fact that management reviews their work nor that they are required to keep such records detracts from the discretion they exercise in the core of their workday.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the plaintiffs’ principal duties involved the application of skill, rather than the judgment required for application of the exemption:

Finally, the plaintiffs and the Secretary briefly contend that the work of the representatives principally involves the application of skill, rather than judgment. Although they are correct that the regulations draw this distinction and caution that skill is insufficient to warrant the exemption, skill and judgment are not mutually exclusive. The records clearly demonstrate that the representatives receive extensive skills training, particularly on sales techniques. They most certainly employ this skill, and, indeed, many others in the course of their daily duties. Nevertheless, applying these skills entails a great deal of judgment. The job requires far more than “applying well-established techniques, procedures or specific standards described in manuals.”

With the issue of whether pharmaceutical reps are subject to the outside sales exemption notwithstanding the fact that they technically do not make such sales currently before the Supreme Court, the conflict between the circuits may or may not continue to be significant in a few weeks time. Regardless of the effects of this decision on the ongoing pharma rep overtime battles, it is becoming more and more clear that the Seventh Circuit is the place employers want to be if they are arguing that any type of employee is administratively exempt.

Click Schaefer-LaRose v. Eli Lilly & Co. to read the entire Order.

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