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U.S.S.C.: Court Grants Certiorari to PSRs on Appeal of 9th Circuit Decision Holding Pharma Reps Exempt Under the FLSA’s Outside Sales Exemption
Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp.
In a case with far sweeping ramifications for the pharmaceutical industry and its employees, the Supreme Court has granted certiorari to revisit the Ninth Circuit’s decision that held pharmaceutical representatives (pharma reps) to be exempt under the FLSA’s outside sales exemption, and therefore, entitled to overtime. The Supreme Court has granted Plaintiff’s Petition for Cert, and therefore the issue remains largely unresolved. In a decision discussed here, the Second Circuit had previously held that the pharma reps were non-exempt, notwithstanding the pharmaceutical companies’ arguments that they were outside sales and/or administrative exempt. While, the Third Circuit agreed that pharma reps were not outside salespeople because they did not complete any sales, in several cases, it has reached the conclusion that pharma reps are exempt under the administrative exemption. Most recently, the Ninth Circuit held that, notwithstanding the fact that pharma reps cannot and do not consummate sales, their promotional activities are close enough to render them exempt under the outside sales exemption. The Supreme Court has now granted cert in the Ninth Circuit case to potentially resolve the issue.
The Department of Labor had submitted an Amicus Brief in support of the employees in both the Second and Ninth Circuit cases. While the Second Circuit relied on the DOL’s Brief in large part, reaching its conclusion that the pharma reps are non-exempt, the Ninth Circuit rejected the arguments in the Brief. Now, the stage is set for the Supreme Court to resolve the conflict between the circuits once and for all.
The 2 certified issues the Supreme Court is set to hear are:
(1) Whether deference is owed to the Secretary of Labor’s interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s outside sales exemption and related regulations; and (2) whether the Fair Labor Standards Act’s outside sales exemption applies to pharmaceutical sales representatives.
Visit the scotusblog to read the full decision below as well as the parties’ briefings to date in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp.
9th Cir.: Notwithstanding DOL’s Position Otherwise, Pharmaceutical Reps (PSRs) Are “Outside Sales” Exempt
Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp.
This case was before the Ninth Circuit on the plaintiffs’ appeal from an order granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding plaintiffs’, pharmaceutical reps (“PSRs”), to be exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) under the “outside sales” exemption. Although the DOL, filed an Amicus Brief, explaining that the type of work performed by the PSRs did not come within the “outside sales” exemption, because the PSR’s did not perform any sales, the Ninth Circuit disagreed.
Reasoning that the PSR employees came within the outside sales exemption, notwithstanding the fact that they did not complete sales, the court essentially held that their work was close enough to sales, that it should be deemed sales:
“Absent an agency-determined result, it is the province of the court to construe the relevant statutes and regulations. N. Cal. River Watch, 620 F.3d at 1088-89. As noted supra, Plaintiffs argue that by not transferring any product to physicians, they are not selling pharmaceuticals, but only “promoting” them. Plaintiffs say this distinction is warranted in light of the rule that the FLSA be “narrowly construed against … employers.” Webster, 247 F.3d at 914. For its part, Glaxo urges us to view “sale” in Section 3(k) in a commonsensical fashion, while contending that the meaning of “sale” is permissive. Glaxo urges us to adopt the rationale that the phrase “other disposition” in Section 3(k)’s definition of “sale” is a broad catch-all category. This view was cited with approval by the district court here, and is supported by the Secretary’s usage, dating back to 1940, of the language that an employee must “in some sense make a sale.” 69 Fed.Reg. at 22,162 (quoting “Executive, Administrative, Professional Outside Salesman” Redefined, Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Dept. of Labor, Report & Recommendations of the Presiding Officer (Harold Stein) at Hearings Preliminary to Redefinition, at 46 (Oct. 10, 1940)) (emphasis added).
Plaintiffs’ contention that they do not “sell” to doctors ignores the structure and realities of the heavily regulated pharmaceutical industry. It is undisputed that federal law prohibits pharmaceutical manufacturers from directly selling prescription medications to patients. Plaintiffs suggest that despite being hired for their sales experience, being trained in sales methods, encouraging physicians to prescribe their products, and receiving commission-based compensation tied to sales, their job cannot “in some sense” be called selling. This view ignores the reality of the nature of the work of detailers, as it has been carried out for decades. Plaintiffs’ argument also fails to account for the fact that the relevant “purchasers” in the pharmaceutical industry, and the appropriate foci of our inquiry, are not the end-users of the drug but, rather, the prescribing physicians whom they importune frequently. See, e.g., Baum v. AstraZeneca LP, 605 F.Supp.2d 669, 678-79 (W.D.Pa.2009) (discussing why the “professional paradigm” places the physician as the relevant decision maker in the health services industry), aff’d on other grounds, 372 Fed. App’x 246 (3d Cir.2010). Unlike conventional retail sales, the patient is not at liberty to choose personally which prescription pharmaceutical he desires. As such, he cannot be fairly characterized as the “buyer.” Instead, it is patient’s physician, who is vested with both a moral and legal duty to prescribe medication appropriately, who selects the medication and is the appropriate focus of our “sell/buy” inquiry. In this industry, the “sale” is the exchange of non-binding commitments between the PSR and physician at the end of a successful call. Through such commitments, the manufacturer will provide an effective product and the doctor will appropriately prescribe; for all practical purposes, this is a sale. Because pharmaceutical manufacturers appreciate who the “real” buyer is, they have structured their 90,000-person sales force and their marketing tactics to accommodate this unique environment.
When a PSR visits a doctor, he or she attempts to obtain the absolute maximum commitment from his or her “buyer”-a non-binding commitment from the physician to prescribe the PSR’s assigned product when medically appropriate. In most industries, there are no firm legal barriers that prohibit the actual physical exchange of the goods offered for sale. Because such barriers do exist in this industry, the fact that commitments are non-binding is irrelevant; the record reveals that binding or non-binding, a physician’s commitment to a PSR is nevertheless a meaningful exchange because pharmaceutical manufacturers value these commitments enough to reward a PSR with increased commissions when a physician increases his or her use of a drug in the PSR’s bag. See, e.g., Baum, 605 F.Supp.2d at 681 (“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.”).
Moreover, the industry has agreed upon and abides by the PhRMA Code to regulate the marketing of medicine to healthcare professionals-just as any consumer-products maker might develop rules to limit the express warranties its sales force might offer to a customer. Such industry practice and prevailing customs should inform our disposition. Cf. Reiseck v. Universal Commc’ns of Miami, Inc., 591 F.3d 101, 106 (2d Cir.2010) (in resolving whether advertising sales director was an administrative or sales worker in the publishing industry “a careful consideration of [employer’s] business model provides some clarity”).
Under Plaintiffs’ view, PSRs are not salespeople, despite the fact that more than 90,000 pharmaceutical representatives make daily calls on physicians for the purpose of driving greater sales. See IMS Health, 616 F.3d at 14. We cannot square this view with Section 3(k)’s open-ended use of the word “sale,” which includes “other disposition[s].” While we recognize that the FLSA is to be narrowly construed in light of its remedial nature, that general principle does not mean that every word must be given a rigid, formalistic interpretation. For example, for over seventy years, the Secretary has emphasized a sensible application of the exemptions; in the Preamble to the 2004 Rule, the Secretary employs the openended concept that a salesman is someone who “in some sense” sells. 69 Fed.Reg. at 22,162-63 (emphasis added). In other words, while the Secretary asks us to narrowly interpret this exemption, she herself acknowledges that technical considerations alone and changes in the way sales are made should not be grounds for denying the exemption. See 69 Fed.Reg. at 22,162.
To further explain our common sense understanding of why PSRs make sales, we find the paradigm “outside salesman” case Jewel Tea Co. v. Williams-instructive. 118 F.2d 202 (10th Cir.1941). The importance of Jewel Tea is illustrated by the fact that both parties and the amicus offer it as favorable precedent for their conflicting positions.
Jewel Tea involved a FLSA overtime-wage suit brought by three employees of a tea, coffee, and sundry goods manufacturer and distributor. 118 F.2d at 203. The plaintiffs held the position of “route salesmen” to “sell and distribute” products to customers in their homes. Id. The area in which the company sold its goods was divided and “[e]ach salesman [was] assigned an exclusive territory which he cover[ed].” Id. The employees made no immediate deliveries but instead took orders for future delivery, although they might advance an item to a customer. Id. The company provided sales training and sent a supervisor with a new hire on early sales calls before permitting the employee to “go out on a route by himself.” Id. at 204. Further, employees were taught a “five-point sale” method to employ when speaking with customers. Id. A certain degree of knowledge about the products and potential customers was also required-“[t]he salesman must know recipes for the preparation of the Company’s products … [and] must learn the general requirements of each family, in order to avoid over-stocking his customer and in order to anticipate the family’s needs.” Id. After working in the field during the day, employees completed some clerical tasks at night. Id. at 205. Finally, employees were paid a base salary plus a commission if their collections were in excess of a sum certain. Id.
The Jewel Tea plaintiffs brought suit to collect unpaid overtime, asserting they did not fall within the “outside sales” exemption, primarily employing the argument that they were “delivery men.” Id. at 208. In its decision denying plaintiffs overtime pay, the Tenth Circuit penned the oft-quoted justification for the outside sales exemption:
The reasons for excluding an outside salesman are fairly apparent. Such salesman, to a great extent, works individually. There are no restrictions respecting the time he shall work and he can earn as much or as little, within the range of his ability, as his ambition dictates. In lieu of overtime, he ordinarily receives commissions as extra compensation. He works away from his employer’s place of business, is not subject to the personal supervision of his employer, and his employer has no way of knowing the number of hours he works per day. To apply hourly standards primarily devised for an employee on a fixed hourly wage is incompatible with the individual character of the work of an outside salesman. Id. at 207-08.
Reviewing the undisputed facts here, we consider the rationale for applying the outside sales exemption to PSRs to be as “apparent” as it was in Jewel Tea. Of course, this case does not involve door-to-door consumer-product sales. But, the FLSA is not an industry-specific statute. As the Second Circuit recognized in Reiseck, not all FLSA claims will involve the “archetypal businesses envisaged by the FLSA,” 591 F.3d at 106. Even though there are differences, it is notable that the salesmen in Jewel Tea and Plaintiffs here each (1) worked in assigned territories, (2) did not make immediate deliveries, (3) were required to analyze client backgrounds, (4) received product training, (5) employed a pre-planned routine for client interaction, (6) were accompanied by supervisors for training, (7) were later subject to minimal supervisor oversight, (8) completed clerical activities at the end of the day, and (9) had a dual salary and commission-based compensation plan tied to their performance. Even though PSRs lack some hallmarks of the classic salesman, the great bulk of their activities are the same, as is the overarching purpose of obtaining a commitment to purchase (prescribe) something.
The primary duty of a PSR is not promoting Glaxo’s products in general or schooling physicians in drug development. These are but preliminary steps toward the end goal of causing a particular doctor to commit to prescribing more of the particular drugs in the PSR’s drug bag. Without this commitment and the concomitant increase in prescriptions, or drug volume, or market share-i.e. without more sales-the PSR would not receive his or her commission salary and could soon find himself or herself unemployed. While not all steps in the PSR’s daily activities constitute “selling,” that fact does not render the totality of those activities non-exempt promotion; “work performed incidental to and in conjunction with the employee’s own outside sales or solicitations … shall be regarded as exempt outside sales work … [and] … other work that furthers the employee’s sales efforts also shall be regarded as exempt work.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.500(b).
The Secretary’s distinction between selling and promoting is only meaningful if the employee does not engage in any activities that constitute “selling” under the Act. This much is seen from the plain language of the regulations, which gives the example of promotional work as “a company representative who visits chain stores, arranges the merchandise on shelves, replenishes stock by replacing old with new merchandise, sets up displays and consults with the store manager when inventory runs low, but does not obtain a commitment for additional purchases.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.503(c) (emphasis added). PSRs do far more than collect general data or provide consultations; indeed they ask for, and sometimes obtain, a commitment by the doctor to prescribe Glaxo drugs, and whether the doctor keeps that commitment is verified and traced using aggregated pharmacy data Glaxo collects. See IMS Health, 550 F.3d at 44-47 (“A valuable tool in this endeavor, available through the omnipresence of computerized technology, is knowledge of each individual physician’s prescribing history.”).
In Reisick, the Second Circuit highlighted an important distinction between selling and promoting, noting that the latter is directed to the public at large, as opposed to a particular client:
Consider a clothing store. The individual who assists customers in finding their size of clothing or who completes the transaction at the cash register is a salesperson under the FLSA, while the individual who designs advertisements for the store or decides when to reduce prices to attract customers is an administrative employee for the purposes of the FLSA. Reiseck, 591 F.3d at 107. At Glaxo, Plaintiffs had no interest in “generally” promoting sales by the company or improving sales across the board. Rather, Plaintiffs directed their sales efforts only towards certain products, only to a discrete group of physicians, and only within a defined geographic area. Targeting physicians is not based on mass appeals or general advertisements, but is the result of a personalized review of each physician’s prescribing habits and history. The process, like any sales process, is tailored to the customer’s preferences.
We also find that the Secretary’s acquiescence in the sales practices of the drug industry for over seventy years further buttresses our decision. The outside sales exemption has existed since 1938. Detail men have practiced their craft over that same period. Generally, they have been considered salespeople. Until the Secretary’s appearance in Novartis, the DOL did not challenge the conventional wisdom that detailing is the functional equivalent of selling pharmaceutical products. Indeed, the DOL has recognized as much in its Dictionary of Occupation Titles, which provides the following definition for pharmaceutical detailers:
Promotes use of and sells ethical drugs and other pharmaceutical products to physicians, [dentists], hospitals, and retail and wholesale drug establishments, utilizing knowledge of medical practices, drugs, and medicines: Calls on customers, informs customer of new drugs, and explains characteristics and clinical studies conducted with drug. Discusses dosage, use, and effect of new drugs and medicinal preparations. Gives samples of new drugs to customer. Promotes and sells other drugs and medicines manufactured by company. May sell and take orders for pharmaceutical supply items from persons contacted.
D.O.L. Dictionary of Occupational Titles § 262.157-010 (4th ed.1991) (emphases added). Likewise, although it emerged in a different context, we find Judge Posner’s observation in Yi v. Sterling Collison Centers, Inc., 480 F.3d 505, 510-11 (7th Cir.2007), informative-while it is “possible for an entire industry to be in violation of the [FSLA] for a long time without the Labor Department noticing[, the] more plausible hypothesis is that the … industry has been left alone” because DOL believed its practices were lawful.
In view of many similarities between PSRs and salespeople in other fields, pharmaceutical industry norms, and the acquiescence of the Secretary over the last seventy-plus years, we cannot accord even minimal Skidmore deference to the position expressed in the amicus brief. Under Skidmore, “[t]he fair measure of deference to an agency administering its own statute has been understood to vary with circumstances, and courts have looked to the degree of the agency’s care, its consistency, formality, and relative expertness, and to the persuasiveness of the agency’s position.” United States v. Mead Corp., 533 U.S. 218, 228 (2001) (internal citations omitted); see also League of Wilderness Defenders v. Forsgren, 309 F.3d 1181, 1189 (9th Cir.2002) (quoting Skidmore, 323 U.S. at 140) (internal quotation marks omitted). Many, if not all, of these hallmarks of “respectful” deference are absent here. The about-face regulation, expressed only in ad hoc amicus filings, is not enough to overcome decades of DOL nonfeasance and the consistent message to employers that a salesman is someone who “in some sense” sells. Moreover, we are unable to accept an argument that fails to account for industry customs and emphasizes formalism over practicality, in particular the argument that “obtaining a commitment to buy” is the sine qua non of the exemption. Under the Secretary’s view, “sale” means unequivocally the final execution of a legally binding contract for the exchange of a discrete good. In addition to the point that such stringent wording is not found in Section 3(k), or plausibly implied from phrases like “other disposition,” the Secretary’s approach transforms what since the time of Jewel Tea has been recognized as a multi-factor review of an employee’s functions into a single, stagnant inquiry.
Telephones, television, shopping malls, the Internet and general societal progress have largely relegated the professional pitchman embodied in Jewel Tea to the history books. But selling continues, and, as in prior eras, a salesperson learns the nuances of a product and those of his or her potential clientele, tailors a scripted message based on intuition about the customer, asks for the customer to consider her need for the product, and then receives a commission when the customer’s positive impression ultimately results in a purchase.
For the past seventy-plus years, selling in the pharmaceutical industry has followed this process. PSRs are driven by their own ambition and rewarded with commissions when their efforts generate new sales. They receive their commissions in lieu of overtime and enjoy a largely autonomous work-life outside of an office. The pharmaceutical industry’s representatives-detail men and women-share many more similarities than differences with their colleagues in other sales fields, and we hold that they are exempt from the FLSA overtime-pay requirement.
For the foregoing reasons, we AFFIRM the district court’s summary judgment for Defendant-Appellee SmithKline Beecham Corporation.”
Click Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp. to read the entire decision.