Pharmaceutical Sales Reps Qualify for FLSA "Outside Salespeople" Exemption According to Federal Court in Arizona

In Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham,1 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108992 (D. Ariz. Nov. 20, 2009), a federal district court in Arizona held that pharmaceutical sales representatives (PSRs) were “outside salespeople” and therefore exempt from the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Under the FLSA, compensation for overtime need not be provided to “any the capacity as an outside salesperson.” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To qualify as an outside salesperson, (1) the employee’s “primary duty” must be “making sales” or “obtaining orders or contracts,” and (2) he or she must customarily and regularly be engaged away from the employer’s place of business in performing such duty. 29 C.F.R § 541.500(a). Both parties agreed that PSRs met the second requirement, so the only disputed issue was whether their primary duty was making sales.

The FLSA defines sales as “any sale, exchange, contract to sell, consignment for sale, shipment for sale, or other disposition.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(k). Moreover, sales include “the transfer of title to tangible property, and in certain cases, of tangible and valuable evidences of intangible property.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.501(b). Whether an employee makes sales requires an objective analysis, and according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) making sales includes “obtain[ing] a commitment to buy from the customer,” which resulted in the salesperson being “credited with the sale.” U.S. Department of Labor, Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees, 69 Fed. Reg. 22122, 22162 (Apr. 23, 2004). According to the court, under the DOL regulations, there is no requirement that commitments be binding. All that is required is that a sale be made “in some sense.”

In Christopher, the PSRs argued that they did not make sales because they did not consummate transactions or take orders. Instead, they claimed they merely promoted products. Moreover, PSRs contended their activities did not constitute sales because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expressly prohibited pharmaceutical companies from selling directly to physicians or patients. According to the PSRs, sales only occurred between the pharmaceutical company and wholesalers.

The court noted that opinions differed among the federal courts whether PSRs made sales. A federal court in Connecticut concluded that PSRs did not qualify for the exemption because they could not sell, and physicians could not buy, products. Ruggeri v. Boehringer Ingelheim Pharms., Inc., 585 F. Supp. 2d 254, 268 (D. Conn. 2008). However, a court in New York held that PSRs were exempt because they were credited with sales when physicians wrote prescriptions. In re Novartis Wage & Hour Litigation, 593 F. Supp. 2d 637, 648 (S.D.N.Y. 2009) (on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit). To determine whether PSRs qualified as outside salespeople, the court in Christopher looked to the rationale behind the outside sales exemption and also examined the position in the context of the pharmaceutical industry.

According to the court, the characteristics of PSRs justified exemption. PSRs were compensated well above the federal minimum wage (up to $100,000 per year), received fringe benefits like incentive bonuses in lieu of overtime, were unsupervised, and had better opportunities for advancement than non-exempt employees. Additionally, the kind of work they performed was “difficult to standardize to any time frame and could not be easily spread to other workers after 40 hours in a week, making compliance with overtime provisions difficult.” (quoting U.S. Department of Labor, 69 Fed. Reg. at 22124.)

The court observed that although the FLSA was enacted prior to the development of the pharmaceutical sales industry, it was intentionally broad to “address a multiplicity of industries found in the national economy and accordingly provide flexibility in the definition of a ‘sale.’” Moreover, the industry’s unique nature, i.e., the prohibition of direct sales, shifted the focus of sales efforts from the consumer to the physician, thereby making “[a] PSR’s ultimate goal [the] close [of] an encounter with a physician by obtaining a non-binding commitment from the physician to prescribe the PSR’s assigned product.” PSRs worked longer and irregular hours to generate sales in their territory for which they received compensation in the form of bonuses. The court concluded that PSRs “plainly and unmistakably fit within the terms of the exemption” because they engaged in “the functional equivalent of an outside salesperson and to hold otherwise is to ignore reality in favor of form over substance.”

The exempt status of pharmaceutical sales representatives continues to be litigated in courts across the country, and the issue is not settled. In the Novartis appeal referenced above, the U.S. Department of Labor filed an amicus brief arguing that pharmaceutical sales representatives do not qualify for the “outside sales” exemption. 

This entry was written by Robert Pritchard.

1 Note: In the decision, SmithKlineBeecham is spelled as SmithKleinBeecham, which is an error.

Image credit: Alan Smithee

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.