The U.S. Department of Labor Urges Second Circuit to Deny FLSA Overtime Exemptions to Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives

On October 14, 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) filed an amicus brief in a case pending before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, In Re Novartis Wage and Hour Litigation, arguing for a stricter interpretation of “outside salesperson” and “administrative employee” exemptions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, as applied to pharmaceutical sales representatives. In its brief, the DOL maintains that pharmaceutical sales representatives neither “make sales” nor exercise sufficient discretion to qualify for the exemptions from overtime compensation, urging the Court of Appeals to reverse the district court’s defense judgment below. See In Re Novartis Wage and Hour Litig., 593 F. Supp. 2d 637, 640 (S.D.N.Y. 2009).

In Re Novartis is a consolidated class action brought by Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives (“Reps”) from California, New York and other states against Novartis Pharmaceutical Corporation, one of the largest drug manufacturers in the United States. Claiming that they were misclassified as exempt employees, the Reps seek overtime wages for hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a workweek.

The Meaning of “Sales”

In the first of two justifications for its defense judgment, the district court held that Novartis Reps met the requirements of the outside salesperson exemption. Under Section 13(a)(1) of the FLSA, “any employee employed . . . in the capacity of outside salesman” is exempt from the overtime pay requirement. 29 U.S.C. 213(a)(1). DOL regulations define “outside salesman” as any employee “whose primary duty is making sales” while “customarily and regularly engaged away from the employer’s place or places of business in performing such duty.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.500(A).

The parties do not dispute that Novartis Reps were employed “away from the employer’s place of business.” The real issue before the Second Circuit is the meaning of “sales.” The DOL’s brief draws a fine line distinction between the alleged promotional activities of the Reps and actual sales under the FLSA. The latter occurs only when consideration is paid by the client or customer, according to the DOL. Reps do join Novartis’ “sales force” and receive training in both sales techniques and pharmacology. However, FDA regulations bar Reps from selling drugs directly to physicians. Instead, Reps seek to persuade physicians to write prescriptions for Novartis products, ideally resulting in a “close,” i.e., obtaining a physician’s verbal commitment to prescribe Novartis drugs when appropriate. As part of Novartis’ incentive program, between 15% and 25% of the Reps’ salary comes from commission on the number of prescriptions written by physicians within the Reps’ territory. The average salary after incentives is $91,500. Though the DOL admits that the Reps’ duties “bear some of the indicia of sales,” it nevertheless objects to their classification as outside salespersons. In short, unless the Reps actually “make sales,” they do not qualify for the exemption, according to the DOL.

The Degree of “Discretion”

The lower court also held that that “even if [the Reps] are not outside salespersons, they are administrative employees and are still exempt.” In Re Novartis, 593 F. Supp. 2d at 640. The “administrative employee” exemption applies only to employees who exercise discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance. 29 C.F.R. § 541.200(a)(3).

In challenging the lower court’s ruling on the “administrative employee” exemption, the DOL urges the Second Circuit to interpret “discretion and independent judgment . . . in the light of all the facts involved in the particular employment situation in which the question arises.” In so doing, the DOL stresses that Reps must follow a prepared script when contacting target physicians, and they are prohibited from deviating from the “core message” in the marketing pitch. Novartis limits dissemination methods to certain pre-approved materials, including drug samples, pamphlets, clinical studies, and visual aids. When presented with the same facts, however, the lower court criticized the plaintiff Reps for characterizing themselves as “mere ‘robots’ or ‘automatons.’” The lower court found that the Reps exercise sufficient discretion in deploying the core messages and supporting materials. For instance, Reps tailor their presentations to the physician’s schedule, patient base, prescribing habits, and even personality. They also set their own daily call schedules, and use personal entertainment budgets to host informational events for physicians on their target lists.

The DOL argues that the district court’s ruling on the administrative exemption is “unpersuasive in its attempt to ‘back-fit’ the FLSA regulations into the pharmaceutical industry’s practices.” However, as noted by the lower court, “[c]ourts routinely hold that employees may exercise discretion and independent judgment, even when they carry out their duties within the confines of a highly regulated industry.”

This entry was written by Michael Harvey.

Photo credit: Tom Varco

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.