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Pharma sales reps are FLSA exempt as outside salesmen (5-4)
June 18, 2012 by Ross Runkel at LawMemo

This morning the US Supreme Court decided - on a 5-4 vote - that pharmaceutical sales representatives are "outside salesmen" and therefore exempt from overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Court also unanimously held that the Department of Labor's recently-announced contrary interpretation was entitled to exactly zero deference.

Christopher v. SmithKline Beacham (US Supreme Ct 06/18/2012)

Christopher, a pharmaceutical sales representative, sued the employer for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) alleging failure to pay overtime. The trial court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment and denied Christopher's motion to amend the judgment based on the trial court's failure to consider an amicus brief filed by the Secretary of the Department of Labor (DOL). The 9th Circuit affirmed. The US Supreme Court affirmed (5-4).

The job of a pharmaceutical sales representative is to try to persuade physicians to write prescriptions for products in appropriate cases. For over 70 years DOL acquiesced in an interpretation that they were "outside salesmen" who are exempt from FLSA overtime requirements. In amicus briefs filed in Circuit courts DOL took the position that a "sale" requires a "consummated transaction." In Supreme Court briefing DOL's position was that there is no "sale" unless the employee "actually transfers title."

The Court said that the DOL's new interpretation is entitled to no deference at all because it would impose massive liability for conduct that occurred before the interpretation was announced, there had been no enforcement actions suggesting the industry was acting unlawfully, DOL gave no opportunity for public comment, and the interpretation is "flatly inconsistent" with the FLSA.

The FLSA definition of "sale" includes consignments, which do not involve a transfer of title. Although DOL regulations say that sales include the transfer of title, that does not mean a sale must include a transfer of title. The regulations also use the phrase "other disposition" which - in this unique regulatory environment - includes the work of pharmaceutical sales representatives. The representatives also bear all the exterior indicia of salesmen (average salaries exceeding $70,000, work that is difficult to standardize to a particular time frame, etc.)

The DISSENT reasoned that sales of drugs are made by pharmacists, not pharmaceutical sales representatives. The pharmaceutical sales representative neither make sales nor promote "their own sales." (The dissent agreed that the DOL's current views expressed in briefs are not entitled to any weight.)

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