Ninth Circuit: Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives are Exempt under FLSA

The plaintiffs in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp. were pharmaceutical sales representatives. They visit doctors on behalf of the company and attempt to persuade the doctors to prescribe their particular drugs to patients.  The company argued that these employees were exempt as "outside sales." The employees argued they were not sales persons, primarily because the patients themselves were the buyers, not the doctors.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, holding that pharmaceutical sales reps obtain "sales" by convincing a doctor to agree to prescribe the product (a non-binding commitment).

The case is interesting for two reasons. First, the court explains what kinds of activities the outside sales exemption covers, and there is not much case law on this in the Ninth Circuit. In particular, there is a lengthy discussion about the difference between "selling" and "promoting."  The former is exempt and the latter is not. Second, the court refused to follow the US Department of Labor's current position on the exemption, which carried the day in another case in the Second Circuit.  In re Novartis Wage & Hour Litig., 611 F.3d 141 (2d Cir. 2010).

California law should follow the FLSA outside sales exemption. So this case may be helpful in California cases as well.  But, as the Novartis case shows, the US DOL and some courts do not agree that pharmaceutical salespersons are exempt, so keep that in mind.

The case is Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham and the opinion is here.