U.S. Supreme Court: Pharmaceutical Sales Reps are FLSA Exempt

The Supreme Court resolved a split between circuit courts and held that pharmaceutical sales representatives engage in "sales" and therefore are exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Under the FLSA and California law (and other states' laws), "outside salespersons" are exempt from minimum wage and over time law.

The issue for the Supreme Court was that pharmaceutical reps do not really "sell" drugs to doctors. They "sell" to the doctor that the doctor should promise to prescribe the pharma company's medicine.  Plaintiffs argued that because the rep makes no "sale" he or she should not be considered a salesperson.  Rather, they are non-exempt "promoters."

The Department of Labor took the position that Pharmaceutical reps were non-exempt beginning in 2009.  But the DOL's reasoning apparently evolved as to "why."  According to the Court, the Agency argued:
“[a]n employee does not make a ‘sale’ for purposes of the ‘outside salesman’ exemption unless he actually transfers title to the property at issue.” Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 1213 (hereinafter U. S. Brief).13 .

That would seem to remove from the exempt a whole lot of sales persons who previously were exempt, and it was much narrower than regulations and prior case law.  So, the Court refused to defer to the DOL interpretation.

The decision was 5-4.  The dissent agreed that the government's own interpretation was not worth much.  But the dissent's opinion was that the duties performed do not amount to "sales" but rather were promotion activities and non-exempt.

This decision may not directly affect California's outside sales exemption. But it should, because California law does not go into any level of detail regarding what is an "outside salesman."  Therefore, the courts and agencies may will follow the Supreme Court's opinion regarding what counts as a sale.

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