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Seventh Circuit: Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives Are Exempt Because They Use Significant Discretion In Visits With Physicians.

By Michael Thompson

The Seventh Circuit has ruled that pharmaceutical sales representatives are covered by the Administrative exemption to the FLSA because “the core function of the representatives’ duties, the physician office visits,” requires significant discretion and independent judgment. While other courts have applied a case specific analysis to determine the applicability of the Administrative exemption in this context, the Seventh Circuit’s analysis appears to be applicable to virtually all sales representatives in the pharmaceutical industry. Indeed, without separate analyses, the Court of Appeals dismissed two distinct class actions (against Eli Lilly and Abbott Laboratories) in one fell swoop.

The exempt status of pharmaceutical sales representatives is a hotly litigated issue because pharmaceutical sales representatives do not actually consummate sales. Thus, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has held that they are not covered by the Outside Sales exemption. Conversely, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that, in the context of the industry, “common sense” shows that these sales representatives fall within the terms of the Outside Sales exemption. The United States Supreme Court has granted the plaintiffs’ petition to review the Ninth Circuit ruling, and is poised to resolve the conflict regarding the Outside Sales exemption.

In the event that the Outside Sales exemption is held to be inapplicable to pharmaceutical sales representatives, employers will have to rely on the Administrative exemption if they wish to defend the exempt status of their sales representatives. That defense, however, has met with mixed results.

For example, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in In re Novartis Wage & Hour Litigation, concluded that Novartis sales representatives did not have enough independent discretion to qualify for the Administrative exemption. Conversely, in Smith v. Johnson & Johnson, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that the named plaintiff formulated and implemented strategies for her territory, and thus exercised sufficient independent discretion to qualify for the Administrative exemption.

The Seventh Circuit took up this issue through a consolidated opinion on two collective actions, Schaefer-LaRose v. Eli Lilly & Co. and Jirak et al. v. Abbott Laboratories Inc.  The Court of Appeals first concluded that the sales reps did “administrative” work directly related to the general business operations of their employers because “[t]he representatives before us are the public face of their employer to the most important decision-maker regarding use of their companies’ products, the prescribing physicians.”

The Seventh Circuit went on to evaluate whether the pharmaceutical sales representatives used independent discretion in “the core function of the representatives’ duties, the physician office visits.”  The Court of Appeals briefly addressed the related tasks performed outside the presence of the physicians, which it said “manifest a substantial measure of judgment.” The Seventh Circuit noted that sales representatives exercised discretion because they could choose “to see physicians not on their call plans or non-physicians who may influence prescribing patterns,” were expected to propose “comprehensive visit plans for the territories” and spent “the vast majority of their time entirely unsupervised.”

While these considerations were relevant, the Seventh Circuit placed greater emphasis on the sales representatives’ face-to-face meetings with physicians. The Court stated that “these physician interactions [are] the critical function of the job and the place in which discretion is most evident.” The Court of Appeals explained that “[i]n speaking to individual physicians, the representatives must tailor their messages to respond to the circumstances, whether those be the time or attention constraints from the physician or the concerns and objections that are voiced during a particular or previous visit.” The Seventh Circuit further noted that “[t]he representative who is unable to tailor the conversation to the time and circumstances, or to engage the physician in an intelligent conversation, is understandably not an effective representative to the professional community whose estimation of the company is key to its success.”

For those reasons, the Seventh Circuit held that the FLSA’s administrative exemption applied to pharmaceutical sales representatives (and that the applicability of the Outside Sales exemption was therefore moot). Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the summary judgment in favor of Eli Lilly and reversed the summary judgment against Abbott Laboratories.