On Monday (June 18), the Supreme Court issued its decision in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., holding 5-4 that pharmaceutical company "detailers" are "outside salesmen" for purposes of the FLSA (29 U.S.C. §213(a)(1), 29 CFR §541.500, and related sections of the federal statutes and Department of Labor regulations). The Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit, whose decision in turn had been in conflict with the Second Circuit (see In re Novartis Wage and Hour Litigation, 611 F. 3d 141, 153155 (2010) (holding that the DOL’s interpretation is entitled to controlling deference). The Court's decision is important not only for the pharmaceutical salesforce around the country (numbering about 90,000), but for Employment Law and Administrative Law generally.
Quick overview: Since the 1940's, the government and the pharmaceutical companies have considered their outside salesforce or "detailers" to be "exempt" employees, that is, not entitled to overtime pay if they worked more than 40 hours in a week (regular employees under the statute would be entitled to overtime pay). Recently, some of these workers began to claim that they were not really salespeople, and therefore should indeed get overtime pay for the 10-15 hours per week that they typically spent on work-related tasks beyond their 40-hour workweek. Their rationale was that they did not really close any sales; instead, they pitched the products to individual physicians, in hopes that the doctors would prescribe their meds to patients, who would then purchase them at a local pharmacy. The companies (and the government, until recently) always argued that the special regulations controlling pharmaceutical sales - designed to prevent kickback arrangements with doctors, who might be tempted to prescribe unnecessary medicines - eliminated a "close the sale" component from the detailer's promotional efforts, but that it was the primary means of generating sales nonetheless.
Compounding this semantic dispute (about whether we can call someone a "salesman" if he never closes any sales) was overt ambiguity in both the relevant statute and the relevant regulations by which the Dept of Labor implemented the statute. Even so, for decades there was a consensus that detailers were, in fact, outside salesmen and therefore "exempt" employees for FLSA purposes. So far, however, this dispute is really a fairly common issue in Employment Law - whether certain semi-professional salaried employees should get overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week.
The Obama Administration, however, abruptly adopted a new position via the DOL, and argued in amicus briefs in these cases that the salespeople were not outside salesmen and were not exempt. This introduced a thorny Administrative Law question - the level of deference courts should give to an agency's interpretation of its own regulations (called Auer deference, after Auer v. Robbins, 519 U. S. 452 (1997) - as well as the ancillary question of whether Auer deference applies when the agency is not a party to the case. The DOL did not promulgate a new rule through notice-and-comment rulemaking, nor did it adopt a policy position in one of its own cases - instead, it adopted a position (breaking with 70 years of its own policy) in amicus briefs filed in cases between private litigants.
Auer deference is analogous to Chevron deference, but with important differences - Chevron doctrine involves the problem of interpretation when one entity (an agency) must interpret and implement a legal mandate ("declaratives" in linguistic jargon) from another entity (Congress); courts defer to the agency's interpretation when the statute is ambiguous and proposed interpretation seems reasonable, because the statute itself is communication directed at the agency. Auer deference involves a a single entity as communicator and interpreter - the agency promulgates vague regulations and then decides later what they mean. While it makes intuitive sense to trust the author about the true meaning of a written text, there is a danger than agencies will abuse this system, bypassing the APA's notice-and-comment rules by promulgating "mushy" regulations and then winging it, adopting whatever interpretation seems expedient in a given case. Auer deference is a newer idea, and less commonly occurring, than Chevron deference, and courts use a host of standards or factors to decide whether the agency shoudl win. The factors are very similar to the pre-Chevron factors in Skidmore - how long or carefully the agency studied its new interpretation, why the agency is breaking from precedent, what stakes are involved, and so forth.
Both the majority and the dissenting opinions in the case seemed to think Auer deference was unwarranted here - the DOL adopted this new stance out of the blue, and only in amicus briefs, without much of a record of decision or policy rationale. The DOL had also changed its position about how to define "sales" between the first appeal and its oral arguments at the Supreme Court, which was offputting. This seems like a good move from the Court - we needed a decision declining Auer deference to clarify its outer boundaries and to reassure us that agencies still had some judicial checks on their power and caprice.
Alito's majority opinion also found the plaintiffs hard to pity - like most detailers, they both make over $70,000/year and were hired for their sales experience. These are not minimum-wage oppressed laborers working long hours in a sweatshop - the after-hours work the detailers complained of included mostly "attending events," which probably involved food and fun. The dissenters focused on the language of the statutes and regs involved, which they feel is clearly in the workers' favor (but which the DOL interpreted otherwise consistently for several decades).
The split along party lines in this case is a little mystifying - neither opinion mentions any overarching policy issues that would fit into a conservative or progressive worldview. In a case splitting on the standard party lines, I would have expected at least one of the sides to discuss public policy - how the decision will affect the price of prescription medicines, for example, or how it incentivizes the companies regarding more public advertising/information about their products (rather than targeting the doctors and leaving the consumers in the dark) - or even how it might apply to analogous employees in other fields. The detailers are highly compensated, successful sellers who act as the rainmakers of the big pharma firms - so there is no David-vs-Goliath story here to explain the liberals on the Court huddling in dissent, nor a save-the-businessman story to explaint he conservatives voting in a block.
- Dru Stevenson