In a 5-4 split, the Supreme Court decided yesterday that pharmaceutical detailers qualify as outside salespeople and are therefore not entitled to overtime pay. This case was closely watched in the pharmaceutical industry, which estimated that a change in industry practice to require overtime to these employees would cost billions of dollars.

The job of a detailer is to visit doctors in a particular sales territory and explain the uses, benefits, and risks of a particular set of the company’s prescription drugs. In the heavily regulated field of pharmaceuticals, the detailer’s goal is to obtain a “nonbinding commitment” from the doctor to prescribe the company’s drugs when appropriate. A portion of the detailer’s pay is incentive-based, determined by sales of the featured drugs in the detailer’s territory.

In this case, everyone agreed that the detailers routinely worked more than 40 hours a week and did not receive overtime pay. Their employer, GlaxoSmithKline, classified them as “outside salespeople,” a job category that is exempt from the overtime requirements. The issue before the court is whether what they do can really be called selling.

For the majority, Justice Alito found that it could. He determined that the regulations interpreting the outside salesperson exemption were intended to be broad enough to cover various industry practices, including the use of detailers. Although there is no sales contract (other than that oxymoronic “nonbinding commitment”), no money changes hands, and no orders are placed, the detailers were doing all that’s legally allowed in this heavily regulated field to sell the company’s products. Ultimately, doctors must be free to prescribe the medications appropriate to a patient’s condition, and patients may ultimately decide not to follow that advice, or to purchase a generic equivalent. The company can’t control this part of the transaction, but it can promote its products to those who write the prescriptions.

For the dissent, Justice Breyer pointed out that, unlike representatives who sell drugs to doctors for their own use (such as vaccines and medications to be administered in the doctor’s office), the detailers do not make any sales. Rather, their work looks more like promotional work, a category which the regulations treat as separate when the person performing it does not also make sales. The only sale is made at the pharmacy counter, not in the doctor’s office.

Interestingly, all of the Justices agreed that the Department of Labor’s recent efforts to interpret the outside salesperson exception more strictly (to entitle more employees to overtime) had failed. In opinion letters and in amicus briefs, the DOL stated that detailers didn’t qualify as outside salespeople because they did not transfer title to the property in question. (This is the most recent interpretation; the DOL had previously said that the employee would have to be involved in a “consummated transaction” in order to have made a sale.) Both the majority opinion and the dissent disregarded this recent reinterpretation and focused on the language of the statute and regulations, finding that the DOL’s opinion had been too much of a moving target to warrant deference to the agency.