Supreme Court Declines To Afford Deference to Agency’s Interpretation of Ambiguous Regulations Set Forth in Amicus Brief

On June 18, the Supreme Court ruled for GlaxoSmithKline that the Fair Labor Standard Act’s outside sales exemption applies to pharmaceutical sales representatives, who are therefore not entitled to overtime wages. Christopher v. SmithKlineBeecham Corp., No. 11-204. In analyzing the issue, both the majority and the dissenting justices determined that the deference generally granted by courts to agency interpretations of ambiguous regulations was not warranted with respect to the Department of Labor’s position set forth in its Amicus Curiae brief. The Court held that the position adopted by the Department in its brief – that a “sale” for purposes of the “outside sales” exemption is only made if the salesman transfers title to the property at issue – was not clearly set forth in the statute or regulations, and had not been previously articulated by the Department. In this connection, the Court noted as conspicuous the absence of any enforcement activity premised on the Department’s reading of the outside sales exemption, and characterized the agency’s position as creating an “unfair surprise” for the industry. The Court recognized that extending deference to agency interpretations of ambiguous regulations “creates a risk that agencies will promulgate vague and open-ended regulations that they can later interpret as they see fit, thereby ‘frustrating the notice and predictability purposes of rulemaking.'”

The Christopher decision thus suggests that courts should decline to extend deference to agency interpretations of vague regulations that may result in significant liability, such as under the FCA, absent evidence that the agency has provided clear guidance consistent with those interpretations in advance of the litigation. Courts frequently are confronted with this issue in FCA cases premised on alleged regulatory violations by defendants in highly regulated industries such as the healthcare industry, and we expect defendants in those cases to rely on the decision to push back on attempts by the government to advance for the first time in litigation interpretations of ambiguous regulations.