Ex-sales manager-turned-whistleblower takes AstraZeneca to court in retaliation trial set for next week

Suzanne Ivie was terminated from AstraZeneca in 2019 after 19 years with the company, her suit says. (William_Potter/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

A former sales manager is taking AstraZeneca to court, claiming the company fired her because of her age—and because she refused to promote drugs for uses that weren't FDA-approved.

In a lawsuit set to go to trial next week, former AstraZeneca employee Suzanne Ivie alleges the company retaliated after she refused to participate in off-label marketing and discriminated against her under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and Oregon statutes. 

"AstraZeneca does not comment on pending litigation," a company spokesperson told Fierce Pharma over email. "The company does not tolerate acts of discrimination or retaliation, and takes any such accusations seriously," he added. 

Ivie, who is 51 years old, lost her job at AZ in 2019 after 19 years with the drugmaker, the lawsuit says. She joined AZ around September 2000 and, as an executive district sales manager in the company’s respiratory products division, “consistently” received strong performance ratings, the suit says.

She was among the oldest employees in her division and said in the suit that she spent much of her career at AZ without any problems. The trouble started around October 2017 when a new respiratory business director became Ivie’s direct supervisor, the suit says.

The director allegedly made numerous remarks about Ivie’s age, such as telling her she was "aging well" during an in-person meeting around April 2018. Around that same time, the director allegedly made a habit of referring to Ivie as “Benatar,” referencing the “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” singer Pat Benatar, who’s now in her 60s.

Age wasn't the only factor, Ivie says. During a 2018 call to discuss marketing for AstraZeneca’s asthma med Symbicort, Ivie's supervisor allegedly wanted to draft questions for sales reps to pose to doctors to get them interested in the product. Ivie told her boss she was worried the questions were misleading and unsupported by medical literature.

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After the call, the director continued to press Ivie to approve the statements over phone and email, the suit says. Ivie “consistently refused” and sought the advice of an attorney in AZ’s legal department, who allegedly agreed with Ivie that the questions were misleading.

Marketing issues weren’t restricted to Symbicort alone. In late 2018, the director allegedly discussed the promotion of Daliresp—a COPD drug approved to reduce the risk of exacerbations in patients with severe disease—for a larger patient population. Ivie raised concerns of off-label promotions, but the director “ignored” her concerns, the court filings claim.

The director allegedly took a similar tack with diabetes med Farxiga, which she sought to promote in an off-label capacity for prevention of primary cardiovascular events, the suit says.

Around December 2018, things came to a head when Ivie's supervisor threatened to remove her from all regional and national positions, the suit says. Ivie stood her ground and said she wouldn’t break the law, which caused her to miss out on a bonus and raise, the lawsuit claims.

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When Ivie brought her claims to AZ’s human resources department, she was told not to “jump the gun," her suit says.

In early 2019, Ivie says a pattern of retaliation emerged. She received her first written warning from AZ in February of that year for allegedly failing to hold a certain percentage of in-person coaching sessions. The lawsuit claims younger employees missed this coaching quota, too, but were not disciplined.

Shortly after, Ivie was removed from AstraZeneca’s national team, as well as all leadership positions, and her bonus fell 70%. She was terminated in June 2019, the suit says.

Her lawsuit is set for a jury trial next week in Oregon federal court. 

AstraZeneca is far from alone in facing retaliation and age discrimination claims in the Big Pharma world. Biogen became the target of an age discrimination lawsuit in 2018, in which a former manufacturing executive claimed he was stripped of his responsibilities as associate director of manufacturing at a solid dose plant in Durham, alleging that his job was given to a younger colleague.

Meanwhile, Teva in late 2018 was ordered to pay $6.3 million in damages after former manager Stephen Middlebrooks brought forward a lawsuit alleging retaliation, age discrimination and anti-American bias.

AstraZeneca isn't a stranger to off-label promotion claims, either. The company inked off-label promotion settlements in 2010 and 2018 worth $520 million and $110 million, respectively.