Ex-Novartis sales rep claims discrimination, retaliation led to her firing after she reported misconduct

A former Novartis sales representative has accused the company and two of her former supervisors of wrongfully firing her after she blew the whistle on a co-worker who allegedly falsified records.

Plaintiff Jessica Norris worked as a senior biologic sales specialist for Novartis’ psoriasis blockbuster Cosentyx from February 2016 through February 2019, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Georgia federal court. Norris alleges a pattern of retaliation began, culminating in her 2019 termination, after she raised issues with the conduct of a registered nurse who worked for the drugmaker.

Norris’ sales region consisted of western North Carolina and upstate South Carolina. As a sales rep, Norris was required to meet certain sales goals, which she wouldn’t receive credit for until three conditions had been met. First, her customers, comprising doctors and their staff, needed to prescribe Cosentyx to a patient. Next, a nurse needed to educate the patient about the med. Finally, the medication had to be shipped to the patient.

This means Norris’ sales success was “contingent upon a nurse communicating with the ... physician accounts, and with patients to whom [Norris’] physician accounts had prescribed [Cosentyx],” the lawsuit states.

Problems cropped up for Norris beginning in 2018 when she allegedly learned that the registered nurse employed by Novartis and assigned to her accounts was failing to adequately communicate with doctors and their staff.

Around that same time, Norris contends she learned that the nurse had prepared false medical documents, too. These included falsified notes stating she’d met with Norris’ physician accounts when she hadn’t, plus notes saying she’d tried unsuccessfully to communicate with patients when she had not, the lawsuit argues. 

After discovering the alleged misconduct, Norris “on numerous occasions” reported the nurse's actions to two Novartis supervisors. But she contends her complaints were ignored and that she was told to “’focus on sales,’” the lawsuit states.

Eventually, Norris claims a pattern of retaliation emerged. This took the form of downgraded performance reviews, plus “negative, hyper-critical” field coaching reports, which “falsely” claimed Norris’ sales abilities had fallen below par, even though these shortfalls had never been previously brought up.

Norris was ultimately fired “without explanation” on Feb. 6, 2019, the lawsuit says. This caused her to lose 1,500 unrestricted stock shares that would have vested in January 2020, which were valued in February 2019 at approximately $136,000.

Norris also claims she was terminated without an opportunity to appeal.

Norris alleges Novartis is guilty of gender discrimination “by treating her significantly worse than her similarly situated male counterparts.” The lawsuit specifically notes that a male employee with a similarly poor sales performance rating was given two opportunities to appeal his termination.

She also contends the defendants retaliated against her and defamed her.

To appease the “economic, emotional and punitive” toll Novartis’ actions took, Norris is seeking damages of at least $75,000. She is also seeking reimbursement for lost wages, among other requests.

Novartis did not immediately respond to Fierce Pharma’s request for comment on the matter.

This isn't the first discrimination lawsuit lodged against a Big Pharma in 2022. In June, Novo Nordisk was hit with an age discrimination suit contending the Danish drugmaker denied a lateral transfer to a 62-year-old employee because of her age and instead hired a less qualified 33-year-old.

Meanwhile, in June of 2021, a jury awarded a former AstraZeneca sales manager $2.4 million after she made a "good faith" report of alleged marketing misconduct. At the same time, jurors rejected allegations of age discrimination against the sales manager.