Would You Believe It? Overtime Lawsuit Turns on a Comma

Posted by: Chris

Drivers for Oakhurst Dairy in Maine caught a break in March when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the dairy’s drivers are not exempt from overtime pay under Maine law. In O’Conner v. Oakhurst Dairy, the court’s decision turned on the interpretation of a Maine statute that exempted certain occupations from overtime laws. The court ultimately read the statute in a way that favored the drivers, but the case made news because of how the court reached its decision: by including a detailed analysis of the punctuation and grammar of the statute.

In Maine, certain jobs related to perishable food are not eligible for overtime pay. The statute in question provides that the protection of overtime law does not apply to:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable food.

Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 26, § 664(3)(F). The dairy argued that the statute exempted the drivers from the overtime statute because the drivers were involved in the “distribution” of “perishable food,” namely, dairy products. The drivers disagreed, arguing that distribution was not a separate category under the statute but, instead, was part of the job of “packing.” In other words, the drivers said the statute exempted packing, whether it was done for shipment or distribution, but that distribution alone was not a separate activity covered by the exemption.

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reviewed the statute with a fine-tooth comb and noted, in great detail, that the use of an Oxford comma, meaning a comma after the second to last item in a series, would have made clear that the statute applied to both packing and distribution. If the Maine Legislature had inserted a comma after “shipment,” the court said it would have agreed with the dairy that “distribution” was a separate job exempted from the overtime law.

The court acknowledged that the use of an Oxford comma is optional generally and that the Maine Legislature’s style guide advised against using the Oxford comma. But, “[f]or the lack of a comma,” the court could not be certain which interpretation of the statute the Legislature had intended—the statute could be read as either the dairy or the drivers argued. For that reason, the court found the statute ambiguous.

In deciding how to interpret an ambiguous statute, the court ultimately agreed with the drivers that their “distribution” work was not exempt from the overtime laws. As a result, the court sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings, meaning the drivers may continue to fight for $10 million in overtime.

The O’Connor case shows that how something is written can have a serious impact on how it is understood. Whether you are a fan of the Oxford comma or think grammar and punctuation rules in general are just for high school English teachers, how something is written matters.

If you think you have an overtime wage and hour claim, you need an attorney who thinks like the dairy drivers’ attorneys and pays attention to details. Contact the attorneys at Armstrong & Vaught, P.L.C. to arrange a consultation: phone (918) 582-2500 or toll free at (800) 722-8880 or contact us online.