The $10 Million Comma

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Donnett Hickson,
Legal Staff Writer

On March 13, 2017, a federal appeals court in Maine ruled for the plaintiffs’ in a case concerning unpaid overtime and commas, or lack thereof. After an original dismissal, dairy delivery workers for Oakhurst Dairy took their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit to revive their overtime claims and won.

The dairy workers alleged that they worked 50 to 60 hour weeks over a four-year period with no overtime pay, but Maine law provides some overtime exemption for employees whose work includes “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment and distribution of” certain perishable foods. Normally, the drivers would fall under the “distribution” class, but due to the lack of what’s known as “the oxford comma,” the court ruled that “distribution” modifies the word “packing” and does not declare itself a separate activity. Hence, the clause’s ambiguity was grounds enough for the court to side with the drivers.

Much of the court’s 29-page decision was a pedantic grammar “how-to,” and ultimately cost Oakhurst Dairy over $10 million. If there had only been a single comma after “shipment,” the court would’ve been forced to agree with the lower court’s ruling in favor of the dairy company. Consequently, this decision could have a much broader effect in analogous cases merely because of the lack of precedence. Due to the lack of Maine case law pertaining to state overtime statues, the ruling makes it clear that any ambiguity in Maine’s overtime provisions should fall in favor of the workers in order ensure they are paid fairly.

This case is O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 1st Cir., No. 16-1901

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