Drivers for a Maine dairy company are seeking around $10 million in overtime pay in a class-action lawsuit. The company, Oakhurst Dairy, claims the way the current law is written, they’re exempt from Maine’s labor law requiring overtime pay.
On Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit sided with the drivers, ruling that the lack of a small curved line created enough ambiguity to require Oakhurst Dairy and its parent company, Dairy Farmers of America, to pay.
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For those not obsessed enough to know what the Oxford comma is off the top of their heads, it’s also called the serial comma, and it comes at the end of a list of items, just before the “and” that precedes the final thing. The Associated Press does not use it, while the Chicago Manual of Style does. For a full explainer, Grammarly breaks down the arguments for and against the serial comma.
In the case of the Oakhurst Dairy lawsuit, Maine’s labor laws require employers to pay overtime rates for anything beyond the standard 40 hours per week. However, the law does contain an exception, and that is where confusion arose.
Per the New York Times, the exception includes:
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 foods.
That lack of a comma before “or distribution of” means that the sentence could be read so that “packing” applies to both “shipment” and “distribution.” In other words, the exception would cover the packers who prepare shipments to be distributed, but not the drivers, who have no role in the packing process.
If there had been a comma, it would have been clear that the exception covered those who distribute the items listed. Lawyers for Oakhurst argued that this was apparent without the comma, per the Washington Post, and Maine’s Legislative Drafting Manual explicitly calls for legislators to not use the serial comma.
However, the Court of Appeals ruled against Oakhurst Dairy. But while many news outlets trumpeted the result as a win for advocates of the Oxford comma, the ruling itself is not an unqualified endorsement of the serial comma. Rather, the judges merely found that the lack of a comma led created ambiguity, and Maine laws require that ambiguities be “construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose.”
In district court, a judge sided with Oakhurst Dairy, and on Thursday, the company’s president, John H. Bennett, said it would continue to defend itself in court.
“We believe we’re in compliance with state and federal wage laws, and we’ll continue to defend ourselves in this matter,” he told the New York Times.