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The importance of punctuation: Missing Oxford comma benefits drivers in overtime case

What is an Oxford comma? The Oxford comma is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list: for example, “lions, and tigers, and bears… (oh my)”.  While use of the Oxford comma has long been the subject of debate, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston has determined its absence was critical in resolving the appeal in favor of a group of truck drivers in a class action suit in Maine.  The drivers sued the company, Oakhurst Dairy, claiming the company had improperly denied them several years of overtime pay. The company claimed the drivers were exempt from overtime under state statute.  The District Court agreed with the company and granted its motion for summary judgment.  The drivers appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

The sole issue on appeal hinged on whether the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of” foods referred to a single activity involving packing or two separate activities – packing for shipment and packing for distribution.  The statute in question excluded from overtime “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.”

The drivers claimed that they were entitled to overtime because they were not engaged in packing activities.  The company claimed it was not required to pay overtime because distribution was also excluded under the statute.  The First Circuit, citing the remedial purpose of the overtime law, held that the absence of the Oxford comma rendered the phrase ambiguous, and therefore, summary judgment in favor of the company was improper. If the truck drivers are successful in their class action, the company could be facing hefty overtime payments.

Whichever side of the Oxford comma debate you fall on, the take away here is the importance of attention to detail when drafting documents in order to ensure you are accurately conveying what you intend. While important in everyday life, such details are especially important in drafting documents that will likely impact future activities for years to come, and which may have to be interpreted long after the drafters have moved on.

Our team of labor and employment attorneys has extensive experience drafting documents important to both public and private sector employers, including collective bargaining agreements, policies and procedures, separation agreements, and employment handbooks and can advise you regarding all your labor and employment needs.