The Oxford Comma Case: Comma Costs Millions in Wage Dispute

In law school I learned that words, and punctuation, matter. When it comes to questions of contract interpretation, details are important. That’s just one reason it can be money well-spent to have an experienced lawyer review a contract before you sign it.

Many times, the placement or absence of a common has little significance. But every so often, the small linguistic details take on a larger-than-life importance. This was certainly the case in O’Connor vs. Oakhurst Dairy, a wage-and-hour lawsuit filed in Portland, Maine, that was recently decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. News of the Oxford comma case made the rounds on social media, with grammarians across the country expressing surprise at the newfound significance oft-maligned Oxford comma.

What is an "Oxford Comma"?

For those of you unfamiliar with the finer nuances of grammar, the Oxford comma, or serial comma as it is sometimes known, is the last comma in a list of things. Some people use it; others do not.

Take, for example, the following phrase:

Please bring me a pencil, eraser, and notebook.

The Oxford comma is the one that comes after eraser.

Most people overlook the Oxford comma and often, the decision to use it is left up to the writer. In some cases, however, the absence of a comma can cause confusion, as the following sentences illustrate:

  • Let’s eat grandma
  • I like cooking my family and my pets
  • Let’s learn to cut and paste kids

In the first example, without a comma between eat and grandma, the sentence means that that grandma is the main course for dinner. In the second example, the lack of a comma makes the sentence read as if we are going to cook our family and our pets. And in the third sentence, it appears that we are going to cut and paste children.

Of course, these examples are intended to be funny. But for the truck drivers who sued Oakhurst Dairy in a class action lawsuit for overtime pay they had been denied, it meant the difference between winning and losing an estimated $10 million.

The Oxford Comma Case - O’Connor vs. Oakhurst Dairy

In The Oxford Comma Case, as it has come to be known, truck drivers sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, in a class-action lawsuit claiming that they were not exempt from certain overtime laws. The Maine statute at issue in their case states that overtime rules do 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 foods.

The question before the Maine appellate court was whether the law intended to exempt distribution of categories one through three, or packing for shipment and distribution of items contained in those three categories. Is packing (for shipment and distribution) a single activity that is exempt from overtime pay? Or are packing and distributing two separate activities, both of which are exempt?

In this case, the delivery drivers distribute perishable foods, but do not pack the boxes. So were distributors entitled to overtime? Or were they were exempt from overtime pay under the text of the statute?

If lawmakers had used an Oxford comma, the statute would have been clear that distribution was an activity that is exempt from overtime pay. But without the comma, the law is ambiguous as to whether distribution is a separate activity, or whether the whole last clause – “packing for shipment or distribution” – is one activity, in which case only people who pack the dairy products are exempt.

Oakhurst Dairy believed it was complying with the law, arguing that distribution was a separate activity and that drivers were exempt from receiving overtime pay. The appellate court disagreed, ruling that because the statute was ambiguous, the drivers were eligible to receive overtime pay. And because Oakhurst Dairy believed it had been complying with the law, the 75 drivers who are plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit could be entitled to approximately $10 million in back pay.

Questions About Overtime Pay and Wage and Hour Laws?

Of course, not every wage-and-hour class action lawsuit receives national attention like the Oxford comma case did. But if you have questions about your legal right to be paid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or state wage and hour laws, contact the experienced Kansas wage and hour lawyers at Brady & Associates today.