Missing comma enables dairy delivery drivers to claim overtime pay

A missing comma in Maine’s overtime law exemption document has entitled US food organisation Oakhurst Dairy’s delivery drivers to overtime pay.

In the case of O’Connor et al. v Oakhurst Dairy et al., which was heard by the United States Court of Appeals For the First Circuit, Oakhurst Dairy delivery drivers claimed that Exemption F in Maine’s overtime law is ambiguous due to the lack of an Oxford comma in the list of activities that are not under the protection of the overtime law.

Exemption F reads:

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

  • Agricultural produce;
  • Meat and fish products; and
  • Perishable foods.”

The dispute surrounds the lack of a comma in the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of”. If a comma had been included after the word “shipment” then this would clearly define two separate activities: ‘packing for shipment’ on the one hand and ‘distribution’ on the other.

The delivery drivers for the dairy organisation contended that the lack of a comma implies only one activity, packing, whether that be packing for shipment or packing for distribution. Packing is not part of the drivers’ job role, meaning that they would be eligible for overtime pay.

If an Oxford comma had been utilised in the document, it would more clearly list “distribution” as a separate activity, thereby encompassing the delivery drivers in the exemption because they do engage in distribution within their job role.

The case was originally heard by a district court in May 2014, with drivers filing a suit for unpaid overtime wages. The United States District Court for the District of Maine ruled in favour of Oakhurst Dairy, which led to the drivers appealing the decision.

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However, the US Court of Appeal agreed with the drivers’ ambiguous reading of the overtime law, and so reversed the partial grant of summary judgement and remanded for further proceedings.

In a judgement published on 13 March 2017, David J. Barron, one of the circuit judges who ruled on the case, said: “For want of a comma, we have this case. […] Because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption.”