Will a single punctuation mark result in a huge legal settlement for a group of dairy deliverymen?
After working 50 to 60 hours a week with no overtime pay, three delivery drivers decided enough was enough. In May 2014, they sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy in Maine, for violating state wage laws. Their claim? The dairy owed them years’ worth of time-and-a-half pay for the extra hours they’d spent delivering perishables. (Think you know how to use commas? See if you can pass this comma quiz.)
The dairy disagreed. In fact, Oakhurst claimed that there wasn’t even a case to argue. According to Maine law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are entitled to overtime pay unless their jobs involve “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” perishable foods. Since the drivers obviously engaged in the “distribution of” perishable dairy products, they didn’t qualify for overtime pay.
The drivers responded by calling in the grammar police. Because there isn’t a comma after the word shipment, they argued that the statute intended to exempt workers whose jobs involve “packing for shipment or distribution.” The dairy drivers didn’t pack anything. So, according to the laws of Maine and to the drivers’ interpretation of the laws of grammar, they deserved compensation.
Grammarians have very strong opinions about the Oxford, or serial, comma, which is used before a conjunction at the end of a series of words. That comma can clearly affect the meaning of a sentence. For example, “I love my parents, Katy Perry and Santa Claus” could imply that the writer’s parents are Katy Perry and Santa Claus. With the Oxford comma included—“I love my parents, Katy Perry, and Santa Claus”—it’s much clearer that the writer is listing three things she loves. But would a serial comma—which is absent from the Maine law—have changed the drivers’ case? Unlike the oxford comma, these are grammar rules you can probably ignore.
The district court said no, siding with the dairy’s claim that the state law “unambiguously intended” to exempt two separate employee activities from overtime: “packing for shipment” and “distribution.” The drivers—now part of a more than 120-driver-strong class-action suit—appealed, asking the first circuit court to clear up one question: “What does the contested phrase … mean?”
Did the dairy owe its drivers overtime pay? You be the judge.
Yes, said circuit judge David Barron in the court’s March 2017 decision. Had there been a serial comma in the statute, the “distribution” of dairy products clearly would have been exempt from overtime. But without the comma, the phrase is ambiguous. Barron sent the case back to the lower court for resolution. However, the drivers’ attorney, David Webbert, says he doesn’t need to stake his case on only the comma. He maintains that the lack of parallel writing in the law is “an even better grammatical argument” in favor of the drivers. If the law meant to exempt the distribution of goods, according to Webbert, it would have said “distributing” instead of “distribution of” (to match “the canning, processing,” etc.). As written, he says, the law is akin to saying, “I like reading, writing, and sit.” Whatever the outcome, it is already clear who the winners are—English teachers. As Webbert himself explains: “Grammar matters.”