“For want of a comma, we have this case.” This is the opening sentence to a recent opinion from the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.  In O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, No. 16-1901 (1st Cir. 2017), the First Circuit ruled on whether a missing Oxford comma in an overtime exemption statute entitles delivery drivers to millions of dollars of overtime pay. At issue was whether the delivery drivers are exempt from receiving overtime pay according to a Maine statute exempting the following activities:

“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.”

26 M.R.S.A. § 664(3)(F). The Court analyzed whether the language of the statute meant that the exemption applies to employees who “pack for shipment or distribution” of the mentioned products, or if it applies to those who either “pack for shipment” or “distribute” the listed goods. The U.S. District Court of Maine had found that despite the lack of an Oxford comma, the exemption had been intended to include both workers who pack for shipment or distribute said items. The First Circuit reversed.

The Court examined Oakhurst’s arguments about linguistic conventions, the state’s guide on drafting legislature (which, interestingly, says not to use an Oxford comma generally, but to be mindful of confusing language), and the purpose and legislative history of the statute. The Court examined all of these factors, and then essentially concluded that these factors did not really shed any light on how to interpret the statute. The Court then used some guidance from previous case law providing that certain employment law provisions should be interpreted liberally to further the purpose of that statute. With this in mind, the Court revisited the purpose and legislative history of the overtime exemption. Since the purpose of the legislation was to provide overtime protection to employees, the Court held that when the statute in question was read with this in mind, the ambiguous provision favored the drivers’ interpretation, and did not exempt them from receiving overtime pay.

The rules of grammar can be hard to remember at the best of times, let alone with the added stress of trying to draft a successful Supreme Court petition. Here at Cockle, we have a team of expert proofreaders who review briefs very carefully for any grammatical errors or inconsistencies. Call today to schedule your brief, and rest easy knowing that you’re in good hands!