OT Dispute Over Comma Settled

How much is a comma worth? In the case of a recently settled overtime-pay lawsuit, the answer is $5 million.
By: | February 13, 2018 • 3 min read

How much is a comma worth?

If you are the owners of a dairy in Maine, the answer is $5 million.

The Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Me., just agreed to pay that amount to settle an overtime lawsuit brought by three of its drivers, according to court documents filed last Thursday.

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The New York Times reported that the “relatively small-scale dispute gained international notoriety last year when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers.”

The case began in 2014, when three truck drivers sued the dairy for what they claimed was four years’ worth of overtime pay they had been denied. Maine law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carved out exemptions for:

“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.”

What followed the last comma in the first sentence, according to the Times, was the crux of the matter: “packing for shipment or distribution of.” The court ruled that it was not clear whether the law exempted the distribution of the three categories that followed, or if it exempted packing for the shipment or distribution of them.

Legal experts agree that, had there been a comma after “shipment,” the meaning would have been clear. Indeed, David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, stated it plainly in an interview in March:

“That comma would have sunk our ship.”

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In a statement on Friday night, John Bennett, president of Oakhurst Dairy, said the company “is pleased the dispute regarding overtime pay for delivery drivers has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.”

And, in case you were wondering if other Maine employers may get ensnared in the same grammatical quagmire, the state’s legislature has since made some changes to the law.

“It clarifies the intent of the legislature, to conform with federal law, that the distribution of certain products is exempt from the provisions governing overtime pay,” according to a summary of the changes. “It amends the 1995 law by reordering the series of exempt tasks for the purpose of eliminating any perceived ambiguity.”

Web Editor Michael J. O’Brien has been with HRE for more than a decade and holds a degree in economics from Boston College. He can be reached at [email protected]

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