The Oxford Comma Strikes Again

April 05, 2017 by Joshua Lane | Filed under Business Law,Contract,Employment,Litigation,Statutes

As a devotee of the English language, grammar, and the Oxford comma, I was impressed by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals opinion (link below) wherein the absence of an Oxford comma in a Maine overtime statute resulted in an estimated $10 million result for the workers appealing a district court judge who ruled otherwise:  http://cases.justia.com/federal/appellate-courts/ca1/16-1901/16-1901-2017-03-13.pdf?ts=1489437006.

Under Maine law, workers are not entitled to 1.5x overtime pay for work involving:  "[t]he 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."  (Emphasis added).

The issue was whether the overtime exemption included work for the "distribution of" XYZ, or only work for the "packing for . . . distribution of" XYZ.  Because the workers involved were distributors and not packers, the 1st Circuit overturned the district court and concluded that the lack of an Oxford comma doomed the company:  the exception did NOT apply to the distributors and the appealing workers were entitled to their overtime.  The case highlights the importance for employers to understand how to correctly parse and apply their state statutes.

What do you think?  Should the apparent legislative intent to exempt overtime trump the galling absence of the Oxford comma?  Should a Panda who eats, shoots and leaves be found guilty of a crime?* These are the pressing concerns of our time.

* See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eats,_Shoots_%26_Leaves