Maine Dairy Drivers Settle Overtime Case That Hinged On An Absent Comma : The Two-Way "For want of a comma" in a state labor law, a federal appeals court had said that a group of Maine dairy drivers were eligible for overtime pay. A $5 million settlement has been reached.
NPR logo Maine Dairy Drivers Settle Overtime Case That Hinged On An Absent Comma

Maine Dairy Drivers Settle Overtime Case That Hinged On An Absent Comma

Here's a story that might convince you that paying attention to your grammar lessons might one day put money in your pocket.

Thanks to the absence of the comma in the wording of a state law laying out what activities qualify a worker for overtime pay, more than 120 drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine, are eligible to share a $5 million legal settlement announced today.

The case started in 2014 when several drivers for the milk and cream company filed a lawsuit claiming that they never received overtime pay for which they were eligible.

A federal court in Maine ruled that the drivers were not entitled to overtime pay because the pertinent state law exempted those who perform these duties:

"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."

As my colleague Colin Dwyer explained last year:

"The trouble rests with 'or.' The presence of that tiny conjunction without a comma as a companion makes for some muddled meanings: Is 'packing for shipment or distribution' exempt from overtime regulations? Or are both 'packing for shipment' and 'distribution' exempt?

"These aren't idle questions for the five delivery drivers who sued Oakhurst, because as Quartz notes, "the drivers do distribute, but do not pack, the perishable food." In other words, one interpretation of the law's list would make the drivers eligible for overtime pay; the other would mean they won't get those extra dollars for extra time on the job."

A three-judge appeals panel heard the case. Judge David Barron, of the 1st Circuit, opened his 29-page ruling saying, "For want of a comma, we have this case." As the Portland Press-Herald puts it:

"Barron said the lack of a comma between "shipment" and "or distribution of" meant both phrases referred back to "packing" and, because the drivers deliver the products, but don't pack them, they weren't covered by the Maine exemption to overtime pay."

A sentence that said "packing for shipment, or distribution of" might have made it clear that employees don't have to be paid overtime if they either pack the food items or distribute them.

Barron concluded that the lack of a comma made the legal language ambiguous — and that the ambiguity "must be construed liberally." So the judges were unanimous in taking the side of the drivers, and reversed the lower court ruling.

That ruling sent the case back to a lower court, resulting in a settlement that awards $50,000 each to the five drivers who brought the lawsuit.

"Other drivers will have to file claims to get a share of the fund and will be paid a minimum of $100 or the amount of overtime pay they were owed, based on their work records from May 2008 until August 2012," the Press-Herald reports.

The paper says that about 127 drivers overall are covered by the settlement.