In recent years, no case has made such a splash over a statute's lack of punctuation as the Oakhurst Dairy overtime case. On appeal, the First Circuit overturned a lower district court ruling finding that dairy delivery drivers in the state of Maine were not entitled to overtime under the state's overtime statute due to a missing comma.
The appellate court found that but for the lack of an Oxford or serial comma, the statute could not be read unambiguously, and that that ambiguity had to be resolved in the dairy drivers' favor. After the appellate court remanded the matter, the parties managed to work out a five million dollar compromise so as to avoid further proceedings.
The entire case hinged upon the reading of the following statute:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distributing of ... [agricultural, meat and dairy goods].
The phrase "packing for shipment or distributing of," according to the court, lacked a comma before the "or," and therefore, arguably, attached the words "distributing of" to "packing for." Essentially, the court read the statute as "... storing, packing for shipment, or packing for distribution of ..." rather than "... storing, packing for shipment, or distribution of ..." In the later example, delivery drivers would clearly be included in the statute, whereas in the earlier example, only those that pack the products for distribution would be included.
The settlement will pay $50,000 to the named plaintiffs in the action, and other workers can apply to a fund to receive their unpaid overtime.
Notably, the legislature in Maine actually acted to resolve the ambiguity noted by the court. The statute had all the commas removed and replaced with semicolons. Also, where the court stated an Oxford comma was missing to create the reading the dairy fought for, a semicolon has been added. That semicolon makes it extraordinarily clear that delivery drivers are now included in the overtime exemption law.