Beware the Oxford Comma

July 9th, 2017

Upon first glance, the fact that the US Court of Appeals for the First District recently upheld an appeal by five Maine delivery truck drivers of dairy products may not seem like a huge deal—it was essentially held that the drivers in question were entitled to overtime pay, something that their employer had thought they were exempt from because of Maine’s applicable law.  However, the reasoning behind the actual irrelevance of the law in the circumstance lay within its use, or rather lack thereof, of a comma separating the last two items of a list, otherwise known as an Oxford comma.  Though this case did not take place in Minnesota, the lesson it provides is manifestly true in all areas of contract law and drafting, that being: grammar truly does matter.

According to Maine’s wage and hour law, as set forth in Chapter 7 of Title 26 of the Maine Revised Statutes, an employer is not compelled to disperse overtime pay if its employees are engaged in 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.

The issue arose with regard to the lack of a comma after the word “shipment” above, meaning the drivers argued that it should be interpreted as meaning “packing for shipment” or “packing for distribution” and that since the work performed dealt only with distributing milk and not packing it in any way, their employer was not exempt from paying them overtime.  Conversely, the employer believed that the law should be read as if there was a comma after the word “shipment,” therefore splitting the tasks not eligible for overtime pay into “packing for shipment” and “distribution” generally.  An alternative version of the law, with the Oxford comma included, would in pertinent part read: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution of . . . .”  This interpretation would better delineate the fact that both those involved in packing for distribution as well as simply distribution are subject to the law, rather than two kinds of packing.  Without it, however, the law as it stood remained unclear.

Ultimately, the court came down on the side of the dairy drivers, declaring that “ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose[.]”  To longstanding proponents on either side of the classic Oxford comma debate, this comes as a weighty precedent in its favor.  A non-legal example of the comma’s relative importance can be seen in sentences such as: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Elvis Presley and God.”  With that said, opponents say the use of it is oftentimes unnecessary and generally displeasing in a visual sense.  In general, however, it is important to note that what should be aimed for is clarity, not blind adherence one way or the other.  This is perhaps especially true in the legal field where so much can be misinterpreted or misunderstood from an outsiders’ perspective already.

In brief, though the events that took place and the legal consequences that followed did not occur in Minnesota, they certainly could have.  The ramifications of the dairy employers’ reliance on a single missing comma ended up costing them approximately ten million dollars, and as such it goes to show us all about the importance of transparency in writing overall good grammar.

This article was sponsored by Vlodaver Law Offices, LLC, an experienced business solutions and transactions law firm in the Twin Cities. If you would like a free legal consultation, contact us.