Placement of Comma Determines Appellate Court Decision in Overtime Wage Dispute

Employment law is composed of statutes and regulations at multiple levels of government. It is perhaps inevitable that disputes will arise over the meaning of particular legal provisions. Courts have the responsibility of determining how to apply a law or regulation when its meaning is unclear, usually through a process known as statutory construction. If the “plain language” meaning of the rule or statute is ambiguous, they may look at the legislative history to see what lawmakers intended. A recent federal appellate court decision interpreted a statute based on the legislature’s use of punctuation. O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 851 F.3d 69 (1st Cir. 2017). The court found that a missing serial comma, also known as the “Oxford comma,” in a list of exemptions from a state overtime wage law created a very narrow exemption, which did not include the plaintiffs. This meant that the plaintiffs were entitled to overtime pay.

State and federal employment laws require employers to pay non-exempt workers one-and-a-half times their regular hourly rate for work performed in excess of 40 hours in a week. States may differ in how they define exemptions from overtime law. New Jersey, like most jurisdictions, exempts workers “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity,” as well as numerous specific jobs. N.J. Rev. Stat. § 34:11-56a4. The O’Connor case deals with Maine’s overtime statute, which exempts workers employed in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” various food products. 26 Me. Rev. Stat. § 664(3)(F). The dispute centered on the lack of a serial comma between the words “shipment or distribution.”

The “Oxford comma” appears before the final item in a written list of three or more items. For example, in the sentence “I would like an apple, a banana, and a pear,” the Oxford comma appears after the word “banana.” The same sentence without that comma is equally grammatically correct:  “I would like an apple, a banana and a pear.” Usually, use of the Oxford comma is purely a question of style—some style manuals require it, while others do not. At times, though, the lack of an Oxford comma creates an ambiguity.

The plaintiffs in O’Connor worked for the defendant as delivery drivers. They claimed that they were not exempt from state overtime law, arguing that the statutory language “packing for shipment or distribution” referred to a single activity:  packing food products for either shipment or distribution. Since their jobs only involved distribution, rather than packing, the overtime exemption should not apply to them.

The defendant argued that “packing for shipment or distribution” referred to two distinct activities:  packing and distribution. Applying that interpretation, the plaintiffs would be exempt from state overtime requirements. The district court ruled in the defendant’s favor, finding that, “despite the absent comma, the Maine legislature unambiguously intended for [the term ‘distribution’] to identify an exempt activity in its own right.” O’Connor, 851 F.3d at 70.

The appellate court reversed the district court’s ruling and remanded the case. It cited the “rule of liberal construction” in finding that any ambiguity in the statute should be resolved in the plaintiffs’ favor. Id. at 80.

To speak with an overtime attorney about a dispute in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group today online, at 973-781-1204, or at (646) 867-7997.

More Blog Posts:

Federal Appellate Court Expands Definition of “Joint Employer” Under the FLSA, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, May 8, 2017

When Does Commuting Time Count as “Work” in New Jersey? The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, March 31, 2016

New Federal Overtime Rule Blocked by Judge, Faces Uncertain Future, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, February 9, 2017

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