United States: Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma Chameleon: Liability Comes and Goes with Oxford Comma

Seyfarth Synopsis:  Vampire Weekend crassly and rhetorically asked us, "Who gives a f*** about an Oxford comma?" As it turns out, lots of people: First Circuit judges, dairy farmers in Maine, truck drivers, your authors—the list goes on.

And when lists go on—as a Maine dairy company recently learned the hard way in O'Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy—that little comma between the last item and the next-to-last item goes a long way in avoiding any ambiguity. In that case, a group of dairy delivery drivers sued Oakhurst, claiming the company failed to pay them overtime under Maine's wage and hour laws.

Oakhurst argued that dairy delivery drivers are overtime-exempt under Maine's "Exemption F." Under Exemption F, Maine's overtime law does not apply to:

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.

Now, we can all agree that dairy products are "perishable foods," and the parties agreed that the drivers were not involved in canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, or packing any food. The case came down to whether the drivers engaged in "packing for shipment or distribution."

The drivers argued that this phrase refers to a single activity of "packing," whether the packing be for shipment or for distribution. As they did not pack food, the drivers reasoned, Exemption F did not apply to them. Oakhurst argued that the phrase actually refers to two different activities: "packing for shipment" and "distribution." As the drivers clearly engaged in the distribution of food, Exemption F did apply to them.

The district court didn't need a comma between "packing for shipment" and "or distribution" to be convinced that "packing for shipment" and "distribution" are each stand-alone exempt activities under the statute; it granted summary judgment in favor of Oakhurst. On appeal, the dairy company found a much tougher customer in the First Circuit.

The First Circuit set out to determine for itself what the contested phrase means. Because Maine's high court had not interpreted Exemption F, the court looked to the plain language of the statute. Here, the court had an udder field day, parsing the language of the statute and applying rules of statutory construction. But, for want of an Oxford comma, the First Circuit found the statute ambiguous, no matter what rules or conventions it applied:

  • The Rule Against Surplusage: a court should give independent meaning to each word in a statute and treat no word as unnecessary. Oakhurst argued that "shipment" and "distribution" mean the same thing, so the Maine legislature could not have meant both to modify "packing." The First Circuit disagreed, noting that Maine includes both "distribution" and "shipment" together in other lists in its statutes and finding that the words do not necessarily mean the same thing. Conclusion? Still ambiguous.
  • The Parallel Usage Convention: "every element of a parallel series must be a functional match of the others (word, phrase, clause, sentence) and serve the same grammatical function in the sentence (g., noun, verb, adjective, adverb.)." The drivers pointed out that every activity in Exemption F is a gerund—"canning," "processing," "preserving," "packing," etc.—but that both "shipment" and "distribution" are not. If the words "shipment" and "distribution" are read as the object of the preposition "for," i.e., "packing for shipment" and "packing for distribution," the statute doesn't violate the convention—and "packing for shipment" and "distribution" do not constitute stand-alone exempt activity under the statute. But if "packing for shipment" and "distribution" are read as stand-alone activities, then we have gerunds and non-gerunds in a parallel series, which violates the convention and is an affront to grammarians everywhere. The First Circuit seemed to agree that the drivers' construction wasn't as messy grammatically but stopped short of saying that the parallel usage convention resolved the ambiguity. In other words, still ambiguous.
  • Maine's Aversion to the Serial Comma: Maine's legislative drafting manual instructs drafters of laws and rules not to use the Oxford comma. The dairy company argued that, because of this instruction, its construction must be right; we should just read the statute as if it included the prohibited comma. But, as the drivers pointed out, the manual isn't "dogmatic on that point," and it provides guidance on how "to avoid the ambiguity that a missing serial comma would otherwise create." The court agreed that the missing serial comma—if indeed there was a missing serial comma—created ambiguity, casting doubt on whether this was a case of a missing serial comma at all. So, still ambiguous.
  • The Convention of Using Conjunctions: drafters typically use a conjunction like "and" or "or" to mark off the last item in a list. Oakhurst emphasized that there is no conjunction before "packing" in Exemption F, but there is a conjunction before "distribution." While the First Circuit considered this "Oakhurst's strongest textual rejoinder," that wasn't the final word on matter. The drivers fought back with asyndeton—a technique in which drafters make a list without using conjunctions, citing zero examples of Maine drafters using this technique—and Latin—specifically, the noscitur a sociis canon, which requires giving words grouped in a list "related meaning." Like a glass of skim milk, the court found the drivers' response "hardly fully satisfying," but it was enough to keep their case alive. Yep. Still ambiguous.

With all this textual ambiguity, and "no comma in place to break the tie," the First Circuit turned to the legislative history and statutory purpose to guide its interpretation of the statute. After churning out another five or so pages of analysis, the court concluded that these too were unhelpful in resolving the ambiguity.

Finding no other way to resolve the ambiguity, the First Circuit reverted to the default rule of construction under Maine law for ambiguous wage and hour laws: liberally construe the statute to further the purpose for which it was enacted. In other words, the court accepted the drivers' narrower construction of the exemption and reversed the district court's summary-judgment ruling.

Now, maybe you're not an employer in a perishable food industry in Maine; chances are, you aren't. But courts also narrowly construe the FLSA's exemptions against employers. For that and other reasons, its always a good idea to periodically review whether the employees you've classified as exempt truly qualify for an exemption. Otherwise, like Oakhurst, you may find yourself crying over spilled milk.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.