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How One Missing Comma Resulted in a $5 Million Settlement

Posted on in Business Law

Arlington Heights business law attorneyIf you are a small business owner, you know that legal documents such as contracts, non-compete agreements, non-disclosure agreements, and employee handbooks and policies can carry a tremendous amount of power. It is vitally important that business owners carefully review documents such as these to make sure they are factually accurate, free of errors, written clearly, and legally enforceable. Sometimes, a small error or oversight can cause a contract or other legally-binding documents to become ineffective and unenforceable.

Punctuation Discrepancy in Maine labor Law Results in Millions

Delivery truck drivers from a Portland dairy company will soon be much wealthier thanks to a lawsuit they filed to recover back wages for overtime. The lawsuit began in 2014 when employees of Oakhurst Dairy demanded that their employer pay them for overtime they had worked. Generally, any hours above 40 worked during a given week are compensated with time-and-a-half pay. Oakhurst Dairy did not pay the delivery workers extra pay for any hours worked beyond 40 per week because the Dairy insisted that law did not require it.

However, the way the Maine labor law was written was confusing and unclear. The law, at the time, required employees to be paid the increased hourly rate for overtime work unless they worked certain jobs. As the law was written, exempted tasks included:

 “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 confusion came from a missing Oxford comma between the items “packing for shipment” and “distribution.” This, by all accounts, was a stylistic decision and not an error. Many reputable news agencies eliminate the Oxford comma; however, in this case, the absent comma slightly changed the meaning of the sentence. Instead of the exempted tasks including packing products for shipment and the distribution of products, the sentence could be read as if only those workers “packing for shipment or distribution” of the products were exempt. The delivery truck drivers, who are considered distribution workers, felt that the law did not clearly name distribution as one of the exempted tasks. Thus, they sued their employer for back wages.

Dairy Company and Employees Agree on Settlement

The dairy employees lost their 2014 lawsuit against Oakhurst Dairy, but they appealed. In an unprecedented decision, a United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit declared that the missing comma between the terms “packing for shipment” and “distribution” created enough ambiguity to rule in favor of the delivery truck drivers. Oakhurst Dairy has agreed to pay the employees for several years’ worth of overtime work through a $5 million settlement. The Maine legislature has since revised the law so is it less ambiguous.

Get Help with Reviewing and Preparing Contracts

If you are a business owner, do not just assume your contracts are legally-binding and accurate. To have an experienced Arlington Heights business law attorney prepare or review your written agreements, contact our office for a confidential consultation. Call 847-749-4182 today.

 

Source:

https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/15/health/oxford-comma-maine-court-case-trnd/index.html

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