Milking the Missing Oxford Comma

Milking the Missing Oxford Comma

The great state of Maine is known for its coastline, lobstahs, blueberries, L.L. Bean and the recent Oxford comma court case — make that, “L.L. Bean, and the recent Oxford comma court case.”

The “supremely persnickety Maine labor dispute began in 2014 when Oakhurst Dairy drivers sued their company for overtime pay. While they lost their initial case in district court, they recently won on appeal. As Judge Barron of the First Circuit Court of Appeals stated in the ruling, “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

The decision centered on the now-much-scrutinized passage in the state law that lists the specific activities that are not subject to overtime protections:

“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 “or” in “packing for shipment or distribution of” is what curdled the dairy company’s case. Without the serial (cereal?) comma, it’s unclear if “packing for shipment or distribution” is one activity that is exempt from overtime regulations or “packing for shipment” and “distribution” are two separate activities that are exempt.

In 2014, the district court determined that “distribution” was a stand-alone exempt activity and, therefore, granted summary judgment to the dairy company. The appeals court, however, concluded that the state didn’t make its wording clear enough. (The state’s position was that it never intended to exclude “distribution” from the overtime pay clause.) Under Maine law, when an exemption issue is ambiguous, it “must be construed in the narrow manner that the drivers favor in order to accomplish the overtime law’s remedial purposes.”  The appeals court reversed the district court’s decision.

NPR notes that while “Maine’s legislative style guidance eschews the Oxford comma,” as does the AP Stylebook, which NPR also follows, this case is “a reminder that every punctuation mark deserves a fair hearing.”

This isn’t the first — or last— time an Oxford comma has been the crux of a case. The New York Times’ archives contain a 2006 Canadian case between the country’s largest cable television provider at the time and a phone company. The phone company wanted to cancel a contract governing the cable company’s use of telephone poles. Referencing the “rules of punctuation,” Canada’s telecommunications regulator ruled that the comma allowed the phone company to end its five-year agreement with the cable company at any time with notice. In response, the vice president for regulatory affairs at the cable company acknowledged that “lawyers for his company might have underestimated the regulator’s interest in grammar.”

Given the coast-to-coast coverage on the recent comma case out of Maine, it’s clear many have an interest in grammar — or, at least they do now.

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