A Maine dairy company has received a potentially expensive grammar lesson from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which held on March 13, 2017, that the company’s delivery drivers may be eligible for up to $10 million in overtime pay, because the lack of a comma in the statute regarding exemptions from the state’s wage and hour law rendered the scope of the exemption ambiguous.
Grammarians have long disputed whether writers should include a comma before the final item in a list—the so-called “serial” or “Oxford” comma. Opponents of the serial comma consider it superfluous. Supporters argue that the serial comma is necessary to eliminate potential ambiguity, as in the example, "I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” Are Ayn Rand and God the writer’s parents, or are they being thanked in addition to his or her parents? Without the serial comma, it is impossible to know.
Similarly, this case, O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, arose “[f]or want of a comma” in the Maine law exempting from overtime compensation employees involved in the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” various perishable goods. Without the controversial serial comma after “shipment,” the court found it unclear whether the exemption was meant to apply to one category of employees (i.e., those who pack goods, whether for shipment or for distribution) or two (i.e., those who pack goods for shipment, and those who distribute the goods). Because the plaintiff drivers admittedly distributed goods, but claimed they did not pack goods or engage in any of the other activities specified in the exemption, their case could only proceed if the First Circuit reversed the district court's ruling that the exemption encompassed both packers and distributors.
In an opinion that should appeal to grammar aficionados everywhere, the First Circuit extensively analyzed the language of the statute in light of “certain linguistic conventions,” or “canons,” including: (i) the rule against surplusage, which states that no word in a statute should be treated as unnecessary; (ii) the convention of using a conjunction before the last item on a list; (iii) the parallel usage convention, which requires words performing the same grammatical function to be presented in the same form; and (iv) the use of the serial comma itself, which the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual generally disfavors, except when its omission may cause the sort of ambiguity presented here. After engaging in this analysis, and proving unable to determine the law’s clear meaning from the statutory text or its legislative history, the court reversed the district court and held it must “adopt the delivery drivers’ reading of the ambiguous phrase . . . , as that reading furthers the broad remedial purpose of the overtime law, which is to provide overtime pay protection to employees.”
While many commentators have viewed this opinion as an ode to, in the court’s words, “the clarifying virtues of serial commas,” ultimately that is a mere subset of the three broader lessons presented by this case, principles that should prove helpful to anyone who communicates via the written word—that is, all of us.
Lesson One — Say What You Mean
Given the context of this case, the first lesson presented by the court’s analysis was likely aimed primarily at the Maine Legislature, which drafted the ambiguous statute at issue. However, it is advice that all writers would be wise to follow—avoid ambiguity. Whether drafting a statute, a brief, an employment policy, an email, or a Tweet, use language and punctuation (including the serial comma, where necessary) deliberately, to ensure that you actually write what you intend to say. Review the grammar rules you may have ignored since middle school, and revise your writing as frequently as necessary, to guard against any accidental ambiguities like the one in the Maine wage and hour law. Especially for attorneys, words are our primary weapons, and it is crucial that we wield them wisely.
Lesson Two — Remember Your Goal
The second piece of advice that arises from this case is somewhat related to the first—always keep the underlying purpose of a piece of writing in mind. Much as courts seek to effectuate the legislative intent of a statute, parties to a dispute should focus on what, specifically, they are trying to accomplish. The delivery drivers in this case did not win because of a missing comma; they won because the extra compensation they sought was consistent with the broad remedial purpose of Maine’s wage and hour law. As an advocate, you will be more likely to succeed if you can find a way to align the outcome you or your clients seek with the societal or legislative purpose the court is seeking to advance.
Lesson Three — Be Consistent (a.k.a., Don’t Be Your Own Worst Enemy)
The third lesson drawn from this case, despite being relegated to a seemingly insignificant footnote, may be the most important—make sure all of your messaging is consistent. In this case, the dairy company argued that the statutory exemption should be read as applying to both employees involved in “packing [goods] for shipment” and employees involved in “distribution” of the goods, because “shipment” and “distribution” are synonyms, and unless “packing for shipment” and “distribution” constituted two separate exempt activities, the statute would be redundant. The court may have been more receptive to this argument, if it hadn’t noticed that the company’s “own internal organization chart seems to treat [shipment and distribution] as if they are separate activities,” significantly undercutting the company’s argument that the two terms were synonymous and redundant. The company probably never considered the fact that its own organizational chart could be used against it, but any such inconsistency in a party’s messaging, even in a seemingly unrelated context like an org chart, may ultimately prove fatal to a contradictory legal claim the party seeks to assert sometime in the future. Accordingly, especially for corporate entities, it is crucial to keep a single consistent and coherent viewpoint in mind when drafting any sort of company messaging, to prevent any inconsistencies from being used against the company at a later date.
Conclusion — It’s Not About the Comma
Contrary to the extensive media coverage of the “comma case,” this case offers a far broader lesson than “always use a serial comma.” Instead, the First Circuit’s opinion presents three fundamental principles that should apply in every context where the written word may prove determinative. In essence, the opinion is a dissertation on the virtues of clarity in writing—a lesson that may cost Oakhurst Dairy up to $10 million, but which has been made available to the rest of us, free of charge.