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Philadelphia Employment Lawyers: Oxford Comma Overtime Dispute

A group of truck drivers recently filed a class action lawsuit alleging that they were not paid overtime as required by state law. The trucking company countered that they were exempt from coverage under the law. The entire case hinged on the controversial use (or lack thereof) of the Oxford comma. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled in favor of the truck drivers, awarding them an estimated $10 million.

By way of background, the Oxford comma, also called the serial comma, is used to separate the last two items in a list. For example, people in favor of the Oxford comma would write “apples, oranges, and pears.” People who dislike the Oxford comma would write “apples, oranges and pears.”

In Maine, where this matter occurred, workers must be paid time and a half of their normal rate of pay for each hour worked after 40 hours. However, there are exemptions. The Maine law says that overtime rules do not apply to those who work in: “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipping or distribution of (various food items).”

The three dairy delivery truck drivers who filed the lawsuit distribute perishable foods, but they do not pack the goods. The ambiguity with the language of the law is whether the word “packing” modifies both “shipping” and “distribution,” or just “shipping.” If there were a comma after the word shipping, it would have been clear that the delivery drivers were entitled to the overtime pay.

The court of appeals ruled that the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in favor of the truck drivers, and reversed the ruling of the court below. The law followed the guidelines set forth in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which explicitly instructs lawmakers not to use the Oxford comma, but does note that legislators should use caution if an item in the series is modified.

The delivery drivers earned between $46,800 and $52,000 a year without overtime. They worked an average of 12 extra hours per week. Although only three drivers filed the class-action lawsuit, 75 drivers will split the award.

Philadelphia Employment Lawyers at Sidkoff, Pincus & Green Represent Clients in Wage and Overtime Disputes

The Philadelphia overtime dispute lawyers at Sidkoff, Pincus & Green represent individuals in wage and hour lawsuits and those who believe they are owed overtime pay. To learn more about how we can help you, call us today at 215-574-0600 or contact us online to schedule a confidential consultation in our Philadelphia offices.