The Curious Case of the Million-dollar Oxford Comma

18 March, 2017 Josh Cameron

In one of those situations that almost seems too bizarre to be true, the First Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals has handed down a 29-page judgment centered around the absence of a single Oxford comma. Yes, you read that right.

This opening, from Circuit Judge David Barron, reflects the almost comical circumstance that has seen the case brought before him.

On the surface, the case seems simple enough. Five delivery drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy company have filed suit for unpaid overtime wages. They argue that, as delivery drivers, they were not included in a list of exemptions to Maine’s overtime laws, and that therefore they should have been paid overtime by the company. The company is disputing this. However, this is where the lack of Oxford comma becomes problematic.

The wording in the statute takes the form of a list: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” certain materials.

Any grammar fanatic can immediately see the problem there. Without the Oxford comma, the sentence can be read that only those who pack for either shipment or distribution of the materials are exempt to the law, and not those who actually distribute the items. However, if the Oxford comma is inserted between the words “shipment” and “or”, the sentence takes on an entirely new meaning: that the distribution of the material – that is, those doing the actual delivering – are included in the list of exemptions.

The absent comma means that the statute of law is immediately made ambiguous in its interpretation. This would be laughable if it did not also have serious ramifications. In this case, in the argument over the interpretation alone, we have seen both a hearing – where the judge ruled for the company – and an appeal, which was ruled in favour of the drivers. No less than four judges have been tied up in this case, and both parties have retained legal advice at an undoubtedly significant cost. The original suit was filed in May 2014, meaning that this dispute has been going on for nearly 3 years – and this is before the issue of the actual overtime is argued. The final settlement is yet to be decided, but it could cost the company nearly $1 million in unpaid overtime

A 3-year legal battle over the lack of an Oxford comma could see HR managers across the globe scrambling to check on their own processes, to ensure they have their own “t”s and “i”s properly crossed and dotted. And if just one missing comma can produce such a protracted argument, what other potential issues lie in wait, written into the laws of the country and waiting for a keen-eyed grammarian to point them out?

How does a little bit of overtime add up to $1,000,000?

  • 6 years of underpayments (statute barred)
  • 10 hours of overtime time per employee per week
  • Approximately 80 Employees
  • $4 underpayment for every hour of overtime worked (50% premium on $8 minimum wage)
  • Total: $998,400

About Tanda

Tanda is workforce management software that manages overtime and labor law regulation so that businesses can get the most our of their workforce. 

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