BOSTON (Legal Newsline) – The U.S. Court of Appeals issued a decision March 13 that impacted Maine’s overtime law and at issue was the use of a simple comma. 

A summary judgment decision in a lawsuit against a group of truck drivers was reversed, resulting in the revival of the drivers’ class action lawsuit for unpaid overtime against Oakhurst Dairy.

The controversy revolved around the definitions in Maine's overtime law. The specific wording of the law as written discusses employees who work with food products, specifically the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of those particular products. 

The phrase that really came under the microscope was “packing for shipment or distribution.” That phrase was at the center of the district court summary judgment motion. The drivers claimed that since they didn’t pack goods, they were entitled to overtime.

Kevin Haskins, an attorney at Preti Flaherty in Portland, Maine, said Oakhurst had argued that the phrase "packing for shipment or distribution" encompasses two distinct activities – "packing for shipment" and "distribution" – each of which is a stand-alone exempt activity.  

Oakhurst argued that the drivers were exempt and therefore not entitled to overtime because they were engaged in "distribution." A Maine federal court agreed.

Haskins told Legal Newsline the “doctrine of parallel usage” applied in the case. 

“It’s a rule of grammar, which basically says that words in a series should be parallel so that each word is a functional match of the others. So, for the drivers, they argued that the exemption contained a series of gerunds, or words ending in 'ing,' except for the last two words. 

"They argued that those two words – 'shipment' and 'distribution' – were functionally different from the gerunds and essentially served the same role as modifiers of the last gerund in the list: 'packing.' The problem with the drivers’ parallel usage argument was that the last element of a series is usually preceded by a conjunction, like 'and' or 'or,' and the only conjunction in this series came before the word 'distribution,' which could suggest that 'distribution' did not merely modify 'packing,' but that it was a stand-alone exempt activity in its own right.”

Haskins went on to explain that neither side was able to make an argument that removed the ambiguity of the wording in the exemption. 

"The reason the drivers’ interpretation ultimately prevailed was because the court agreed that ambiguous terms in Maine’s wage and hour law should be construed liberally to further the 'beneficent' and 'remedial' purpose of the law," he said. 

"Because the drivers’ interpretation resulted in a more narrow exemption – and greater overtime pay protection – the court simply found that it was more consistent with the remedial purpose of the law.”  

Haskins doesn’t foresee a wave of these types of decision in the future, or think this ruling sets a precedent for other actions in which wording or punctuation might be at issue. 

“What is also interesting about this case is that the legislative history of the exemption was as ambiguous as the text – that is not always the case and, had there been greater clarity in that department, the end result might very well have been different,” he notes.

The decision was surprising, though, as Haskins explains; “The ambiguity in both the text of the exemption and its legislative history is surprising, particularly given the age of the statute, which dates back to the 1960s. And, as the court pointed out, there was no real guidance by way of Maine case law, either, which again is a bit surprising given the age of the statute.”

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