‘Comma Case’ Puts Exclamation Point on Careful Practices
Attention to Details Matters
By Timothy Netkovick, Esq.
As attorneys, we often hear comments like these: ‘we don’t need you to draft our handbook, we got one online,’ or ‘we got one from a third party.’
We also hear the same thing about employee trainings: ‘we don’t need an attorney to do our employee trainings; our HR department conducts our trainings,’ or ‘we’re having an outside contractor conduct the trainings.’
I could go on for hours talking about the importance of up-to-date employment trainings and making sure your employment policies are concise, to the point, and tailored to your company. But a recent case from Maine underscores this point better than I could.
By now you may have heard about the so-called ‘Oxford comma case,’ more formally known as O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine. In the case, employees of Oakhurst Dairy filed suit against their employer alleging they were due unpaid overtime pay.
Oakhurst Dairy claimed that it did not have to pay overtime wages due to a qualifying exemption in the Maine overtime law. The entire case boiled down to the placement of a comma in the Maine overtime law. If Oakhurst Dairy was correct, it would incur no further expenses other than the time, expense, aggravation, and attorney’s fees incurred in defending the case. If the employees were correct, that meant that Oakhurst Dairy was in violation of the Maine overtime law, and could have had to pay the employees a substantial sum of money.
The case has reportedly settled for $5 million, an extremely hefty sum to pay based upon differing interpretations of the placement of a comma.
While the Oxford comma case dealt with the interpretation of a law, the lesson for employers is simple — attention to detail matters. In this age of cost cutting in HR departments and legal departments (both in-house counsel and the use of outside counsel), providing trainings for employees and having clear, concise employment policies can save your company immeasurably in the long run.
The Oxford comma case shows that even misplaced or missing punctuation could end up costing your company dearly. Trained legal counsel can provide comprehensive training that will help guide your employees, aid in defending your company in the event of litigation, and also review your handbook policies and give quality advice regarding updates that may be needed in the ever-changing world of employment law.
Holding off on trainings and handbook updates may save your company money in the short term; however, doing so invites the risk of unnecessary litigation based upon both naïve employees and outdated policies. Litigation can last for several years and can be a tremendous drain on your company, not only in terms of legal fees, but also in business disruption caused by the need to gather documents and comply with other discovery requests, including employee depositions.
A company’s managers are its first line of defense. Having regular trainings can help your managers identify potential issues and resolve them before the situation gets out of control. Likewise, having an annual review of your employee handbook can help ensure that all of your company’s policies are up to date and in compliance with applicable laws.
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Timothy M. Netkovick, an attorney at Royal, P.C., has more than 15 years of litigation experience, and has successfully tried several cases to verdict. In addition to his trial experience, he has specific experience in handling labor and employment matters before a variety of administrative agencies. He also assists employers with unionized workforces during collective bargaining, at arbitrations, and with respect to employee grievances and unfair labor practice charges; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]