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O'Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

March 13, 2017



          David G. Webbert, with whom Jeffrey Neil Young, Carol J. Garvan, and Johnson, Webbert, and Young, LLP were on brief, for appellants.

          David L. Schenberg, with whom Patrick F. Hulla and Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak and Stewart, P.C. were on brief, for appellees.

          Before Lynch, Lipez, and Barron, Circuit Judges.

          BARRON, Circuit Judge.

         For want of a comma, we have this case. It arises from a dispute between a Maine dairy company and its delivery drivers, and it concerns the scope of an exemption from Maine's overtime law. 26 M.R.S.A. § 664(3). Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law's protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption's list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.

         The District Court concluded that, despite the absent comma, the Maine legislature unambiguously intended for the last term in the exemption's list of activities to identify an exempt activity in its own right. The District Court thus granted summary judgment to the dairy company, as there is no dispute that the drivers do perform that activity. But, we conclude that the exemption's scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state's wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers' narrower reading of the exemption. We therefore reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.


         Maine's wage and hour law is set forth in Chapter 7 of Title 26 of the Maine Revised Statutes. The Maine overtime law is part of the state's wage and hour law.

         The overtime law provides that "[a]n employer may not require an employee to work more than 40 hours in any one week unless 11/2 times the regular hourly rate is paid for all hours actually worked in excess of 40 hours in that week." 26 M.R.S.A. § 664(3). The overtime law does not separately define the term, "employee." Instead, it relies on the definition of "employee" that the Chapter elsewhere sets forth.

         That definition, which applies to the Chapter as a whole, provides that an "employee" is "any individual employed or permitted to work by an employer, " id. at § 663(3). However, the definition expressly excludes a few categories of workers who are specifically defined not to be "employee[s], " id. at § 663(3)(A)-(L).

         The delivery drivers do not fall within the categories of workers excluded from the definition. They thus are plainly "employees." But some workers who fall within the statutory definition of "employee" nonetheless fall outside the protection of the overtime law due to a series of express exemptions from that law. The exemption to the overtime law that is in dispute here is Exemption F.

         Exemption F covers employees whose work involves the handling -- in one way or another -- of certain, expressly enumerated food products. Specifically, Exemption F states that the protection of the overtime law does not apply to:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

26 M.R.S.A. § 664(3)(F). The parties' dispute concerns the meaning of the words "packing for shipment or distribution."

         The delivery drivers contend that, in combination, these words refer to the single activity of "packing, " whether the "packing" is for "shipment" or for "distribution." The drivers further contend that, although they do handle perishable foods, they do not engage in "packing" them. As a result, the drivers argue that, as employees who fall outside Exemption F, the Maine overtime law protects them.

         Oakhurst responds that the disputed words actually refer to two distinct exempt activities, with the first being "packing for shipment" and the second being "distribution." And because the delivery drivers do -- quite obviously -- engage in the "distribution" of dairy products, which are "perishable foods, " Oakhurst contends that the drivers fall within Exemption F and thus outside the overtime law's protection.

         The delivery drivers lost this interpretive dispute below. They had filed suit against Oakhurst on May 5, 2014 in the United States District Court for the District of Maine. The suit sought unpaid overtime wages under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq., and the Maine overtime law, 26 M.R.S.A. § 664(3).[1] The case was referred to a Magistrate Judge, and the parties filed cross-motions for partial summary judgment to resolve their dispute over the scope of Exemption F. After hearings on those motions, the Magistrate Judge ruled that Oakhurst's reading of Exemption F was the better one and recommended granting Oakhurst's motion. The District Court agreed with the Magistrate Judge's recommendation and granted summary judgment for Oakhurst on the ground that "distribution" was a stand-alone exempt activity.[2]

         The delivery drivers now appeal that ruling. They raise a single legal question: what does the contested phrase in Exemption F mean? Our review on this question of state law interpretation is de novo. See Manchester Sch. Dist. v. Crisman, 306 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2002).


         The issue before us turns wholly on the meaning of a provision in a Maine statute. We thus first consider whether there are any Maine precedents that construe that provision.

         Oakhurst identifies one: the Maine Superior Court's unpublished opinion in Thompson v. Shaw's Supermarkets, Inc., No. Civ. A. CV-02-036, 2002 WL 31045303 (Me. Sup. Ct. Sept. 5, 2002). In that case, the Superior Court ruled that Exemption F "is clear that an exemption exists for the distribution of the three categories of foods, " id. at *3, as a matter of both text and purpose, id. at *2.

         But, a Superior Court decision construing Maine law would not bind the Maine Law Court, and thus does not bind us. See generally King v.Order of United Commercial Travelers of Am., 333 U.S. 153, 159-62 (1948) (rejecting an unreported state trial court decision as binding on federal courts); Keeley v.Loomis Fargo & Co., 183 F.3d 257, 269 n.9 (3d Cir. 1999) (finding a state trial court decision to be "at most persuasive but nonbinding authority, " with the federal court instead "look[ing] to the plain language of the statute and our own interpretation . . . in predicting how the state supreme court" would rule). Moreover, the Superior Court's decision in Thompson was appealed to the Maine Law Court, which declined to follow ...

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