March 15, 2017 | last updated March 15, 2017 4:13 pm

Oakhurst drivers to proceed with class-action overtime suit

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of five Maine truck drivers seeking to bring a class-action suit against Oakhurst Dairy over alleged unpaid overtime.

The drivers, who had been on Oakhurst's payroll from a few years to more than a decade, claim the Portland-based maker of milk, cream, cottage cheese and juices failed to pay them for overtime worked between May 2008 and August 2013, in violation of state and federal law.

They filed a complaint in 2014 claiming they never received overtime compensation to which they had been legally entitled for putting in an average of 12 extra hours a week over the course of more than five years. The lawsuit points to ambiguous language in Maine's law, which has since been changed.

Interestingly, the dispute centers on a missing comma from a list of activities exempt from the overtime law's protection. The statute listed "packing for shipment or distribution of perishable goods" as being exempt from the law, raising the question of whether distribution was a separate activity from shipment.

The drivers argue that while they handled perishable goods and were not involved in packing, they were not exempt from protection under the law at the time. But Oakhurst contends that because the drivers engaged in the distribution of dairy products, a separate activity from packing, they did fall into the exempt category.

In its 29-page ruling dated March 13, the court sided with the drivers. Their lawyers say they will now seek to get their class action certified under Maine law and will seek $10 million in damages.

"The problem was the way the statute was drafted by the Legislature was not entirely clear, and we have somewhat jokingly been referring to this case as the $10 million comma case," Jeffrey Young, an attorney with Johnson, Webbert & Young LLP in Augusta who represents the plaintiffs, told Mainebiz on Tuesday.

He said while it's too soon to say how many drivers could join the class action, the maximum would be about 75. "That would include any driver who delivered for Oakhurst going back roughly six years from when we filed the suit," he said.

David Webbert, of the same firm, added in a statement that "our fight for overtime rights has been vindicated by the landmark court ruling and our firm will continue to bring class actions and seek penalties against employers who violate these rights."

Jennifer Oldvader, an attorney with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC in Kansas City, Mo., representing Oakhurst Dairy in the case, declined to comment when contacted by Mainebiz.

Oakhurst has roots going back to 1921 and was family-owned for three generations. In 2014 it was acquired by Dairy Farmers of America Inc., a Kansas City, Mo.-based based cooperative owned by nearly 14,000 dairy producers in 48 states.

This week's ruling comes less than a week after Young and his firm secured a court victory against Shaw's Supermarkets in an age-discrimination suit that could have implications for other employers in Maine.


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