What Dunkin Donuts Can Teach Us About Statutory Interpretation

First of all, let this post show that I’m not a coffee snob to those who have so labeled me. Do I like direct trade? Of course. Do I think Stumptown and Intelligentsia are putting out some of the best coffee on this planet? You betcha. But will I buy super cheap, bad tasting Dunkin Donuts? I will. I will because I have run out of whole bean coffee…and also because I wanted some donuts. Ok, maybe I am a coffee snob.

Anyway, on to brass tacks…

20 Minute Seating for Dunkin Donuts Customers

20 Minute Seating for Dunkin Donuts Customers

I saw this sign in a Dunkin Donuts this morning. If you can’t see the picture, here’s what it says, verbatim: “20 Minute Seating Limit For Dunkin Donuts Customers Only”

Now a question: what do you think that means? Here’s a hint: you might be a law student / lawyer if you can’t answer that question within 10 seconds. Here’s how a normal person reads this: “We have 20 minute seating available and you must be a customer to take advantage of it.”

But that’s not how a legal mind reads this.  Indeed, this sign has all sorts of ‘fun’ textual interpretation issues associated with it. For example, this sign could actually be read to mean that the 20 minute limit applies only to Dunkin Donuts customers. Be careful, it might seem like this necessarily implies that non-customers may sit for as long as they like. It doesn’t…though it does necessarily imply that the 20 minute limit doesn’t apply to non-customers. Perhaps non-customers are subject to some other limit or an all-out ban on sitting? We don’t know.

And of course, I’m making a lot of assumptions about how terms are defined in this photo. What constitutes a “seating limit”? After 20 minutes have elapsed, may a customer stand up and then sit right back down to re-start the time limit? Must a customer leave the store or does this limit just mean that customers have stay standing up if you want to remain?

Bottom line: you can find ambiguity in almost any text if you try hard enough. Let Dunkin Donuts be a lesson of this.

-Zachary Cloud

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