How Do You Refer to a Time Zone if the Time in Question Could Occur on Any Day of the Year?

A few weeks ago David Munn of Fair Isaac Corporation sent me the following email:

Your email below reminded me of a pet peeve of mine that I don’t believe you’ve written about. You wrote “My class runs from 4:30PM to 6:30PM EST.” Your usage is correct because you are referring to a time in November.

However, I’m seeing more and more people using the acronyms PST, CST, EST, and GMT in emails, particularly when referring to meeting times, regardless of the time of year. It seems to me to be a fairly recent trend, as I don’t remember seeing this as much in prior years.

It’s obvious that most people (including many lawyers) don’t understand that these acronyms refer to Standard Time and don’t take Daylight Saving Time (or British Summer Time) into account. People use these even when they are referring to times in the summer, when PDT, CDT, EDT, and BST (British Summer Time) are in effect.

So if someone proposes a meeting at 1 p.m. PST on July 5, it technically means 2 p.m. in California, and 4 p.m. in Minneapolis, even though the writer undoubtedly meant 1 p.m. Pacific (PDT)/3 p.m. Minneapolis (CDT).

While this is only a minor annoyance when people are referring to meeting times, I have also seen lawyers use these acronyms in contracts. For example, “Product Support Hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. PST.” What the drafter probably intended in that case was 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific Time, regardless of whether we’re on Standard Time or Daylight Saving Time. That’s probably what the parties understand as well, but the contract doesn’t state that.

It becomes more problematic if the usage is something like: “In order to terminate this agreement the Buyer must give written notice to the Seller no later than 1:00 p.m. PST on July 5, 2007.” Does that mean the buyer really has until 2 p.m. Pacific time? That’s how I would read it.

I’ve occasionally pondered this issue, and David’s email me prompted me to look into it more closely.

Let’s consider first what I think is the easier issue. With respect to the termination provision in the last paragraph of David’s email, a court would have to be extraordinarily pedantic to conclude that by referring to “1:00 p.m. PST [rather than PDT] on July 5, 2007” the parties in fact had in mind 2:00 p.m. PDT. The path of least resistance would certainly be to chalk it up to drafter confusion.

But how to handle David’s other example, “Product Support Hours are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. PST”?

I’ve rooted around for guidance, but to no avail. I even inquired with the online Chicago Style Q&A. Their initial response, hilariously enough, was that I should consult a lawyer.

Here’s one solution: If you’re referring to a time that could occur on any day during the year, don’t say—picking a time zone at random—”Pacific Standard Time” or “Pacific Daylight Time” or, heaven forbid, “Pacific Standard Time or Pacific Daylight Time, as applicable.” Instead just say “Pacific Time.”

But in a follow-up email, the indefatigable David Munn pointed out one context where this solution wouldn’t work:

What if one of the contracting parties were in a state (or portion of a state) that doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time, and the other were in an area that does observe it? For example, party 1 is in Phoenix (always MST except for the Navajo nation) and party 2 is in Denver (MST or MDT, depending on the time of year).

In this context, when Colorado is on Mountain Saving Time “1:00PM Mountain Time” would occur an hour later in Denver than it would in Phoenix.

In such contexts you could simply specify that the time is that in a given city, presumably one with a nexus to the transaction—”6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Denver time.” Indeed, that approach seems the simplest to use even if an entire state observes or doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time.

And you might want to use either approach—”Pacific Time” or “Los Angeles time”—even when stating a time on a known date. That would spare you having to remind yourself when Daylight Saving Time applies. It would also preclude you from using the wrong reference. And it would make sense to apply the same usage to all references to time, whether they occur on a known date or could occur on any day of the year.

For what it’s worth, the folks at the Chicago Style Q&A thought both “Pacific Time” and “Los Angeles time” acceptable, although they remained uncertain why I was making such a fuss. If I were to pick one approach to use across the board—and in drafting, that’s generally the best practice—I’d go with “Los Angeles time.”

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

4 thoughts on “How Do You Refer to a Time Zone if the Time in Question Could Occur on Any Day of the Year?”

  1. I think a court can easily interpret “Mountain Time” based on the parties’ location, even if there are actually multiple “Mountain Times.” But when I see contracts specify PST or PDT, in most cases they absolutely do not mean the “S” or “D” and would be better served with less specificity. Thanks for an important post. Eric.

  2. Beyond avoiding a miscue about adjustments to and from daylight-saving time (and whether and when a place recognizes it), some drafters prefer to specify the time within a day (if that matters in an agreement) by reference to a specified city that’s relevant to the performance. Even if the local time in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia now happen to be the same, naming the city might illustrate how a local time matters. And if a legislature changes a relevant city’s time, at least one of the drafters might be glad that he didn’t write “Eastern”.

    Professor Adams, perhaps another topic might be what “business days” or “holidays” means if an agreement doesn’t state specially-defined terms. I’ve seen some disputes (not litigated, but a little hot nonetheless) in which the service performer asserted that holidays means those customary in the place it performs the service, and the service recipient asserted that holidays those of the place at which it receives the service. For example, to many Easterners counting three business days from October 5, 2007 would result in October 11 (recognizing Columbus Day); but some Midwesterners might believe that performance was due on October 10.

  3. I find this discussion interesting because it highlights the difference that personal experiences can make on an individual’s drafting styles. I started using “Chicago time” in my documents so long ago that it’s hard to remember doing it any other way. I grew up in a small Illinois town which always made the change to daylight savings time and back. The nearest city to us, Terre Haute, Indiana, never changed its clocks. When we wanted to shop or see a movie and needed to check the closing time or showing time, we never thought about CST OR CDT, it was ” Terre Haute time.”

    I’d also like to add to the comment by Peter Gulia on business days. A definition of business days can be important even if both parties are in the same locale. Like many other states, Illinois has state holidays on which public schools and state offices are closed, but banks, post offices and most businesses are open. Is that a business day? I often refer to business days as days on which Federally chartered banks are closed. Obviously, there may be instances where you want to also exclude the state holiday from the definition, but the reader should not be left to guess.

  4. I’ve long avoided the issue by reference to a particular city’s time (usually New York) without mentioning daylight savings or wastings. The partner who taught me this claimed she learned her lesson when negotiating an agreement over the “spring forward” weekend.

    The business day issue is also interesting. My typical definition is something like any day that is not a Saturday, a Sunday or another day on which banks in NYC are permitted or required by Law to be closed.


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