Minor league players scored an important victory in their minimum wage lawsuit against Major League Baseball on Tuesday, with a federal court agreeing to allow the players’ case to proceed as a class action lawsuit. As a result, Tuesday’s decision paves the way for potentially hundreds of additional current and former minor league players to join the lawsuit, dramatically increasing the scope of MLB’s possible liability in the case.
MLB’s minor league pay practices have been the subject of several different lawsuits over the past two years. One of those cases – asserting that MLB’s league-wide, uniform minor league wage scale violates federal antitrust law – was dismissed by the trial court last month.
Tuesday’s decision came in an earlier and more promising lawsuit, one that challenges MLB’s minor league pay practices under federal and state minimum wage and overtime laws. In Senne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, a number of former minor league players contend that MLB routinely violates these legal requirements by paying minor league players as little as $3,300 per year – without overtime – for what is, in many respects, a year-round job.
Although the plaintiffs in the Senne suit had always hoped that their case would eventually be expanded to cover most current and former minor league players, until Tuesday the suit technically involved only the 50 or so players who had been formally named as a plaintiff in the case. Now, anyone who played in the minor leagues between 2011 and 2015, without being promoted to the major leagues, is eligible to join the lawsuit.
One of the first major hurdles that the plaintiffs must overcome in a lawsuit of this nature is to persuade the court to certify the case as a class action. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit must be “similarly situated” with the rest of the potential class action members in order for the case to be approved for class action status. (Technically, under the FLSA, these sorts of cases are characterized as “collective action,” rather than “class action,” lawsuits.) In other words, the work experiences and legal claims of the plaintiffs already named in the lawsuit must be roughly equivalent to those of the rest of those potentially covered by the case.
The plaintiffs in the Senne case had argued that they met this standard and thus could fairly represent the majority of former minor league players in the lawsuit. In particular, the plaintiffs noted that they, like all minor league players, had been forced to sign the so-called Minor League Uniform Player Contract, and thus were generally subjected to the same terms and conditions of employment as other minor league players. Moreover, the plaintiffs asserted that players throughout all levels of the minor leagues have similar work schedules (playing roughly six to seven games per week in-seasons) and are subjected to equivalent travel and off-season conditioning requirements. Thus, the plaintiffs argued, the experiences of the players already named in the lawsuit provided a fair representation of the experience of most minor league players.
Conversely, MLB had hoped to convince the court not to certify the case as a collective action by highlighting alleged differences between the work experiences of players across various MLB organizations. MLB argued, for example, that it only imposes a standard wage scale on first-year minor league players, allowing teams to negotiate salaries individually with any minor league player who has completed his first season in professional baseball. Along these same lines, MLB contended that its teams each impose different off-season training requirements on their prospects, potentially resulting in players working a widely divergent number of hours per year.
In its decision on Tuesday, the court sided with the minor league players, concluding that the plaintiffs had sufficiently proven that the named players’ experiences adequately represented those of the class as a whole. In particular, the court emphasized the fact that all minor league players were forced to sign the Uniform Player Contract and train without pay during the off-season as evidence that the named plaintiffs’ legal claims were representative of those of most minor league players.
Moving forward, MLB will now be required to provide contact information for all of the minor league players whom it employed dating back February 2011. Once this contact information has been provided, the plaintiffs will then send out notices alerting the players to the existence of the lawsuit and giving them the opportunity to officially join the case.
Significantly, unlike many class action lawsuits – in which covered parties must affirmatively opt-out of a case in order to avoid being bound by its result – parties must affirmatively “opt-in” to collective action cases filed under the FLSA. This requirement will likely reduce the number of players who ultimately join the case. Not only will a sizable portion of minor leaguers simply neglect to take the time to officially join the case, but many current minor league players may hesitate to sign on to the lawsuit for fear that doing so will anger their MLB employers, impacting their chances of ultimately being promoted to the major leagues.
Moreover, it is also important to note that Tuesday’s decision only gives the plaintiffs the preliminary right to move forward on a collective basis. Under the applicable legal rules, MLB will be have another chance – after additional evidence has been compiled – to argue that the individual claims of the various plaintiffs in the suit are too dissimilar to be tried together in a single trial, thus requiring the court to “decertify” the case as a collective action. Because courts generally conduct a more stringent review of the matter during this latter stage, it remains entirely possible that MLB will successfully be able to persuade the court to reverse Tuesday’s decision at some point down the road.
Still, Tuesday’s decision marks a significant victory for the minor league players. By expanding the scope of the lawsuit to possibly include hundreds of additional players, MLB’s potential legal liability in the lawsuit has grown considerably.
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s ruling also means that the Senne plaintiffs will potentially be able to resolve all of their legal claims against MLB in a single collective trial. Had the court ruled the other way on Tuesday, and disallowed the players from pursuing a collective action in the suit, then each affected player potentially would have had to individually try his claims in a separate trial. This costly and time-intensive process likely would have deterred most players from seeing their cases through to the end, not only reducing MLB’s potential financial exposure in the lawsuit, but also making it harder for the plaintiffs to force MLB to alter its minor league pay practices league-wide on a going-forward basis.
As a result, the pressure on MLB to settle this case is only likely to grow following Tuesday’s ruling. While MLB will still have a few more chances to convince the court to dismiss or limit the case before it goes to trial – e.g., the aforementioned request that the case be decertified as a collective action, along with one or more rounds of so-called “summary judgment” motions, in which MLB will argue that the case should be dismissed on various legal grounds – Tuesday’s decision eliminated one of the few potential opportunities that MLB had to derail the case before it goes to trial.
Realistically, MLB will likely only seriously consider pursuing a settlement in the case as a last resort. But by clearing one of their major hurdles in the case, Tuesday’s ruling has significantly boosted the minor league players’ chances of eventually forcing MLB to either settle the case, or else risk a possible jury verdict concluding that the league has violated U.S. minimum wage law.
Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.