The U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of Major League Baseball’s petition in a class action wage dispute could eventually pave the way for millions of dollars in payments to current and former minor leaguers.
The denial came on Monday in what remains a complex and unresolved litigation.
Six years ago, retired minor league first baseman Aaron Senne and two other minor leaguers sued MLB and its 30 clubs, alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state laws guaranteeing minimum wage and overtime pay. Led by attorney and former minor league pitcher Garrett Broshius, the plaintiffs—the original trio was joined by additional players—contend they must be paid no less than the federal minimum wage (currently $7.50/hour). They also demand overtime pay of at least one-and-a-half times regular pay when they work more than 40 hours per week.
As the players see it, minor leaguers have been woefully—and illegally—underpaid. Their complaint asserts that “most minor leaguers earn between $3,000 and $7,500” for the season, despite working 50 to 70 hours per week. Albeit over a six-month sports season rather than a full calendar year, this pay falls below the federal poverty level of $12,670 ($26,200 for a family of four) and often even that of fast food workers. The players define workload as inclusive of six or seven games per week, along with practices, meetings, conditioning sessions, travel and instructional league and spring training obligations. They also maintain that they are denied pay during certain periods, including spring training (although MLB notes that they receive housing, food and a stipend).
Several key legal issues are at play.
One is whether minor leaguers qualify for minimum wage and overtime pay protections. There are various classifications of workers who are exempt. Among them: seasonal employees of “amusement or recreational establishments” that don’t operate for more than seven months a year. Pro baseball teams operate year-round but have seasons that usually last five or six months. There is conflicting case law among federal appeals courts over whether this exemption applies to baseball players.
Another issue is whether the players’ accounting of work hours comports with legal definitions. Exercise and conditioning, for example, are related to players’ employment but are also activities in which people partake irrespective of occupation. And finally, baseball can maintain that minor leaguers knowingly signed employment contracts, often with the advice of agents. Players arguably knew what they were getting into.
To date, the litigation has focused on whether and how minor leaguers can sue as a class, a topic that has sparked divergent judicial opinions. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit partly affirmed a proposed class action structure that had been certified by a district court. MLB petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review and reverse the Ninth Circuit.
Paul Clement, the former U.S. Solicitor General who has argued cases for the NFL, is one of MLB’s attorneys. In a court filing, he portrays the players as too dissimilar to fall within a class. Minor leaguers, Clement writes, “played at different positions for dozens of affiliates across 30 Major League Clubs who were paid under different compensation terms . . . in an industry where there is no such thing as a typical workday.” The players have offered survey data showing when they ordinarily arrive and leave their ballparks. Clement insists that this data is misleading since “the survey did not even ask players what they were doing while they were at the ballpark—a considerable problem given the copious evidence that players often just ‘hang out’ at the ballpark in ways that are not compensable… .”
Robert King, an attorney for the players, rejects these arguments. In one filing he maintains that “under applicable state wage laws, compensable hours worked include ‘all the time’ an employee is ‘suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so’… a team’s workday is similar across teams and ‘routinized’ across players.”
The case now returns to Judge Joseph Spero, who is the Chief Magistrate Judge of the federal district court in San Francisco. Attorneys will soon set a status conference where they’ll plan out the remainder of the case. No trial date has been set. It could be many months, if not over a year, before a trial occurs—if one occurs.
The class action should worry MLB. Losing could force MLB to pay a hefty tab. Based on court filings, the number of players in the class—which includes those who participated in spring training or instructional leagues in Florida, Arizona and California over the last decade—might exceed 15,000. If MLB loses, it could be ordered to pay millions of dollars in back pay and other damages.
MLB and its clubs could also be compelled through pretrial discovery to disclose sensitive financial documents. Likewise, MLB and club officials might be ordered to testify under oath about confidential matters. Avoiding such scrutiny could be of value to MLB and motivate it to seek a settlement.
The potential costs to MLB are narrowed by a new federal law. Two years ago, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the Save America’s Pastime Act, which explicitly denies FLSA protections to minor league players. In other words, even if MLB owes past minor leaguers back pay under FLSA, that will no longer be true for play since 2018.
Meanwhile, minor league baseball is in the midst of historic disruption. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 season. MLB’s agreement with Minor League Baseball expired last month. MLB, which has raised minor league pay, intends to sever ties with 42 minor league teams. Congresswoman Lori Trahan, who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Save Minor League Baseball Task Force, urges MLB and MiLB “to come to an agreement, without delay, that is fair to the fans, players, and local communities alike.”