Minor Leaguers Ruled MLB Employees in Minimum Wage Suit

Minor leaguers act as year-round, joint employees of Major League Baseball and its clubs. On March 15th, California federal judge ruled in a significant victory for players alleging starvation wages as their class and collective action approaches a spring trial.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero sided with a class of Arizona players on a summary judgement motion, finding MLB violated state minimum wage laws and holding it responsible for triple damages. Considering some of MLB’s defenses survived the motion, a jury will decide whether it is liable for similar claims from classes certified in Florida and California.

“The court has found that plaintiffs have established, based on undisputed evidence, that they are ‘employees’ under Arizona law and that they performed at least some compensable work. For the same reasons, the court concludes that plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgement on their claim for violation of Arizona’s minimum wage law and therefore are liable for treble the amount of unpaid wages, attorneys' fees and costs as to that claim," Judge Spero wrote, leaving it up to a jury to decide whether MLB's violation was willful.

Spero also rejected the league's defense that players are salaried creative-class workers, akin to journalists or visual artists, exempt from overtime. Judge Spero ruled on summary judgment that MLB violated California wage statement laws and granted the plaintiffs a $1.8 million award. He found liability for an Arizona wage statement violation as well but said damages would be decided at trial.

"For decades, Minor League players have worked long hours year-round in exchange for poverty-level wages," the group Advocates for Minor Leaguers told Law360 in a statement Wednesday.

"Working as a professional baseball player requires far more than just playing baseball games. It also requires hours of year-round training, practice and preparation, for which we have never been properly compensated," they added. "We are thrilled with today's ruling, which is an enormous step toward holding MLB accountable for its longstanding mistreatment of Minor League players."

MLB did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The players sued in 2014 alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and several states' labor laws. They claim they were paid as little as $1,100 a month during a five-month season, and little or nothing for postseason and off-season activity that was essentially mandatory.

The court has certified an FLSA minimum wage collective and four classes for players who worked spring training in Florida, participated in an instructional league in Arizona, played in California, or participated in a postseason in the Golden State.

The Florida and Arizona classes brought minimum wage claims. One California class seeks minimum wage and state-mandated overtime payments, while the other seeks injunctive relief for those who participate in the postseason there. Some 2,300 players have also opted into an FLSA collective asserting minimum wage and overtime claims for the work in Florida and Arizona.

The judge found there was no reason to treat the players like interns or trainees exempt from certain labor protections, as they were required to sign seven-year contracts that obligated them to perform services throughout the calendar year.

"These are not students who have enrolled in a vocational school with the understanding that they would perform services, without compensation, as part of the practical training necessary to complete the training and obtain a license," Judge Spero wrote.

The extensive 181-page order also denied the league's bid to bench the players' damages experts at trial. The court already denied a so-called Daubert motion to ditch them in 2017, and while MLB's subsequent motion to exclude them is largely duplicative, it also raises critical new issues that were uncovered after the Daubert motion was denied, the judge said.

"The court further finds that all of defendants' substantive arguments, at best, go to the weight of the evidence and not admissibility," Judge Spero wrote. "Those challenges are weighty, however, and the stakes are high. Both sides should have a fair opportunity to present their experts' opinions to the jury entrusted with deciding these difficult questions."

MLB argues that expert witness J. Michael Dennis's 2016 survey of how many hours players worked at ballparks is too riddled with errors to support damages calculations by expert Brian Kriegler and said both should be excluded.

The players asked the judge to strike the motions to exclude because they were allegedly filed in violation of a court rule, but the judge declined to mete out such a "harsh penalty," noting MLB has raised "serious challenges" concerning whether some respondents were biased because they knew the survey was for a wage action.

The judge also sided with the players in a "close call" matter of first impression involving whether the controversial 2018 Save America's Pastime Act exempting baseball from federal minimum wage requirements retroactively applied in Florida.

The state has its own minimum wage law that in 2004 used certain definitions and exemptions from the Fair Labor Standards Act. But Judge Spero adopted the players' view that subsequent changes to the FLSA under the SAP Act don't apply because the state's constitution forbids delegating legislative functions beyond state lawmakers, which, the players argued, would happen if the SAP Act could retroactively change a Florida state law.

MLB argued the state minimum wage law could be changed because voters passed it by referendum, but Judge Spero concluded voters didn't intend to incorporate future exemptions to the FLSA adopted by Congress.

"This takes the court into relatively uncharted territory, and the issue presents a close call. The court concludes, however, that the SAP Act is not part of Florida law and that it has no impact on plaintiffs' Florida law claims," Judge Spero wrote.

He added that it was up to a jury to decide whether MLB could claim FLSA's minimum-wage exemptions for amusement or recreational establishments in Florida and Arizona.

Judge Spero estimated last month that the SAP Act and amusement exemption questions alone could take weeks to hash out at the trial, which he warned would require a "boatload of money" and jury time even though relatively few facts are actually in dispute.

Stephen Tillery of Korein Tillery, counsel for players, said in a statement Tuesday, "We are pleased with the court's thorough and well-reasoned ruling on summary judgment and very much look forward to presenting our case at trial.”

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