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Minor League Baseball Players Strike Out in Attempt to Certify Class for Wage Claims

In 2014, a group of minor league players sued Major League Baseball, the Office of the Commissioner, former commissioner Bud Selig, and three MLB franchises alleging numerous violations of the federal minimum-wage law. Some minor league players reportedly received $3,000 to $7,000 over a five-month season, even though they claimed to spend 50 to 70 hours a week in baseball-related activities. The case was amended to include all 30 MLB franchises, though eight teams were later dismissed. Central to the players’ strategy was obtaining standing to pursue a class action to defray individual costs and maximize recovery.  However, a recent ruling by a California federal court dealt a blow to the players by rejecting their request for class certification.

Although the players were conditionally granted class status in 2015, Chief Magistrate Judge Spero reversed this temporary status and ruled the players could not proceed as a class in part because of the individualized inquiries needed to determine which class members were owed compensation.

To certify a class action, four elements must be established:

  • Numerosity – The number of plaintiffs must be so large that joinder of them into one claim where each person would be required to testify is impractical. The court held that sufficient numerosity existed in this case.
  • Commonality – There must be questions of law or fact common to everyone in the class. The court found there to be sufficient commonality because the minor leaguers presented three questions common to all potential class members: failure to pay a salary for time worked outside of the season, failure to pay minimum wage during the season, and failure to pay overtime.
  • Typicality – A claim is “typical” if it arises from the same event, practice, or course of conduct. Here, the court found insufficient evidence to support the claims were typical to all class members. Even though the teams acted jointly as a league and enacted a uniform constitution governing behavior, the alleged harm for the individual players were deemed too different.
  • Adequacy – The class members must have a representative who can adequately represent their interests. Here, the court found that “Plaintiffs have not established that all of the proposed class representatives can assert claims under the relevant states’ laws. To the extent these individuals may not be members of the classes they seek to represent, they cannot adequately represent those classes.”

One area in which the court emphasized a disparity fatal to class standing was that of the winter training period.  While this training was expected among players, the policies governing this expectation differed from club to club and players held significant discretion.

In a separate aspect of the case, the court held the players’ expert witness used a flawed methodology to support his finding that all minor leaguers worked similar amounts performing baseball-related activity throughout the season.  The court found (i) the sample size was too small; (ii) the players who responded had worked more hours than average; and (iii) the phrasing of the questions was found to be biased.

This may be a game-ending strikeout for minor league players on wage claims.  The costs of pursuing individual claims is likely prohibitive for the minor league players.  In addition to winning this ruling, MLB has express support for proposed legislation – the Save America’s Pastime Act (H.R. 5580) – which would exempt minor league players from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act.

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Brent Douglas