It’s been said that there’s no crying in baseball, but anybody could get a little weepy over working 70-hour weeks for $3,000 a year.
That’s the worst-case scenario detailed by a group of minor league baseball players who have filed a class-action lawsuit against the former commissioner of Major League Baseball, the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, and 22 Major League Baseball franchises.
The suit alleges that MLB suppresses minor leaguers’ wages, which results in player salaries as low as $3,000 to $7,500 for an entire year, despite players working 70 hours per week at times. Sometimes players don’t get paid at all. The complaint quotes one minor league player who compares his job to “indentured servitude in the 1700s.”
The crux of the complaint is that the players receive no overtime pay and earn less than minimum wage during the season. The suit seeks to recover lost wages and prevent the MLB “cartel” from subjecting future minor leaguers to MLB’s wage and labor practices.
Asserting claims under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and various state wage and hour laws, the players allege that, unlike major league players, they have no union and have therefore been unsuccessful in counteracting MLB’s collusive power, resulting in poor working conditions and extremely low wages.
How did Major League Baseball respond?
By lawyering up, of course. Several teams, including the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, and others, filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the case was improperly filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Because all the teams do not play in California, the defendants argued that the players cannot file suit in that state.
While the MLB teams’ first motion to dismiss was pending, they filed another motion challenging the minor leaguers’ standing using 2 more arguments:
- First, the MLB teams argued that the minor leaguers cannot sue under laws in states where no players played, since not every team plays games in every state.
- Second, the MLB teams argued that the minor leaguers cannot sue under laws in states where the players were not employed. If a player played for the Tacoma Rainiers, for instance, he is only able to sue under the laws of Washington State, but nowhere else.
In response, the minor leaguers argued that they should not have to meet either of those requirements in a class-action suit wherein all minor leaguers will be represented as plaintiffs. So far, the judge has ruled that the players can sue under laws in states where no players actually played. The judge decided not to answer whether the players had to be employed in every state whose law is invoked in the lawsuit.
The case is now in the “discovery” phase in which the players and the MLB will exchange information. Depositions of the players and MLB officials will also likely be conducted.
Can the minor leaguers pull this off?
The minor leaguers’ lawsuit is challenging because paid athletes are generally considered professionals. As professionals, their employers are exempt from certain FLSA requirements— namely, those involving overtime payments.
Several other problems also stand in the path of the minor leaguers. First, MLB will continue to assert that the lawsuit was filed late and is, therefore, barred by the statute of limitations. Second, the minor leaguers may have trouble certifying the class under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, which requires that there be common questions of law and fact. Basically, because players were presumably paid different rates depending on skill level and value to the team, each player may have different damages. That could prevent the players from arguing that the class representatives’ claims are common to all players.
Finally, MLB may simply argue that the minor leaguers knew what they were signing up for. They had contracts that explicitly stated their terms, and the players agreed to those terms. And unfortunately for the players, the saying “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” often holds up pretty well, at least as far as the law is concerned.