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Judge says minor league baseball players are MLB employees ahead of class-action lawsuit trial

Recouping back wages also is part of minor league baseball players' lawsuit.Steve Helber/Associated Press

Minor league baseball players’ quest to earn livable wages received a considerable boost Tuesday night when a federal court ruling set up favorable conditions for a June 1 trial of the class-action suit against the defendant, Major League Baseball.

In a summary judgment ruling from Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero of the US District Court in the Northern District of California, the justice supported the minor league players that they are in fact “employees” of MLB and eligible to be paid under standard state and federal labor laws and practices, such as overtime and minimum wages in California, Arizona and Florida.

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Recouping back wages also is part of the class-action suit.

Major League Baseball argued, in part, that minor league players are seasonal workers.

According to MLB, for example, time spent on a bus to travel to a game is not time on the clock, and players’ efforts are akin to those performed by “creative artists” or trainees in a vocational school. MLB believes that it acts in a regulatory capacity, with the 30 clubs determining salaries and other employment responsibilities.

Spero disagreed on many points.

His opinions will allow minor leaguers to pursue the case in front of a jury — although Tuesday’s ruling might increase the possibility that MLB will try to settle before it reaches trial.

Major League Baseball was not immediately available for comment.

Spero wrote that the minor leaguers “are ‘employees’ under the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act] and the relevant state laws throughout the calendar year; 2) that MLB is a joint employer under the FLSA and all relevant state laws; 3) that Plaintiffs performed “work” during Arizona and Florida training.”

Should the plaintiffs win, financial ramifications are not known but could potentially be significant.

Spero did write that the plaintiffs are entitled to $1.88 million in wage statement violations in one portion of their California claim. Numbers are not yet known for claims made in Arizona, but the judge did establish liability in part of that claim, with damages that will be tripled.

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The exact number of players in the suit is not publicly available but with regard to the Arizona portion of the suit, all minor leaguers who played in the state since around 2011 would be eligible to receive damages.

With minor-league players not getting paid during spring training but the judge now determining that they were working while at spring training, the jury will have a chance to calculate how much in salary the players missed out on.

The judge ruled that the Save America’s Pastime Act enacted by Congress in 2018 was not sufficient grounds for MLB to be exempt from at least state wage laws.

In October of 2020, the US Supreme Court declined MLB’s appeal to review the case.

“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,” said plaintiffs attorney Stephen Tillery.

The case has been pending since 2014.

“I did not find the decision to be particularly surprising, several of the defenses that MLB was relying on were, in my opinion, long shots to succeed,” said Nathaniel Grow, associate professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University, in an email. “In particular, courts have traditionally held that major professional sports teams are year-round, not seasonal, operations in light of the substantial off season attention and revenue that they generate. So the odds of MLB prevailing on the seasonal employees exception was always rather unlikely, in my opinion.”

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Warren Zola, executive director of Boston College’s Chief Executive Club at the Carroll School of Management, wrote: “You can feel the tide turning for improved working conditions and rights for minor league players. These cases will likely put pressure on baseball to treat minor league players more equitably. It’s a flawed system since minor leaguers are not covered by the Curt Flood Act and thus have no ability to bring antitrust law violations. However, they have slowly found a way to put pressure on their employers through labor law.”

The Steering Committee of the Advocates for Minor Leaguers expressed hope the ruling will lead to better conditions for players.

“For decades, minor league players have worked long hours year-round in exchange for poverty-level wages,” said the committee in a statement. “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. We are thrilled with today’s ruling, which is an enormous step toward holding MLB accountable for its longstanding mistreatment of minor league players.”


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB.