Minor Leaguers Can Expand Lawsuit Against MLB

The case for a group of former minor league players suing Major League Baseball over unfair wages took a significant step forward on Tuesday when the United States District Court in San Francisco ruled that the lawsuit can be certified as a class action. As a result, roughly 10,000 current and former minor leaguers can join the group of 32 players that filed a lawsuit in February 2014 contending that major league teams have suppressed minor league player salaries in violation of federal and state labor laws.

"It's a good win," said Garrett Broshuis, the former minor league pitcher turned attorney who is leading the lawsuit for St. Louis-based law firm Korein Tillery. "We always believed that we would achieve this result. We believe that no matter the organization, minor leaguers are similarly situated and that this step was an appropriate step up for the case to take."

The former players are seeking to change the current minor league wage structure--in which players typically make between $1,100 and $2,150 a month and are paid only during the five-month minor league season, not including spring training--so that players earn at least minimum wage. That group of players can now include any current or former minor leaguer dating back to early 2011 (when the federal statute of limitations expires).

Major League Baseball has countered the lawsuit by claiming that playing minor league baseball was never meant to be a career but has always been considered a defacto internship and a stepping stone to the major leagues. So under the direction of Stan Brand, Minor League Baseball's vice president who doubles as a power-broker attorney on Capitol Hill, Major League Baseball is petitioning Congress to include minor league ballplayers to the list of 35 occupations not required to receive minimum wage or overtime pay as dictated in the Federal Labor Standards Act--a move that would likely nullify the players’ lawsuit.

"So, once again," Brand told a gathering of minor league team owners and executives at the Winter Meetings in San Diego last December, "I will you ask you to heed the clarion call, man the battle stations and carry the message to Congress loudly and clearly: The value of grassroots baseball and our stewardship of the game needs to be protected against the onslaught of these suits."

Minor leaguers have taken the first battle by winning the first of two steps toward proceeding collectively, Broshuis said. They will also seek a collective ruling in state courts, which Broshuis said will take place in the spring. The plaintiffs are in the process of deposing team officials, primarily farm directors and minor league administrators, to affirm that minor league players work more than 40 hours per week and do not receive overtime pay.

Brand did not immediately respond to a request for an interview. He has said that preserving the current wage structure is a necessary reality in order to maintain the minor leagues' partnership with the majors and to ensure the sport's future.

"You don't know what system would take its place and what the effect would be on all the levels of minor league baseball," Brand said in an interview this past spring. "It's a big risk. And then again, (the current system) worked for 100-plus years and in all these towns and cities. I think we would like to see it continue. The fans get a good experience for a reasonable amount of money, and 44 million people who may or may not get to go see a live major league game get to see professional baseball. It seems like a worthy policy to promote."