A federal Magistrate judge in San Francisco has sided with Major League Baseball against former minor league players in an effort to have their lawsuit claiming minimum wage and overtime violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act certified as a collective action and their state wage and hour claims certified as a class action.

Chief Magistrate Judge Joseph C. Spero of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California had conditionally certified the plaintiffs’ proposed collective action under the FLSA on October 20, 2015.

However, in his latest ruling, the Judge granted MLB’s motion to decertify the collective of former minor league baseball players against MLB, the Commissioner, and several MLB franchises alleging they were not paid the minimum wage and overtime  in violation of the FLSA.

The Judge also denied the plaintiffs’ request to certify their state law wage and hour claims as a class action. Senne, et al. v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp., et al, Case No. 14-CV-00608-JCS (July 21, 2016).

The decision has been heralded as a significant victory for MLB.

Insofar as they involve groups of plaintiffs joining together in a lawsuit, collective actions and class actions are quite similar. However, there are differences. The most important is that plaintiffs who want to be involved in a collective action must “opt in” , whereas individuals covered by a class action must “opt out” to avoid being bound by any judgment.

The plaintiffs in Senne contended that MLB and its clubs violated the FLSA, as well as similar state wage and hour laws, by paying them a total of only $3000-$7000 over a five-month season, despite their working from 50 to 70 hours per week. The former players also alleged the franchises have been paying them less than minimum wage, denying them overtime pay, and requiring them to train during the off-season without pay.

In his July 21, 2016 Order, the Magistrate Judge denied plaintiffs’ motion that their state wage and hour claims be certified as a class action for failing to meet certain legal requirements. He found that (1) there would be no simple way to determine who is a member of the class in each of the states; (2) plaintiffs had not demonstrated that the “typicality” requirement was met because the court could not determine whether the proposed class representatives for each state class collectively had presented claims that were typical of the class; and (3) the common questions raised by the state law claims did not predominate over individual issues – those individual issues “will overwhelm the common questions…and … the class mechanism is not superior because adjudicating plaintiffs’ claims on a classwide basis will not be manageable.”  So, even though he found there were a sufficient number of plaintiffs to meet the “numerosity” requirement; the existence of shared legal issues met the “commonality” requirement; and the class representatives could “fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class,” he refused to certify the class.

On October 20, 2015, the Magistrate Judge granted (on a conditional basis) the former minor league players’ request to certify their proposed collective — all minor league players who worked for the MLB or any MLB franchise since February 7, 2011, but who had not spent time in the major leagues at the time of performing work as a minor leaguer — under the FLSA. However, on July 21, 2016, after additional evidence relevant to the maintenance of a collective action had been gathered, Magistrate Judge Spero decertified it, using a similar analysis to that which he applied to the class action question.

The Judge found that the plaintiffs were not “similarly situated” because of “disparate factual and employment settings of the class members [that] make collective adjudication of Plaintiffs’ FLSA claims unmanageable and potentially unfair to Defendants.”

It is likely the minor league players will appeal the Magistrate Judge’s Order. However, if the Order stands, it will be much more difficult for the minor league players to pressure MLB to change its pay practices. Minor league players will have to sue individually, but even if they prevail, the resulting damages may not be enough to sway MLB to make changes.

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Photo of Gregg E. Clifton Gregg E. Clifton

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in…

Gregg E. Clifton is a Principal in the Phoenix, Arizona, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He is Co-Leader of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Practice Group and serves as the editor of the firm’s sports law blog.

Mr. Clifton has extensive experience in the collegiate and professional sports world. He has advised numerous professional franchises on general labor and employment issues, including Title III ADA regulatory compliance and wage and hour issues. He serves as lead counsel for several Major League Baseball teams in their salary arbitration matters and has represented NCAA and NAIA collegiate clients regarding rules compliance, investigatory matters and in disciplinary hearings. In addition, he has handled Title IX investigations and compliance issues for NCAA and NAIA member institutions. Mr. Clifton has also worked extensively in the area of agent regulation and enforcement in professional and college sports and regularly provides counsel on issues relating to NCAA and NAIA amateurism issues and athlete eligibility questions. He has also served as an expert witness in matters involving sports agents’ work and responsibilities, as well as athlete compensation issues.

Prior to joining Jackson Lewis, he spent six years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Team Sports for Gaylord Sports Management. He also served as President of the Athlete and Entertainment Division for famed sports attorney Bob Woolf’s firm, Woolf Associates, in Boston.

Mr. Clifton began his career as an Associate at Jackson Lewis where he focused his practice on traditional labor law. He continues to counsel clients in the areas of collective bargaining negotiations, representation cases, arbitrations and National Labor Relations Board matters.

Mr. Clifton frequently serves as an expert speaker to law schools, including Harvard University, Boston College, Hofstra University and Arizona State University, and bar associations regarding sports law issues, including agent regulation and salary arbitration. He is also often cited as an expert source in national news media for his commentary and opinion on legal issues in sports.