Senne v. Royals is the case that could change Major League Baseball

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 03: Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. looks on prior to the American League Wild Card Game between the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on October 3, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 03: Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. looks on prior to the American League Wild Card Game between the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on October 3, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Senne v. Royals is one of three class action lawsuits against Major League Baseball regarding the wages of Minor League Baseball players.

On the eve of the second game of the World Series — a bold, yearly display of American pageantry and ambiance — it is hard to imagine that the next wave of Major League Baseball talent are currently earning poverty-level pay. On average, Minor League Baseball players make about $12,000 per year, a slender total which covers their five-month-long season and two months training prior (in extended spring training).

Historically, Minor League Baseball has paid low wages to its players; sometimes, the league only pays about $1,000 per in-season month to some of its lowest level players, based on the player’s current minor league level. However, three class action suits are looking to reverse the tide of Minor League Baseball’s unlivable wages, one of which, Senne v. Kansas City, is receiving a lot of traction.

Senne v. Royals

Aaron Senne is doing what he can to fight Minor League Baseballs payment of poverty level wages. Senne is a former minor leaguer who was drafted twice by the Minnesota Twins and once by the (then) Florida Marlins. A first baseman, Senne played minor league baseball from 2010-2013 after playing four years of collegiate baseball at Missouri. As a Mizzou Tiger, Senne emerged as one of the top hitting prospects coming out of college — he hit .334 with 42 home runs and 212 RBI during his time at Missouri.

Unfortunately, Senne, like so many other minor leaguers before him, was unable to ascend to “the Show.” His dream of playing in the big leagues would remain a dream. However, like every player, Senne still deserved to be compensated fairly during his time as in minor league baseball.

After retiring in 2013, Senne filed a class action lawsuit in 2014 against Major League Baseball under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Senne’s lawsuit, which was filed in California, mirrors two other class action suits which were filed in Arizona and Florida.

A class action lawsuit is when a group of plaintiffs (a class) file a lawsuit against the same defendant. This happens when allowing each of the plaintiffs to file their own suits (or joining them together inconsistently) would not be in the best interests of the complainants and could also be impractical.

Senne’s class action challenges the wage suppression that occurs within Minor League Baseball. According to Senne, he was “paid… about $3,000 for the entire 2010 season, $3,000 in 2011, about $7,000 in 2012, and $3,000 in 2013.” Currently, the United States guidelines on the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) is about $13,860 for a single person household. Senne, who also supported a wife and children, would have fallen far below the FPL if he had relied on his MiLB salary alone. Senne was forced to take on additional jobs to supplement his revenue and even to afford proper training.

Why now?

There are a couple reasons it’s taken so long for a case like Senne’s to gain traction. Senne’s attorney, Garret Broshuis, believes that it is because minor league players do not have a union like major league players do. As such, they are forgotten when the MLB union pushes for salary increases.

But minor league baseball has been tested on its wage system before — even through different types of law. MiLB was challenged under the Sherman Antitrust Act, but won out because MiLB falls under the pro sports league’s antitrust exemption. MiLB was also challenged in different jurisdictions under the Fair Labor Standards Act and won there too.

Still, the three current cases before federal courts (Senne and the class actions in Arizona and Florida) seek to do what other cases could not: impose a just system of pay.

What are the implications?

First, it is unlikely that a large number of minor league teams would be able to exist if players were fully and fairly compensated. Thus, the minor league system would probably look a lot more similar to the NBA’s development league, the G League, and would be significantly more streamlined. This also means that the total size of a major league organization’s roster would shrink. Thus, teams would have a smaller margin for error in terms of player personnel decisions. Finally, this move could lead to more talent choosing to leave collegiate baseball for a well-compensated minor league system. Of course, all of this is contingent on an unlikely win by the plaintiffs.

Currently, the Senne case sits in U.S. federal court, specifically, the appellate division of the Ninth Circuit. Senne is currently arguing that “a lower court erred by certifying a California class but not also approving proposed Arizona and Florida classes based on misguided concerns over which states’ laws would apply.”

(Arizona and Florida are crucial jurisdictions when considering a minor league suit because spring training and multiple minor league sub-leagues are located in the two states.)

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At its core, the players involved in all three lawsuits are asking for an answer, in their words, “to the fundamental question this case presents: Are defendants required under wage-and-hour laws to compensate minor league professional baseball players?”

Hopefully, the Ninth Circuit will answer the player’s question on its merits.