Major League Baseball Sued by All-Star Volunteer for Unpaid Work

ABC News Susanna Kim
August 9, 2013

A volunteer of the 2013 All-Star FanFest is suing Major League Baseball for unpaid wages and is represented by a law firm that won a high-profile judgment in favor of unpaid interns.

Major League Baseball hosted its FanFest, what it called “the largest interactive baseball theme park in the world,” in New York City last month with the help of about 2,000 volunteers. The five-day All-Star weekend events were sponsored by large corporations and brought about $191.5 million into the New York City economy, the league has claimed.

The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, also alleges the league used unpaid volunteers when it hosted the All-Star Game in New York City in 2008.

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John Chen, the plaintiff who hopes to expand the lawsuit into a class action, is represented by Outten and Golden LLP, the law firm that represented the unpaid interns for the movie “Black Swan” who sued Fox Searchlight. A federal district court judge ruled in June that the company should have paid the two interns because they were regular employees.

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Chen maintained in the complaint that the league violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law by failing to pay at least minimum wage to volunteers.

Chen declined to comment on the case through his attorney, Justin Swartz. But Swartz laid out some of the lawsuit’s goals.

“We hope to stop for-profit companies like Major League Baseball from soliciting and receiving free labor,” Swartz told ABC News. “The minimum wage law prohibits for-profit private companies from accepting free volunteer labor.”

Swartz declined to reveal Chen’s age and occupation, saying that his client prefers privacy.

The volunteers didn’t receive All-Star Game tickets, though Major League Baseball gave the 2,000 volunteers the chance to win one pair of All-Star Game tickets if they worked “three shifts at any of the All-Star events,” the lawsuit said.

The court filing against Major League Baseball said: “Instead of paying them for their work, MLB, the world’s preeminent professional baseball league with annual revenue of more than seven billion dollars, provided volunteers with ‘a shirt, a cap and a cinch drawstring backpack,’ free admission for the volunteer and one guest to FanFest, a water bottle and a baseball.”

Chen attended mandatory information sessions, a one-hour session plus a two-hour session, the filing added, and part of his duties included stamping wrists of customers and handing bags of FanFest paraphernalia to customers, who were charged $35 as adults and $30 for children 2 years of age and older.

Swartz’s firm, Outten and Golden, also represents interns who filed a lawsuit in June against Condé Nast claiming the company did not pay them minimum wage during their summer jobs at W Magazine and The New Yorker in 2009 and 2010.

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“This lawsuit is in the same ballpark as those, but it’s a much more straightforward issue,” Swartz said. “For unpaid internships, some courts take into account the educational benefits and course credits that the interns get. In this case, there’s none of that.”

Swartz argued that not paying volunteers gives the league an unfair competitive advantage, which is one of the things minimum wage law tries to address.

Swartz added soliciting volunteers excludes New Yorkers and other people who can’t afford to work for free.

“Major League Baseball claims that the All-Star Game brought in tens of millions of dollars to the New York City economy and [it] employed about 2,000 unpaid volunteers who didn’t benefit from any of the economic boost,” Swartz said.

The league plans to host its 2014 All-Star Game in Minneapolis, Minn., and has invited this year’s volunteers to work for free at the event next year.