A $ 30 million settlement of three class action lawsuits over alleged failure to pay minimum wage to junior hockey players has been jeopardized after three judges refused to sign the deal.
In their decisions, judges from Ontario, Quebec and Alberta objected to the wording of the settlement which they said was too broad and could prevent players from making other legitimate claims.
Specifically, said Ontario Superior Court Judge Paul Perell, class members would receive an average of around $ 8,400, but could find themselves barred from suing leagues for damages related to concussion, sexual assault or physical harassment, or suspected anti-competitive behavior.
“Class members may be prevented from suing defendants in other class actions for compensation for serious injury,” Perell said. “A discharge of the claims in these other actions makes the immediate settlement an unpredictable settlement that is neither fair and reasonable, nor in the best interests of the class members. ”
The plaintiffs in all three lawsuits alleged that the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and their affiliated clubs – all operate under the umbrella of the Canadian League hockey – didn’t treat them like employees.
According to the plaintiffs, some players were paid as little as $ 35 per week to work 35 to 65 hours per week. The leagues, they argued, should have paid them minimum wage, overtime pay and provided them with other benefits.
The first lawsuit, launched in Ontario in 2014, sought approximately $ 175 million in outstanding compensation.
In response, the leagues argued, among other things, that the players were amateur athletes and not employees. Nonetheless, in March, the leagues agreed after mediation to pay $ 30 million to settle the lawsuits – with around $ 9 million going to the players’ lawyers.
The settlement was put to court for approval when two plaintiffs’ representatives – Kobe Mohr and Anthony Poulin – objected to the wording of the final version, which would isolate the leagues from any related lawsuits in the future.
As a result of the objection, the courts heard of other lawsuits against the Canadian Hockey League, including one in British Columbia for player concussions. Another complaint filed in Ontario alleges that players under the age of 18 have suffered sexual abuse, while a third in Federal Court alleges that various leagues have engaged in anti-competitive practices.
“To be frank about this, in the immediate case, in my opinion, once the 11th hour objection had arrived, Class Counsel should have withdrawn their motion to approve the settlement until the question of the prejudicial scope of the release be resolved, ”Perell said. “What is needed is a renegotiation of the release provisions of the settlement agreement. ”
In a similar decision, Judge Robert Hall of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench relied on Perell’s analysis for refusing to accept the settlement.
“Class members cannot unintentionally release defendants from other claims beyond the one currently being resolved,” Hall wrote. Justice Chantal Corriveau of the Superior Court of Quebec expressed similar sentiments.
The judges said the parties could reapply for approval of the settlement after settling the release issue given that the other terms of the deal were reasonable.
If an agreement is not reached on the release, the settlement could be terminated within weeks and lead to resumption of litigation.
Neither the Canadian Hockey League nor the plaintiffs’ lawyers received an immediate response.