Judge allows players to make case for rejecting $30M settlement in CHL minimum-wage lawsuit
A judge will allow a lawyer for two former Quebec Major Junior Hockey League players to file evidence and make verbal arguments about why a $30 million settlement in three class-action lawsuits filed by current and former Canadian Hockey League players should be rejected.
The $30 million settlement, tied to lawsuits by players seeking minimum wage, back pay and overtime, was reached three years ago but no money has been paid out because judges in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta agreed to freeze the funds until other litigation involving the CHL and its leagues was resolved. That litigation, a proposed class-action alleging North American leagues have conspired to limit opportunities for young players, is no longer active because the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the case.
Superior Court of Quebec Justice Chantal Corriveau wrote in her decision on Wednesday that Stephanie Lisa Roberts, a lawyer for Thomas Gobeil and Lukas Walter, who are class representatives in the minimum wage class-action lawsuit in Quebec, will have three weeks to file evidence about why the settlement in the case should now be rejected.
Roberts will also be allowed to make arguments for two hours at an upcoming court hearing in Montreal, which has yet to be scheduled.
This summer, as the sides moved towards finally arranging payments to plaintiffs in the case, former QMJHL players Gobeil and Walter began contacting the three judges in the case to say they want to rip up the settlement agreement and try to negotiate one that could get the plaintiffs more money than the $30 million or move to a trial.
The former players are among several dozen who purportedly object to the settlement.
Gobeil and Walter, in correspondence with their attorneys and the judges in the case, cited Justice Thomas Cromwell’s 2022 report on Hockey Canada, which was commissioned after the public learned that the federation had quietly settled a lawsuit filed by a woman who alleged she had been sexually assaulted by eight former CHL players in June 2018 at a golf and gala event in London, Ont.
Cromwell’s report detailed how Hockey Canada secretly managed two funds, of which the CHL was a beneficiary, that were used to settle uninsured liabilities, including sexual assault lawsuits.
Roberts wrote in an email to TSN that her clients believe those funds can help bolster the amount paid out in the minimum-wage lawsuit. Roberts wrote that she has not yet confirmed if that’s realistic. A lawyer who is not involved with the minimum-wage lawsuit said it’s possible that fund money could be used for the minimum-wage lawsuit, depending on what the contracts between the CHL and Hockey Canada say. Those contracts have never been made public, the lawyer said.
“When we first signed on to this worthy cause, we were promised a monetary award and a cultural change to the system of major junior hockey,” Walter wrote in a June 14 email to Ted Charney, a Toronto-based lawyer for plaintiffs suing the OHL. “In 2019, we entered good faith negotiations with the defendants. We now have documented proof to demonstrate that the defendants were not forthcoming with their financial position, nor can they accept responsibility or implement change given their conduct over the last four years…”
Gobeil emailed the judges overseeing the lawsuits four days later, reiterating that Hockey Canada’s funds had amassed $119 million in equity as of June 2022.
“Without getting into details of our settlement talks, we have never heard of such a fund in the negotiations,” Gobeil wrote in his June 18 email to the judges.
Gobeil, who is now 28, played for Baie-Comeau, Chicoutimi, and Val-d’or from 2010-2014. Walter, 30, played for Saint John during the 2013-14 season after two seasons in the WHL with the Tri-City Americans.
Both players also alleged in emails to the courts that while the plaintiffs' lawyers are set to receive $11.8 million of the $30 million settlement, they have refused to provide time sheets, billing records, or other information documenting how much time they had spent working on the cases.
Corriveau rejected a request by Gobeil and Walter to remove Michel Savonitto, one of the original plaintiffs’ lawyers on the case, as the attorney representing all of the other 1,700-plus QMJHL plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Savonitto did not respond to an email requesting comment. Charney declined to comment.
On Sept 26, former QMJHL player Brandon Hynes, 31, who played from 2008 to 2013 with Victoriaville, Acadie-Bathurst, and Val d’Or, wrote a letter to Corriveau. Hynes said he was writing on behalf of himself and 37 other former players who also want the settlement rejected.
“The QMJHL and CHL have never acted in good faith,” Hynes wrote in his email. “They got caught not following the Employment Standards Act and then lobbied provincial governments to change employment standards to lessen the financial impact. This deal, if accepted, will send a message that it is okay not to follow the law if you have enough money and influence… We, as class members, plan to organize a group to oppose this settlement and will inform all class members across Canada as to the direct impact this settlement will have on the class members.”
One source familiar with the $30 million settlement said the CHL’s 60 teams will pay about $250,000 apiece and that the league and its insurer will pay for the balance.
Under terms of the agreement between the plaintiffs and CHL, players who have signed NHL contracts are not eligible for settlement payouts. There are potentially 4,200 former CHL players eligible. The amount players will receive will depend on how many file claims and their service time in the CHL.
The CHL and its three leagues – the QMJHL, the Ontario Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League – have been battling minimum-wage lawsuits since 2014. Current and former players suing the leagues argued the teams are for-profit businesses and that players should enjoy protection under employment rights legislation.
It's unlikely that the CHL will have to defend a similar lawsuit in the near future. Over the past several years, the provinces and U.S. states where CHL teams are based have changed their laws to exempt CHL players from minimum-wage laws. The only way the CHL would be exposed to further litigation is if subsequent governments rolled back those changes.