The years-long story of class-action litigation against Vox Media over classifying SB Nation team site managers and contributors as contractors rather than employees has now led to a settlement. This started in September 2017 when Cheryl Bradley (a site manager at SB Nation Colorado Avalanche blog Mile High Hockey between 2013 and 2015), filed a lawsuit both “individually and on behalf of all persons similarly situated,” a lawsuit that came only weeks after Laura Wagner’s “How SB Nation Profits Off An Army Of Exploited Workers” piece at Deadspin.
Other lawsuits followed and were eventually joined into a class action, and lawyers for the plaintiffs reached out to other SB Nation site managers to join the case in April 2019. The three combined lawsuits (Bradley, Spruill, and Reddington) have now been settled for $4 million, with an estimated $1.5 million of that going to attorneys’ fees and the remainder divided amongst plaintiffs “based on weeks worked and a point-system, which is tied to whether the person was a Site Manager or a Contributor and whether the class member worked in California, New Jersey or elsewhere in the United States.”
The more than 450 plaintiffs involved are expected to see average awards ranging from $4,940.88 (in the Bradley case) to $7,360.79 (in the Reddington case) to $9,451.49 (in the Spruill case). Here’s the key settlement document, the “MEMORANDUM OF LAW IN SUPPORT OF PLAINTIFFS’ OMNIBUS UNOPPOSED MOTION FOR PRELIMINARY APPROVAL OF CLASS ACTION SETTLEMENT,” which was filed in the U.S. district court for the District of Columbia Monday:
There are three different classes involved here, with one going off the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (Bradley), one off California legislation (Spruill), and one off New Jersey legislation (Reddington). Here’s how those classes are defined:
All individuals who filed valid notices of consent to join the Bradley Action (“Opt-In Plaintiffs”)—except for those individuals who later withdrew from this Action (the
“FLSA Settlement Class”)
All current and former paid contributors to Vox Media, who were classified as independent contractors and performed work in California for any SB Nation
team site from September 21, 2014 through the date of preliminary approval of the settlement by the Court or August 5, 2020, whichever is earlier (the
“California Settlement Class”);
All current and former paid contributors to Vox Media, who were classified as independent contractors and performed work in New Jersey for any SB Nation
team site from March 31, 2014 through the date of preliminary approval of the settlement by the Court or August 5, 2020, whichever is earlier (the “New Jersey
Settlement Class” and collectively with the California Settlement Class, “Rule 23 Settlement Classes”).
That document also describes how this settlement compares to the total amount the plaintiffs claimed:
In total, Plaintiffs estimate that Defendants’ total exposure would be, on the high end, approximately $14,317,711, or, more realistically, taking into consideration the litigation risks, Defendant’s defenses, and room for the courts’ discretion to decrease civil penalties under PAGA, approximately $7,733,261. The total settlement of $4,000,000 represents about 28% of the maximum exposure and about 52% of the realistic damages for the three cases.
So this settlement (which came after a mediation meeting in June) is for quite a bit less than the maximum exposure, but about half of what’s estimated as “realistic damages.” And that seems to make some sense for both sides.
The settlement means that the plaintiffs involved get some money. And while it’s not a lot for each individual person, a few thousand dollars isn’t nothing, especially given the state of the sports media world and the larger economy right now. And while there might have been more if they’d pursued this further, they also would have lost more to legal fees, and they might not have gotten anything.
Meanwhile, Vox has to pay out a fair bit, but it’s nowhere near as much as it could have been if the plaintiffs had been awarded more of what they were asking for. And they also don’t have to spend further time or legal fees on this. And as per a statement Vox PR’s Meredith Webster gave to Wagner at Vice, this includes no admission of liability:
“We have not departed from the company’s previous position as we have always believed that we treat our content creators fairly. With regard to the settlement, Vox Media and the plaintiffs have reached a mutual settlement agreement covering the related class action lawsuits brought on behalf of SB Nation site managers and contributors. Settling all three lawsuits together and ending the litigation was the desired outcome for all parties. Ultimately, we weighed the costs of continued litigation and made a business decision that this settlement amount was reasonable and would enable the company to put these cases behind it and move on. There was no admission of liability. We are grateful for the many contributions of our content creators.”
So it’s not necessarily the ideal outcome for either side, but it’s one where there’s some logic to a settlement. But it will be interesting to see how this affects Vox going forward. They already pulled out of relationships with California-based contractors in December (and angered a lot of their long-time writers there in the process), citing the state’s then-incoming AB5 law, and they made some changes to their operation after these lawsuits, including reducing some specific demands for team site managers. They’ve also already slashed their sports side hard in recent months with rounds of furloughs and buyouts and layoffs.
And while Vox Media overall certainly has money (it was valued at $750 million last September, a drop from $1.1 billion in 2015), it’s facing plenty of challenges with the ongoing pandemic, and $4 million is not a nothing cost. We’ll see where they go from here and if there are other knock-on effects from this litigation. But it’s certainly notable to see this long-running case settled.
[Vox Media settlement on Scribd]