A judge this week granted a summary judgment in a lawsuit by former Buffalo Jills cheerleaders against the Buffalo Bills and others over wages – ruling that the Jills were employees, not independent contractors.
The lawsuit had contended that under a 1995 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, the Jills are non-exempt employees, not independent contractors as the Bills and other defendants maintain, and have to be paid at least the minimum wage.
The lawsuit, which was filed in 2014, also says the NFL furthered the mistaken classification of the Jills as independent contractors when it approved broadcast rights contracts between the Bills and the team’s former radio broadcaster.
In addition to the NFL and Bills, the suit named Cumulus Broadcasting Co., formerly known as Citadel Broadcasting Co.; Stephanie E. Mateczun, a former Citadel employee who ran the Jills; and Stejon Productions Corp., which later took over as manager of the Jills.
The decision means the cheerleaders' 2005 agreements that they were required to sign as a condition of their participation on the team are unenforceable and that the plaintiffs were non-exempt employees mis-classified as independent contractors, wrote State Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour.
The court also found that Citadel, Stejon Productions and Mateczun were the plantiffs' joint employers.
"The ruling is a major victory. It's not any longer a matter of whether the Jills should be paid but how much," said Sean E. Cooney, one of the attorneys representing the Jills.
However, the court found that the status of the Bills as a joint employer of the cheerleaders remains in question. That matter would have to be decided by a jury if the matter still went to trial.
Cooney said he is hopeful the decision on the Jills' employment status leads to a settlement of the case.
The contracts gave Citadel/Cumulus the exclusive rights to run the Jills and required Citadel to have each member of the cheerleading squad sign independent contractor agreements that the Jills would not be paid for working Bills games.
The plaintiffs in the latest ruling are two unnamed Jills. There also is a similar class-action case with four Jills, but the court has yet to rule on the same issue yet, Cooney said.
In a statement from the Bills released Saturday by Derek Boyko, an executive with the team, the Bills said in part: "The Buffalo Bills are pleased and encouraged by the Court's recent ruling. The ruling is consistent with the Bills long standing position that the Jills were not Bills' employees. In denying the Plaintiffs' motion against the Bills, the Court rejected the argument that the cheerleaders were employed by the Bills and instead found that the Jills were legally employed by other Defendants (Citadel and Stejon)."