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UPDATED: U.S. Supreme Court Will Not Hear N.M. Casino Dispute

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Court’s refusal ends man’s legal battle against Sandia Resort and Casino in a bid to get a $1.6M jackpot

 

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a New Mexico case in which a man sued Sandia Resort and Casino over what the tribe characterized as a malfunctioning slot machine that had displayed a $1.6 million jackpot.

Attorney Sam Bregman, who represents retired Albuquerque city worker Gary Hoffman, said Wednesday the Supreme Court’s refusal to take the case ends Hoffman’s legal battle.

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He said his client is disappointed.

“The law of the land in New Mexico is if someone’s not paid at a Native American casino, they have very little recourse,” Bregman said.

Sandia attorney David Mielke said the Supreme Court’s decision “was hardly a surprise, given the clear language” of the state gaming compact with tribes and federal law.

A state District Court had dismissed Hoffman’s lawsuit, and the New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld that decision.

The rulings supported Sandia Pueblo’s position the tribe can’t be sued because of its sovereign immunity. The state Supreme Court declined to take the case.

Some immunity is waived under New Mexico’s tribal gaming compact but those instances are limited to personal liability, such as slip-and-fall lawsuits, and issues involving damage to property, Mielke has said.

Hoffman’s dispute started in 2006, when he thought he had won $1.6 million on a nickel slot machine at Sandia Pueblo’s casino just north of Albuquerque, only to be told by casino managers the machine had malfunctioned.

Bregman said Hoffman received $385 and two dinner passes.

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Mielke has said the particular slot machine offered a maximum payout of $2,500, and a disclaimer mounted on the front panel of the machine told gamblers that.

The Sandia casino “values its customers but that doesn’t mean someone playing a nickel slot machine is going to get a $1.6 million payout when a machine malfunctions,” he said Wednesday.

 


Wednesday, 06 October 2010 15:24

 

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear a New Mexico case in which a man sued Sandia Resort and Casino over what the tribe characterized as a malfunctioning slot machine that had displayed a $1.6 million jackpot.

Attorney Sam Bregman, who represents retired Albuquerque city worker Gary Hoffman, said the Supreme Court’s refusal to take the case ends Hoffman’s legal battle.

He said his client is disappointed.

A state District Court had dismissed Hoffman’s lawsuit, and the New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld that decision.

The rulings supported Sandia Pueblo’s position the tribe can’t be sued because of its sovereign immunity.

Sandia attorney David Mielke was not available for comment Wednesday.

But he has said there’s nothing to debate since sovereignty is an endowed right for tribes.

 

 


 

 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

 

A New Mexico attorney says Native American gambling casinos have become big business, such an expansive enterprise that he says they should be exempted from a cornerstone of Indian legal authority — tribal sovereignty.

Sam Bregman has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case where a client, retired Albuquerque city worker Gary Hoffman, sued Sandia Resort and Casino over what the tribe characterized as a malfunctioning slot machine that displayed a $1.6 million jackpot.

Bregman represented Hoffman in a lawsuit, but a state District Court judge dismissed it, and the New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld that decision. Both rulings supported Sandia Pueblo’s position that the tribe can’t be sued because of the tribe’s sovereign immunity.

Sandia attorney David Mielke said there’s nothing to debate.

Sovereignty is an endowed right for tribes, he said, going way back to an 1831 Supreme Court ruling involving the Cherokee Nation and Georgia, where justices determined Indian tribes hold the authority to govern themselves and negotiate agreements with other governments.

“You can’t take a tribe into a different jurisdiction. Each is recognized as a government,” Mielke said.

Applying similar reasoning, he added, “You can’t sue the state of New Mexico in Texas.”

After New Mexico’s Supreme Court declined to take the case, Bregman filed a request this summer asking the U.S. Supreme Court to look at it. Because the nation’s highest court chooses cases it will consider, there’s no guarantee the dispute will get that far.

Bregman’s argument is that tribal gambling has grown into a wealthy business across the United States, far removed from issues that he says are central to sovereignty, such as Indian water and land rights or tribal self-governance.

According to the National Indian Gaming Association, tribal casinos reported $26.2 billion in revenues in 2009. Meanwhile, Bregman said slot machine malfunctions have been reported at Indian casinos in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Florida and elsewhere.

“Tribes spend millions of dollars every year to lure non-Native Americans onto their grounds to gamble in a commercial casino environment,” Bregman said. “Then when someone feels they’ve been cheated, they say, ‘Sorry, you can’t sue us.’ “

Hoffman’s dispute started in 2006, when he thought he had won $1.6 million on a nickel slot machine at Sandia Pueblo’s casino just north of Albuquerque, only to be told by casino managers the machine had malfunctioned.

Bregman said Hoffman was given $385 and two dinner passes.

Mielke said the slot machine in question offered a maximum payout of $2,500 and gamblers were told so on a disclaimer mounted on the machine’s front panel. He called such malfunctions “very rare” but said slot machines are computers, and like any machine, they can break and work improperly.

Asked about Bregman’s sovereignty argument, Mielke said some immunity is waived under New Mexico’s tribal gaming compact but those instances are limited to personal liability, such as slip-and-fall lawsuits, and issues involving damage to property.

Mielke said Sandia hasn’t had another malfunction since Hoffman’s case. He said when a machine begins “acting up in your favor, people tend to continue playing.”

Bregman was skeptical, saying it’s improbable an Indian casino would ever inform gamblers they hadn’t really lost money.

 

 


 

 

Wednesday, 24 February 2010 18:49

 

Gary Hoffman still hopes to collect on a nearly $1.6 million jackpot from a nickel slot at Sandia Casino.

But a second New Mexico court has now told Hoffman, in effect, “Don’t bet on it.”

The New Mexico Court of Appeals, in a unanimous ruling, affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of Hoffman’s lawsuit based on the sovereign immunity of the Pueblo of Sandia, which owns and operates the casino.

The January ruling doesn’t augur well for another lawsuit challenging a similar “jackpot” that a different casino refused to pay based on the same rationale — machine malfunction.

Sam Bregman represents Hoffman, as well as Cathy Torres, who sued Ohkay Casino, Tsay Corporation and its chief executive over an apparent $2.5 million jackpot on a slot machine last July.

Bregman says he plans to ask the New Mexico Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals decision. And if he doesn’t get satisfaction there, Bregman said he intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.

The question, Bregman said, is whether “gambling on Indian lands is protected by tribal sovereignty. Obviously, we don’t think it is. We believe that when they cheat their customers, they (customers) ought to be able to have their day in court.”

But Sandia’s attorneys point out that in gaming compacts between the tribes and the state, the pueblo waived immunity and agreed to state jurisdiction “only in matters of physical harm to persons or property.”

“This is just incredibly well-settled law. The Court of Appeals just affirmed what has been settled law for decades,” said Shannon Bacon, one of the tribe’s attorneys.

“Condemning it as anachronistic” is not enough to undermine a principle recognized for nearly a century, Bacon and Paul Bardacke said in court briefs.

They say the compact provides for claims like Hoffman’s to be determined by the pueblo.

Hoffman did appeal the non-payment to the Sandia Gaming Commission, which affirmed the casino decision that Hoffman wasn’t entitled to any money. He then appealed to the 2nd Judicial District Court, alleging breach of contract and violation of the Unfair Practices Act. Judge Linda Vanzi granted Sandia’s motion to dismiss.

The opinion by Appeals Court Judge Celia Foy Castillo, joined by Judges Roderick Kennedy and Michael E. Vigil, also said sovereign immunity was well- established law.

“We have no authority to decline to follow precedent established by our superior courts,” Castillo wrote.

The court also rejected Hoffman’s complaint that there are no regulations, rules or procedures to ensure that Sandia gaming is conducted fairly and honestly.

The compact allows claims by casino patrons only for physical injury to individuals or property, and the nearly $1.6 million winning cannot be considered property, the court said.

 

 

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