New Mexico tribe claims sovereign immunity in jackpot case

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP)

Claims of sovereign immunity have taken center stage in a legal dispute between a tribe and a New Mexico man who claims Sandia Resort and Casino failed to pay him a jackpot of nearly $1.6 million last year.

The trouble began when Gary Hoffman tried his luck on a Mystical Mermaid slot machine during a visit to the casino on Aug. 16, 2006. The machine indicated he hit the jackpot, but casino workers ushered him into a room and told him “in a threatening and intimidating manner” that he wouldn’t be paid.

Hoffman is suing for the winnings plus punitive damages, but lawyers for Sandia Pueblo have filed a motion in state district court asking that the case be dismissed because the pueblo is a sovereign nation and the court lacks jurisdiction.

“The law is absolutely clear that the tribe is immune from this kind of suit,” Paul Bardacke, an Albuquerque attorney who represents the pueblo, said Tuesday. “The New Mexico Supreme Court recently ruled that personal injury suits could be heard in state district court, but the Supreme Court also ruled that was a specific and narrow exception to sovereign immunity.”

Aside from sovereignty issues, Bardacke said the slot machine being played by Hoffman had malfunctioned.

“You’ve got a machine that only pays out $2,500 and they’re claiming in excess of a million dollars,” he said.

While Bardacke is confident the case will be dismissed, Hoffman’s attorney believes it will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court and could have implications for Indian gaming across the nation.

Albuquerque attorney Sam Bregman said it’s not fair that Sandia Pueblo is enjoying the income generated by gamblers but is attempting to get out of paying winners based on sovereignty claims.

“If they get away with this, it will turn Indian gaming on its head,” he said.

Tribal gambling has grown explosively since Congress established the legal framework for it in 1988, and there are now nearly 230 tribes operating gambling facilities in more than two dozen states. With the growth have come conflicts as tribes have asserted their sovereignty as independent governments.

Sandia Pueblo’s motion states that a well-established aspect of tribal sovereignty is that tribal courts retain exclusive jurisdiction over claims arising against tribal members or tribal entities such as casinos.

Hoffman went through the casino’s grievance process, but his claim was denied by the pueblo’s gaming commission. With no option for appeal, he followed with the lawsuit, alleging breach of contract and violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act.