Sugar High

A recent federal lawsuit against SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia accuses the casino of failing to “provide an honest wagering environment” and fraud. Let’s unpack this.

What wrongdoing is being alleged?

The lawsuit is based on a Settlement Agreement between SugarHouse and the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (“PGCB”) that some poker, blackjack and mini-baccarat games were dealt with extra or missing cards, or improperly shuffled cards, violating the state’s Gaming Act, the PGCB’s regulations and SugarHouse’s own internal controls. In each case, a shuffling machine’s warning light came on, but play continued with extra, missing or improperly shuffled cards before the error was corrected. Afterwards, SugarHouse personnel didn’t tell the affected patrons what had happened, nor offer any reimbursement for losses. The Settlement Agreement describes seven instances, all confirmed by surveillance reviews:

  • A service technician discovered 16 cards stuck in a six-deck blackjack shuffler on May 27, 2017. The six decks less the missing cards were taken out of the shuffler and placed in the dealing shoe. 122 individual blackjack hands were dealt with the illegitimate decks, with one patron losing $5,300 during this time, and other patrons suffering losses less than $500 each.
  • A single card at a blackjack table was transferred from one set of six decks to another set on September 3, 2017, leaving the first set a card short and the second set a card over. 60 individual blackjack hands were dealt with the illegitimate decks, with no patron losing more than $100.
  • A poker room shuffler was set to sort mode rather than shuffle mode during a poker tournament on September 23, 2017. 16 tournament hands were dealt in sort mode, with the cards in sequential order by suit (presumably with a semi-random starting point based on a manual cut). No players at the table busted out of the tournament while this was happening.
  • A mini-baccarat dealer placed four cards in the discard rack of the next table over on September 26, 2017. His table’s eight decks were thus short by four cards and the next table had four extra cards. 155 individual mini-baccarat hands were dealt from illegitimate decks at the two tables before the four misplaced cards were identified and returned to the proper table.
  • On December 9, 2017, a poker player noticed a single card remaining in the shuffler after the dealer had removed the deck, and handed that card to the dealer. The dealer placed the card in the wrong deck, which caused the shuffler’s warning light to come on due to the extra card. While waiting for assistance with the shuffling machine, the dealer hand shuffled and dealt seven hands from the deck that was missing a card.
  • A blackjack dealer accidentally left one card in the discard rack when moving the discards to the shuffling machine on January 22, 2018. After the shuffler’s warning light came on repeatedly, the dealer manually shuffled the six decks that were missing a card and dealt 17 individual hands while a supervisor attempted to determine the cause of the shuffler’s warning light (now due to the other six decks being one card over). During these hands, the four patrons at the table lost a combined total of less than $1,000.
  • Another blackjack dealer accidentally left one card in the shoe when moving the remaining cards and cards in the discard rack to the shuffling machine on January 24, 2018. As with the previous instance, warning lights came on, the decks were manually shuffled, and 42 individual blackjack hands dealt from a six deck shoe containing one extra card while waiting on the cause of the shuffling machine’s warning light to be identified.

In a separate Settlement Agreement, SugarHouse acknowledged dealing 27 illegitimate hands of Spanish 21. In this game, the 10s are removed from the decks. On August 28, 2017, the dealers failed to remove the 10s from a new table setup, hand shuffling the decks to override the automatic shuffler’s warning lights. One patron lost $115 during these hands; the others had net winnings.

This is pretty sloppy on the part of SugarHouse, for sure, but no gamblers seem to have lost an unseemly amount during these specific instances spelled out in the Settlement Agreement. Nevertheless, SugarHouse admitted to the facts and paid $100,000 in fines and other costs.

Who is suing?

Two men who live near the casino have filed the lawsuit — Anthony Mattia and William Vespe. For purposes of this blog, I’ll call them “Anthony” and “William,” respectively. Anthony claims to have lost more than $147,000 at Sugar House over a nine month period from May 2017 through January 2018. William claims to have lost more than $103,000 over the same period.

Anthony appears to be the same guy who sued Allstate Insurance Company in 2014, in the same Eastern Pennsylvania federal court district, alleging an inadequate insurance settlement following water damage at his home. That suit was thrown out for not being filed in a timely manner and the failure to explain the details of who, what, where, when and how Allstate breached their insurance contract, instead only providing threadbare recitals supported by conclusory statements. I’ll come back to this soon.

William appears to be the same guy who owned a New Jersey construction company that in 2013 sued a local borough alleging failure to pay for a completed project and a labor union for allegedly defaming and interfering with his business, all of which forced his company to shut down. That case was dismissed after William failed to file an amended complaint by a court deadline. Specific claims had been earlier dismissed for failure to provide who, what, when, where and how details, instead leaving the court “guessing as to the pertinent facts underlying the claim.” Sound familiar?

What is their claim?

The lawsuit accuses SugarHouse of negligence, breach of an implied contract that the play is fair and honest, unjust enrichment, breach of good faith and fair dealing (no pun intended, at least that’s what I assume), fraud, and conspiracy. The suit seeks damages that include the $250,000 lost plus punitive damages and attorney fees. Yet nowhere do Anthony and William declare that they played any hands in the specific games or tables cited in the PGCB Settlement Agreements. Hmmm…

One of their attorneys said this: “The thrill in playing table games at SugarHouse is knowing that while the odds are against them, they can still ‘beat the house.’ But that all goes out the window when a casino uses broken equipment or ‘illegitimate’ decks as the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board previously found SugarHouse to have done.”

Another attorney added: “Based on the fact that SugarHouse apparently had been using broken equipment and ‘illegitimate’ decks … we think it is fair to question the integrity of the thousands of card games that were played at SugarHouse at tables using that equipment and those decks.”

What does KKing David have to say?

Glad you asked.

The demand for damages reminds me of Evel Knievel’s famous motorcycle jump and crash over the fountains at Caesars Palace in 1967. [OK, really not, but without really knowing it can get to the other side, the lawsuit makes a huge leap from the facts to the claim for damages, which sent me searching for a metaphor and I came up with Evel Knievel.]

On one side are the facts, straight from SugarHouse’s admissions in the Settlement Agreements with PGCB. Various games were played on various dates with decks containing too many or too few cards, or improperly shuffled. Warning indicators and other internal controls were ignored.

On the other side are the damages. Anthony and William demand to be compensated for their combined $250,000+ in gambling losses suffered during the time period between the earliest and latest of the reported facts.

In the middle is the utter failure to connect the dots. Anthony and William don’t claim to have been gambling at any of the instances described in the Settlement Agreement. Nor do they provide any dates they gambled or games and stakes they played. In very broad strokes, they allege that surely there must have been other instances of illegitimate decks in use and surely that happened while they were losing their money and surely their losses were caused by SugarHouse’s failure to detect the problems and/or willful commission of fraud. Without the who, what, where, when, and how that connects the stipulated irregularities at SugarHouse with their specific losses, Anthony and William want a jury to force SugarHouse to make them whole again.

They and their attorneys must be experiencing a SugarHigh.

I can’t help being amused at a claim that a casino engaged in unjust enrichment. The entire raison d’etre of a casino is unjust enrichment. They don’t have to cheat. As soon as you show up, they win. Their playing field isn’t level, it’s inherently uphill for the gamblers and downhill for the casino. They don’t have to stack the deck. Extra or missing cards don’t confer any special advantage upon the casino. If the eight of clubs is missing, the slight shift in the distribution of the remaining cards affects the house just as much as any player. Poker players don’t even play against the house! With ubiquitous surveillance in place, why would a casino try to defraud its customers in this manner? Sloppy and wrong… yes. Responsible for Anthony and William’s gambling losses… no. They are likely drawing dead.

Other than checking off a bucket list item of making an appearance in this blog, why would Anthony and William want the attention of publicly admitting to this level of gambling losses? Anyone who is still reading –> please speculate in the comments section as to this last question.

SugarHouse isn’t the only party not playing with a ‘full deck.’

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2 Comments

  1. From the individuals’ perspective, its a freeroll. They can make the claim, hire some attorneys on contingency, and not pay a dime if they lose. That leaves the question of why would the attorneys accept this case, assuming they are not being paid hourly. Perhaps they hope to get a quick settlement, on account of the potential bad publicity. But from the perspective of a plaintiff attorney, absent a specific law that is relevant to this fact pattern, it sounds like a losing case.

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  2. While I get where you’re coming from, I wouldn’t necessarily assume it to be easy to find (good) attorneys willing to take this case on contingency. Attorneys want to invest their time in winners… +EV you might say. Large corporations, like the parent company of this casino, tend to fight hard to discourage additional “freeroll” litigation chasing quick & easy settlements. In some cases, courts will rule they are so frivolous that plaintiffs must reimburse defense costs.

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