Mega Millions Jackpot Brings Another Lawsuit From Disgruntled Baker

PHOTO: A Mega Millions number selection card lies on the counter at a lottery ticket kiosk at OHare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, in this file photo.Tim Boyle/Bloomberg/Getty Images
A Mega Millions number selection card lies on the counter at a lottery ticket kiosk at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, in this file photo.

Another man in Chicago claims he is one of now five bakers owed dough--their fair share of $118 million in winnings from the Illinois State Lottery. They say they were part of a betting pool at the Pita Pan Old World Bakery in Chicago Heights that won the windfall in a May 4 drawing.

Chris Tzinis is the latest worker who claims he was part of the bakery's office pool since its start in December 2011. He said he last contributed to the pool on March 30 at the request of a lottery pool member, but was not asked to pitch in more money for the May 4 drawing, according to the suit filed with Cook County's circuit court.

Last month, four other workers filed three lawsuits with similar stories, saying they are entitled to part of the Mega Millions jackpot. Tzinis did not return a request for comment.

"This group had been running a pool since 2011," said attorney Michael LaMonica of Fisher & LaMonica, the law firm representing two of the five claimants. "Normally, they collected money for the pool on Mondays and Thursdays."

His clients, Jose Franco, 56, and Marco Medina, 39, contributed to the pool for a May 1 drawing, LaMonica said.

The group's ticket won $9, and the modest winnings were re-invested in the drawing for May 4.

"The collector came around again," LaMonica said. "But because some auditing was going on at the bakery, he switched the day of his collection to a Wednesday. For whatever reason, he didn't ask my clients for any additional money."

The ticket that the contributors bought won $118 million on May 4.

Now Franco and Medina say their co-workers are refusing to give them their fair share. Why do they feel they deserve part of the windfall? They paid into the ticket that won $9. And, since the $9 went into the purchase of the next ticket, they had an ownership stake in the $118 million winner.

The pool, they contend, had a standing agreement to divide its winnings equally. They say that if they'd been asked to contribute their customary share for the purchase of the winning ticket, they would have. Only nobody asked them for their money.

Michael Haugh, the attorney for the 12 defendants, said he disagrees with the plaintiffs' "characterization of the facts."

"Anybody who puts in their money can play," Haugh said.

The dozen defendants in the separate lawsuits include Mario Juarez, who allegedly served as the collector of the group's money, and Tony Koumalis and Doug Lein, who allegedly were the pool's organizers.

Haugh said different people participated from drawing to drawing. Two of the 12 winners participated in the office pool for the first time on May 4, he said, "and nobody said to them they don't get their share because they just started playing."

"If you want to play you put in your money," he said. "It's your responsibility, if you want to play, to put your money in. No one was going to chase you for your money."

Haugh said he has not seen the latest complaint filed by Tzinis, who had already filed a claim with the Illinois lottery, saying he believed he was one of the winners.

The group of 12 defendants presented the winning ticket but the Illinois lottery is waiting for a court order from the judge to direct how they should release the funds.

If there is a dispute over the winners, the lottery's policy is to wait until it has been resolved to make a payout.

The law views betting pools as joint ventures, LaMonica said.

"It's one-for-all and all-for-one," he said. "Everybody gets an equal share. There's no way of knowing which dollar won." Courts in New Jersey and Ohio, he says, when presented with similar disputes, have elected to give equal shares to each participant.

Another claimant, J. Santos Bello, is represented by Chicago attorney Steven J. Seidman. Seidman did not immediately return a request for comment. Bello's complaint tells virtually the same story as the one filed by Franco and Medina.

On June 11, the judge in Chicago will likely consolidate the four lawsuits into one, Haugh said. At that time, Haugh will request the lottery release some portion of the jackpot to his twelve clients.

"The question is did they each win 1/12 as we believe or potentially 1/17 if the five claimaints are right, which I don't think they are," Haugh said. "There's no question my people are winners."

Haugh said many if not all of his twelve clients have stopped working at the bakery due to the media attention at their workplace. He said they were "distressed" at having to leave their jobs.

"My people are normal working people. They really have wanted privacy and confidentiality," he said. "They all intended to work there for some period of time. When the news reports hit it became difficult to continue working there."