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Houston Strip Club Bared to Scrutiny

HOUSTON (CN) - A strip club ran up $5,300 on a customer's American Express card for "dances that never took place," a dancer stole his watch, then guards kicked the bejeezus out of him, a man claims in court.

Michael Vernon sued American Express, D. Houston Inc. dba Treasures nightclub, and its directors Ali "David" Davari and Hassan "George" Davari, in Harris County Court.

Vernon says he gave a waitress his American Express card to open up a tab upon entering the club.

"Several dancers came to Vernon's table and sat with him and his friends for several hours talking," the complaint states. "Sometime that evening, the dancers and/or other employees of Treasures filled out false and fraudulent 'Dance Authorization Vouchers' and forged Vernon's signature to those false vouchers for dances that never took place.

"Treasures also ran Vernon's American Express card for charges of $2,500.00, $1,253.00, and $1,686.00 without Vernon's knowledge, authorization or signature.

"At one point in the evening, one of the dancers asked to see Vernon's watch. He took it off of his wrist and handed it to her.

"Another dancer then distracted him while the dancer with his watch walked off. When Vernon turned back and saw she was gone, he asked the others who she was and where she had gone.

"The dancers around his table immediately got up and left. A manager of Treasures and several other employees came to Vernon's table, told him it was time for him to close out and leave and handed him an American Express ticket for $5,253, which they made him sign in order to get his driver's license and American Express Card back."

Vernon says that though he was "shocked and angry" at the bill, he signed it so he could leave.

"Vernon then began insisting that the manager locate the dancer who stole his watch and retrieve it from her. The manager refused and had him removed from the club," the complaint states.

"While outside, he was accosted and ultimately assaulted by a bouncer and several security personnel.

"He was choked, punched, thrown to the ground, and kicked in the sides and back repeatedly."

On top of all this, Vernon says, American Express refused to reverse the charges.

He seeks damages for assault, negligent hiring and supervision, forgery, Texas Theft Liability Act violations, Unauthorized Use of Identifying Information Act violations, deceptive trade and breach of contract.

He also wants a declaration that he does not owe the credit card charges.

Vernon is represented by Matthew Probus, with Wauson Probus, of Sugar Land.

Treasures, on Houston's bustling Westheimer Road, is involved in a nasty legal dispute with the Houston, which along with Harris County sued the club in May to try to close it, amid allegations that it's a hive of drugs and prostitution.

On Sept. 10 Harris County Judge Alexandra Smoots-Hogan ruled that the club can stay open but must to comply with an extensive list of restrictions.

The judge gave Treasures a week from the ruling to install 14 new video cameras in addition to the 12 already up, and turn the tapes over weekly to government attorneys; fire, and not hire, any worker convicted of a felony within the past decade; run background checks on all its employees and contractors; check bags of employees and contractors with a camera when they enter the club; use employee sign-in sheets and give them to government attorneys; do random drug tests on staff at least twice a month; call police if any worker sees any sex acts or drug use; and make dancers cover their butts.

Treasures' attorneys claim the club is being targeted for challenging the city's sexual-oriented business ordinance. They filed a notice of removal to Federal Court the day after Smoots-Hogan's ruling, claiming the order requiring twice monthly drug tests for workers, and constant video surveillance, violates the Fourth Amendment.

The club's attorneys also argued that the rules forcing it to fire, and not hire, any felons and turn over worker background checks to the plaintiffs violates federal law.

In response, Houston and Harris County filed an emergency motion to remand, and a motion for sanctions for wrongful removal.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal granted the government's motion for remand on Oct. 3.

"The plaintiffs' state-law claims necessarily depend on whether the evidence showed that the elements of the Texas nuisance statute were met so as to support an injunction designed to stop the drug and prostitution activities alleged," Rosenthal wrote.

"The state court did not have to apply federal law to determine whether the plaintiffs have a right to relief on the state-law grounds they invoked. The purported federal constitutional and statutory issues arise only after, and because, the state court first determined that state law entitled the plaintiffs to the relief they sought.

"The case law is clear that when federal law plays such a role in a case pleaded to raise only state-law claims, there is no federal jurisdiction."

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