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Pants suit should spur legal system alterations


For all the wretched, powerless and dissatisfied tort reform advocates everywhere, Roy L. Pearson also might be a hero.

Mr. Pearson is the District of Columbia administrative law judge who is waging a determined—some might say obsessive, abusive or deranged—legal battle to win $54 million in damages from a family dry cleaning business that allegedly lost a pair of his pants (BI, Aug. 13). Although he lost his pants suit at trial, last week the intrepid Mr. Pearson filed an appeal.

In 2005, Mr. Pearson brought several suits for alterations to Custom Cleaners, a dry cleaning business operated by South Korean immigrants Jin Nam Chung, Ki Chung and their son, Soo Chung. Two days later, when he returned, one pair of pants was missing. Mr. Pearson demanded the cleaners pay him $1,150 for the cost of a new suit.

A week later, the Chungs said the pants had been found and presented them in lieu of payment, but Mr. Pearson claimed they were the wrong trousers and delivered another suit to the cleaners: A lawsuit seeking damages of $67.3 million (later hemmed to $54 million).

Mr. Pearson's claim was based on his strict interpretation of local statutes protecting consumers from deceptive advertising and unfair trade practices. Mr. Pearson named each of the Chungs as a defendant and alleged 14,400 causes of action (12 violations over 1,200 days) at $1,500 each, plus a few million dollars worth of mental anguish and inconvenience, $500,000 in legal fees (the judge represented himself), and $15,000 for the cost of renting a car to drive to a different dry cleaner for the next 10 years.

At the heart of Mr. Pearson's complaint is his assertion that the Chungs' actions were in breach of signs displayed in their shop proclaiming "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service." His suit seeks to uphold the rights of pants-wearing customers throughout the District from such fraudulent dry cleaning claims.

Several offers by the Chungs to settle the dispute, the last for $12,000, were rejected and the case went to trial in June.

After two weeks—during which it was disclosed that Mr. Pearson had been sanctioned for "unnecessary litigation" in his 2003 divorce complaint—District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff ruled in favor of the Chungs. In her ruling, she wrote: "A reasonable consumer would not interpret 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' to mean that a merchant is required to satisfy a customer's unreasonable demands."

Dissatisfied with the ruling, as well as the court's refusal to reconsider its decision, Mr. Pearson continues to press his suit, and last week he filed an appeal with the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, the commission that oversees D.C. administrative law judges sent him a letter this month notifying him that his application to be reappointed to the bench might be in jeopardy.

It would be easy to dismiss Mr. Pearson as just another nutty, litigation-happy plaintiff looking for pants with deep pockets (if his position as a judge did not make this case so pathetic). But ironically, this dispute might provide tort reform advocates with a tailor-made example of serious wrongs with our legal system.

Consider that Mr. Pearson's claim so appalled trial lawyers that the American Assn. for Justice (formerly the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America), filed an ethics complaint against him in May with the D.C. Bar.

The case also helped the American Tort Reform Assn. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform organize a successful fundraiser to help cover the Chungs' legal costs that raised more than $64,000, with pledges continuing to pour in.

Mr. Pearson's dogged effort to line his pockets just might provide the kick in the pants needed for overdue legal reforms. I hope so, but unfortunately, as with the dry cleaners' signage, satisfaction is not guaranteed when it comes to removing such nasty stains.