Legally Speaking: Justice gets taken to the cleaners

By John G. Browning | May 23, 2007

John Browning

John Browning

In nearly 18 years of practicing law, I've seen some cases that I considered to be fairly frivolous - people suing for causes of action that don't exist, parties seeking Texas courts to hear disputes that lack even the most remote connection to our state, and individuals filing lawsuits years and even decades after a perceived wrong.

Frankly, I thought I'd seen it all - until I learned about Roy Pearson, Jr.'s lawsuit. Mr. Pearson is suing his dry cleaners in Washington, D.C., for allegedly losing a pair of his pants.

What takes this matter out of the realm of small claims courts and makes it fodder for late night talk show hosts' punch lines? Pearson is suing for $67 million.

I own some nice suits, but not $67 million nice.

What could make this story of abusing the civil justice system even better? Roy Pearson happens to be someone who should know a thing or two about how backlogged our courts are - he's a judge.

Our sordid little tale has its roots in 2002.Th at year, Pearson claims that he took a pair of pants into Custom Cleaners (in the Fort Lincoln neighborhood of Washington, D.C.), and the pants were lost. The owners, Jin and Soo Chung gave Pearson $150 to replace them.

Three years later, in May 2005, Pearson claims he relived this "nightmare" when he came in to pick up pants from a suit he had previously brought in for alterations, only to find that Custom Cleaners couldn't produce the trousers. Pearson initially demanded $1,150 for a new suit, but then upped the ante by filing a lawsuit.

Oddly enough, within a week of Pearson dropping off the pants, business owner Soo Chung maintains she found the missing garment. When she tried to return them to Pearson, he claimed they were the wrong pants.

According to the Chungs' attorney, Chris Manning, his clients are sure these are the correct pants. For one thing, he says, they have a distinct three belt loop that matches the missing pair; even more importantly, the pant's receipt tag "exactly matches the receipt that Mr. Pearson has."

Unable to get Pearson to believe that they had located the correct pants, Mr. and Mrs. Chung have repeatedly tried to resolve the lawsuit. They offered $3,000, $4,600, and ultimately $12,000 to compensate Pearson for a missing pair of gray trousers with red and blue stripes.

Pearson, however, believes that he is entitled to millions more than the original $10.50 cost of the alteration. He bases this on the claim that the dry cleaners failed to live up to two signs posted in their store window-one that read "Same Day Service" (the pants were dropped off May 3, 2005, and allegedly not ready until May 5, 2005), and another sign that read "Satisfaction Guaranteed". Citing the District of Columbia's consumer protection statutes, Pearson claims that he is entitled to over $67 million dollars.

Pearson arrived at that figure by calculating that this consumer protection law provides for damages of $1,500 for each violation, per day. He claims that each day that both the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and the "Same Day Service" signs were up is a separate violation and that these signs were up for more than 1,200 days (they've since been removed). Pearson is multiplying the violations by three, the number of defendants (Mr. and Mrs. Chung, and their adult son). He's also tacking on $500,000 for "emotional distress", and $15,000 to rent a car every weekend for the next 10 years, claiming that because he doesn't own a car and will have to drive to another dry cleaner, Custom Cleaners should have to pay the tab.

What kind of a lawyer would take such a case? Apparently, none. Pearson is representing himself, and claims to have put in over a thousand hours, for which he is also seeking legal fees of $542,500.

Mr. and Mrs. Chung, Korean immigrants who own Custom Cleaners and two other dry cleaning locations, have already spent thousands of dollars defending themselves, and stand to spend thousands more.

Pearson has tried to make a mountain out of this molehill at every turn. He tried to expand the case into a class action lawsuit, claiming that "thousands" of others have been similarly wronged, but was denied. Pearson has filed pleading after pleading, and sent seemingly endless pages of discovery requests to the Chungs.

Case in point: Pearson's request that the Chungs "identify…all cleaners known to you on May 1, 2005, in the District of Columbia, the United States, and the world that advertise 'Satisfaction Guaranteed'."

Pearson even claimed he would call 63 witnesses, only to be told by the judge that four would have to suffice for the saga of the missing pants. The first judge presiding over the case (it has since been assigned to trial before another judge) sharply criticized Pearson's actions, noting "the Court has significant concerns that the plaintiff is acting in bad faith and with an intent to delay the proceedings." Despite being described as "an egregious abuse of process" and "monumental waste" of court time and resources, Pearson's case is scheduled to go to trial on June 11, 2007.

The case has attracted attention not only throughout Washington D.C., but nationwide as well. Former National Labor Relations Board chief administrative law judge Melvin Welles has urged "any bar to which Mr. Pearson belongs to immediately disbar him and the District to remove him from his position as an administrative law judge."

The American Tort Reform Association wrote to the panel of four D.C. officials who in early May were considering Pearson for reappointment to a 10 year term, urging them to "examine closely his judicial temperament" and pointing out that Pearson's conduct in this lawsuit "raises serious questions about his capacity to serve the city as a 'fair, impartial, effective, and efficient' judge."

Other observers pointed out that this is not the first case to raise questions about Pearson's temperament. In a 2005 examination of Pearson's divorce proceedings, the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld findings that Pearson had created "unnecessary litigation" and had excessively driven up legal costs.

Ironically, the Office of Administration Hearings (which pays Pearson his $100,512 annual salary to adjudicate alleged civil violations of District of Columbia rules) was created in order to boost public confidence in the justice system.

It's hard to imagine anyone coming before Judge Pearson and having confidence in his judgment and his judicial temperament, in the wake of such an abusive lawsuit.

Soo Chung, breaking down in tears as her husband described the financial cost and stress associated with the lawsuit, says "I would never thought it would have dragged on this long. I don't want to live here anymore. It's been so difficult. I just want to go home, go back to Korea."

Jin and Soo Chung came to this country and worked hard in their pursuit of the American dream. Unfortunately, thanks to Roy Pearson's abuse of the very system of justice he is sworn to serve, their American dream has become a nightmare. Let's hope a judge with some common sense leaves Roy Pearson hanging out to dry.

John G. Browning is a partner in the Dallas law firm of Browning & Fleishman, P.C., where his practice is devoted to civil litigation. He is also an award-winning legal journalist whose work appears in publications throughout Texas and the United States.

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