Judge in $65 Million Suit Might Keep Seat on Bench

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 10, 2007

Around the D.C. government and around the world, Roy Pearson -- the man who sued his neighborhood dry cleaner for $65 million in a dispute over a missing pair of pants -- has become a laughingstock, a symbol of a legal system gone wild, another blot on the image of the District.

So last week, when the order came from managers of the city's Web site to remove Pearson's biography from the page about his job as an administrative law judge, a cheer went up among the techies in the office. Word spread like wildfire: Finally, the city had acted to salvage its reputation.

It's true that Pearson's term as a judge expired last week, his bio was taken down from the Web site and, for now, he is no longer hearing cases.

But he remains on the D.C. payroll, "doing administrative work," said a senior city official who declined to be named because he was discussing a personnel matter. Pearson will be in paid limbo for weeks while a commission decides whether to reappoint him for a 10-year term to handle disputes with city agencies.

There is good reason to believe that Pearson might win a new term. Before the pants suit became a worldwide story, the city's chief administrative law judge, Tyrone Butler, recommended approval of Pearson's application based on his job performance, said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson and three other sources with direct knowledge of the recommendation. Butler did not respond to a request for comment.

"Everyone agrees that to file a lawsuit asking for $65 million for a pair of pants is absolutely outrageous," the D.C. official said. "But we are trying to keep that out of the discussion about reappointment. I don't think it's appropriate not to reappoint someone just because they file a lawsuit. You can't retaliate against someone for exercising their constitutional, First Amendment right to file a lawsuit to vindicate their rights."

The lawsuit against the Chung family, the owners of Custom Cleaners on Bladensburg Road NE, where Pearson took his pants for a $10.50 alteration, is scheduled for trial June 11. Court records show that Pearson has turned down a $12,000 settlement offer from the Chungs and refused a Superior Court judge's offer of mediation.

Pearson's lawsuit has united both sides of the eternal battle over our easily abused legal system, with the American Tort Reform Association and the American Association for Justice, the trial lawyers' lobby, calling the suit ridiculous and offensive and urging their members to contribute to a defense fund for the Chung family.

Pearson's case has become fodder for ridicule on Howard Stern's radio show, TV networks' morning news programs and countless blogs. Since I wrote about it two weeks ago, I've been invited to appear on broadcasts in five countries. Astrologers and handwriting analysts have claimed to have insights into Pearson's actions. Asian Americans have worried that the lawsuit expresses ethnic animosity.

But the overwhelming question that readers want answered is this: How could such a person still be a judge?

The commission that decides whether judges such as Pearson get reappointed "is entitled to consider things that happen outside the walls of the courthouse," said Robert Spagnoletti, former D.C. attorney general and a partner at the Schertler & Onorato law firm.

"What's tied them in a bind is that the chief judge recommended him for reappointment," Spagnoletti said. "My personal view is that when you put somebody on the bench, the public needs to have confidence in their abilities. A lot of people think this is off the hook. You can't go anywhere without people saying, 'How can this guy be a judge?' "

The commission, which is short one of its three voting members because his term expired, might wait to decide Pearson's fate until the trial is completed or Mayor Adrian Fenty appoints someone to fill the vacancy; Fenty sent a letter yesterday saying he plans to do that soon.

This isn't the first time Pearson has represented himself aggressively. A 2005 Virginia Court of Appeals decision notes that the judge handling Pearson's divorce found him "responsible for excessive driving up of everything that went on here, including threatening both the wife and her lawyer with disbarment."

Even if D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff rules against Pearson next month, both sides generally must pay their own legal fees. But lawyers around town are hoping Bartnoff will conclude that Pearson acted in bad faith, which would open the door to making him pay the Chungs' legal bills.

Pearson declined to be interviewed for my columns on the suit suit. But in e-mails responding to my last column, he said that his $65 million claim "has little to do with lost suit pants." Rather, he wrote, his case focuses on the signs posted at the cleaners: "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service," promises that he says were misleading.

"I hope you will attend the trial and see how little of the damages sought and awarded there have anything to do with suit pants," Pearson wrote.

Read that again. The man expects to win.

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