By Marc Fisher
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Before trial began yesterday in the case of the D.C. judge who sued his neighborhood dry cleaners after they lost his pants, the most extraordinary fact was Roy Pearson's demand for $65 million in damages.
That was before Pearson, an administrative law judge, broke down while testifying about the emotional pain of having the cleaners give him the wrong pants. It was before an 89-year-old woman in a wheelchair told of being chased out of the cleaners by an angry owner. And it was before she compared the owners of Custom Cleaners in open court to Nazis.
"I knew it: It's all my fault," said the reporter from German television who was sitting next to me.
The global import of Pearson v. Custom Cleaners was evident from the start. The courtroom was packed with members of the Korean Dry Cleaners Association and reporters from print and broadcast outlets in at least five countries. The guy from the tort reform lobby handed out bright green buttons protesting the $65 million "pantsuit." The gent from Fox TV sported neon-color paisley pants.
And Pearson, who by his account has spent more than 1,400 hours preparing his case, arrived in a black pinstripe suit. I hope he won't sue me if I mention that the pants could have used a pressing.
"Never before in recorded history have a group of defendants engaged in such misleading and unfair business practices," Pearson said in his opening statement. You don't get a lot of firsts in recorded history in D.C. Superior Court, though I should add that Marion Barry was in the building for his day in traffic court, and the pants suit easily outdrew the ex-mayor-for-life.
The "willful and malicious conduct" Pearson described consisted of this: In 2005, Pearson was starting his new job as a judge and therefore needed to start wearing suits again after a couple of years of unemployment. He brought five suits in for alterations because he'd put on 20 pounds and needed to have the pants let out. Four suits came back fine. One came back without the pants.
Pearson says the Chung family -- Korean immigrants who came here from the charcoal factories of Seoul in 1992 and now own three cleaners, including the one a short walk from Pearson's place in the Fort Lincoln section of Northeast -- had no intention of living up to the sign in their shop that said "Satisfaction Guaranteed." Therefore, Pearson said, he had no choice but to take on "the awesome responsibility" of suing the Chungs on behalf of every resident of the District of Columbia.
Judge Judith Bartnoff went to remarkable lengths to try to keep Pearson moving along while disabusing him of the notion that he represented either the tens of thousands of people who have used Custom Cleaners or the half million people in Washington who might theoretically be at risk of being dissatisfied with the shop's service.
From the start, Pearson kept referring to himself as "we," as if he were representing everyone in town. Bartnoff was having none of it: "Mr. Pearson, you are not a 'we.' You are an 'I.' "
Defense lawyer Christopher Manning depicted Pearson as a bitter, wildly litigious man who emerged from a recent divorce with financial difficulties and who held a deep grudge against the Chungs stemming from a previous run-in. Back in 2002, after the cleaners lost another pair of his pants, Pearson was compensated with a check for $150. The Chungs then tried to ban him from their shop, but Pearson implored them to let him come back because Custom was the only cleaners within walking distance of his home, and he doesn't have a car.
Pearson presented a series of witnesses who told of unhappy experiences at Custom. Their satisfaction, they said, was hardly guaranteed. But every one of Pearson's witnesses told the defense that in fact, they would have been entirely satisfied if they had been given credit for free cleaning or compensation in the amount of the value of their damaged or lost garment. Most of the witnesses said they'd generally had good experiences at Custom, and not one of Pearson's witnesses said anything about deserving millions of dollars.
Witnesses depicted Soo Chung, the mom in the Mom and Pop operation, as someone who was pleasant and professional -- until a dispute arose, at which point she told several of the customers that it was they who had brought in damaged goods, not the shop that had caused any problem with an article of clothing.
Grace Hewell, a retired congressional staffer, said Jin Chung, Soo's husband, "chased me out of the store" when she complained that her suit pants "looked like they had been washed" and no longer fit properly. "At 89, I'm not ready to be chased," she said. "But I was in World War II as a WAC, so I think I can take care of myself. Having lived in Germany and knowing the people who were victims of the Nazis, I thought he was going to beat me up. I thought of what Hitler had done to thousands of Jews."
After questioning eight witnesses, Pearson spent two hours telling his own story, but as he came to the part about when Soo Chung finally told him she had found the missing pants, the tale of the $10.50 alteration that went awry proved to be too much.
"These are not my pants," Pearson recalled telling Chung when she handed him a pair of gray pants with cuffs. "I have in my adult life, with one exception, never worn pants with cuffs."
"And she said, 'These are your pants.' "
Pearson paused. He struggled to breathe deeply. He could not continue. Pearson blurted a request for a break, stood up, turned around and walked out of the courtroom, tears dripping from his full and reddened eyes.
When he returned, he called that moment when Chung offered him the wrong pants "a Twilight Zone experience," and again, he welled up and had to halt the proceedings. Pearson wanted to submit the remainder of his testimony in writing, but Judge Bartnoff wouldn't hear of it.
The trial is expected to end today. Pearson has reduced his claim to $54 million. But he told the judge that he also wants to be awarded attorney's fees, even though he represents himself. He would like to be paid at a rate of between $390 and $425 an hour.
Earlier in the day, Pearson called his 30-year-old son as a witness. The son testified that he was surprised that his father had filed this suit. "I know you don't like litigation at all," he said.