Wearing Down the Judicial System With a Pair of Pants

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, June 14, 2007

Don't look for Roy Pearson to be out shopping for new suit pants this weekend. At the end of the $54 million pants suit in D.C. Superior Court yesterday, Judge Judith Bartnoff said she wouldn't issue a decision until next week but nonetheless gave a strong hint of her direction.

After listening to Pearson argue for hour upon hour that he was somehow protecting the interests of all Washingtonians by using the D.C. consumer protection law to punish Custom Cleaners for allegedly losing a pair of his pants, Bartnoff said: "This is a very important statute to protect consumers. It's also very important that statutes like this are not misused."

Trying to get inside the head of Pearson -- a D.C. administrative law judge who launched his long, twisted legal odyssey after bringing pants in to be let out -- is tricky business.

This is a man who, despite his soft voice and polite demeanor, told the court yesterday that "there is no case in the District of Columbia or in the United States that comes anywhere close to the outrageousness of the behavior of the defendants in this case."

The Chung family, owner of Custom Cleaners, is accused of the terrible crime of not only misplacing Pearson's pants -- either for a few days, as the Chungs contend, or permanently, as Pearson claims -- but also posting a "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign and then refusing Pearson's demand for vast sums of money.

Pearson, according to the Chungs' lawyer, Christopher Manning, is "a bitter man, emotionally distressed . . . who has irrationally and uncompromisingly pursued this litigation. He wanted the Chungs to suffer."

Soo Chung, who owns the shop on Bladensburg Road NE with her husband, broke down on the witness stand, just as Pearson had a day earlier. Pearson cried while recalling being handed pants that he believed were not his, but Chung spoke through her sobs of a different order of pain:

"He is asking for an enormous amount of money," said the Korean immigrant, whose family's savings are gone as a result of defending this suit. "It has been really hard on us to deal with this."

Pearson said he had no choice but to sue, because he is a "private attorney general" standing up for every person in Washington. Pearson told the judge he wants $500,000 in attorney's fees (though he represents himself), $2 million for his "discomfort, inconvenience and mental distress" and $51.5 million that he would use to help any D.C. resident sue businesses just as Pearson has. (Just before trial, Pearson lowered his demand from $65 million.)

Bartnoff spent hours delving into the puzzle of Roy Pearson. Sometimes incredulous, sometimes gently joshing, she lured Pearson away from long monologues about the minutiae of D.C. consumer protection law, but she also let him spell out his odd notions of law. She gave him all the rope he needed.

If a customer demands $1,000 for a lost garment, Bartnoff said, and the merchant truly believes the customer is lying, does a "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign require the shop owner to hand over a check?

"Yes," Pearson said. The courtroom broke into laughter.

How does such a case get to trial? How does one man get to make a laughingstock of the system? Judges chipped away at Pearson's case for two years, limiting the witnesses he could call, trimming his claims. But Pearson prevailed by burying the court in paperwork and bringing up arguments just plausible enough to allow him a hearing. Nobody wants to be on the wrong end of a Pearson lawsuit; that fear lets him charge ahead.

The pants suit united tort reformers and trial lawyers in a rare joint statement denouncing Pearson's excesses. But Pearson's zeal is only an exaggerated version of what goes on in virtually every institution of American life, where humane and reasonable behavior is quashed by reminders that someone could conceivably be sued.

Did Pearson have a case? When the defense finally revealed the pants it says Pearson brought in for a $10.50 alteration, it wasn't clear whether they matched the jacket Pearson displayed the previous day. One thing was certain: The pants bore the same ticket number as Pearson's receipt.

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