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Court Rules for Cleaners In $54 Million Pants Suit

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By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The D.C. administrative law judge who sued his neighborhood dry cleaners for $54 million over a pair of lost pants found out yesterday what he's going to get.

Nothing.

Hardly a surprise, the verdict was nonetheless a media spectacle of the first order.

Journalists from around the world descended on a strip mall in far Northeast Washington for one more news conference and a last look at the place where it all began between the proprietors of Custom Cleaners, Soo and Jin Chung, and a judge named Roy Pearson.

It was the case that people couldn't stop talking about, and yesterday, the judge who heard it, Judith Bartnoff, finally had her say, rejecting Pearson's claim that he was defrauded by the Chungs and their "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign.

"A reasonable consumer would not interpret 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' to mean that a merchant is required to satisfy a customer's unreasonable demands or to accede to demands that the merchant has reasonable grounds to dispute," Bartnoff wrote in a 23-page ruling, adding that Pearson "is not entitled to any relief whatsoever."

"Obviously, it's a great day for the Chungs, and honestly, it's a great day for American justice," the couple's lead attorney, Christopher Manning, said outside the Chungs' shop, on Bladensburg Road NE.

Bartnoff ordered Pearson to pay the Chungs' court costs -- likely to be a few thousand dollars -- to cover fees for filings, transcripts and similar expenses. But even bigger troubles loom. She said she will consider making Pearson also pay the couple's attorneys' fees arising from the two-year legal battle. With the legal costs likely to exceed $100,000, however, the Chungs aren't counting on Pearson being able to pay, Manning said.

And with good reason. Up for reappointment this year, Pearson could have a hard time keeping his $96,000-a-year job if Bartnoff finds him at fault for his pursuit of the case. While awaiting a decision on his reappointment, Pearson is not hearing cases. He did not respond to e-mails seeking comment yesterday.

No one, not even Pearson, argued that his pants were actually worth $54 million. They were part of a Hickey Freeman suit that cost slightly more than $1,000, and letting out the waist, as Pearson had asked the cleaners to do, was a $10.50 job.

But this case -- decried by the plaintiffs' attorneys and the defense bar -- was, to Pearson, about far more than the pair of pants. He might yet appeal.

According to Pearson, the litigation is about safeguarding the rights of every consumer in the District who might fall prey to signs like those once posted in Custom Cleaners. Satisfaction was in fact not guaranteed, Pearson argued, and his own experience put the lie to the supposed promise.


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