A Scary View of U.S. Legal System

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

T he pants, which have held their crease for an impressive two years, are still waiting for Roy Pearson. He can pick them up anytime.

A pair of pants may be all Pearson ever gets out of the 1,400 hours of legal work that he put into the drop-trou case of the century. The man who turned a $10.50 alteration into a $54 million lawsuit against his neighborhood cleaners was hung out to dry yesterday (okay, I'll stop). A D.C. Superior Court judge said Pearson failed to prove that the pants Custom Cleaners has been holding for him since 2005 were not the Hickey Freeman pants he brought in to be let out.

Dr. Seuss once wrote a story about "poor empty pants with nobody inside them," and as Jin Chung held up the pants at a news conference yesterday outside his shop on Bladensburg Road NE, I wondered whether anyone would ever again wear those lovely wool slacks. The Chung family, owners of the shop and targets of Pearson's legal assault, must keep the pants until Pearson runs through his inevitable appeals, after which it's not clear what will happen to the trousers that managed to knock away some of Paris Hilton's TV time.

"Today's story is, 'U.S. justice is alive,' " South Korean TV correspondent Yong Chul Yoon told me as he worked on the latest in a long series of daily reports on pants across the District. "Every day, we've been reporting about, 'How could this happen in America?' Every day, we had more emotionally explosive stories. Mrs. Chung broke down in tears on camera. There was tremendous interest. But now, we have to report, the American legal system is working very well."

The Chungs, who seemed bewildered and shocked throughout the two-day trial, were obviously relieved by Judge Judith Bartnoff's decision that Pearson's reading of the D.C. consumer protection law was absurd. Jin and Soo Chung could finally laugh about the pants. They offered assurances that the immigrant couple will indeed stay in this country despite the financial and emotional trauma of a legal odyssey that left them at the mercy of one wildly dissatisfied customer. And, astonishingly, the Chungs told me that if Pearson was to show up in their store once more, they would take care of his garments.

But despite their legal victory, the Chungs still face devastating losses. Their attorneys' fees are well north of $100,000, said Christopher Manning, who handled their case at a reduced rate. Business has suffered; Pearson papered nearby telephone polls with fliers asking residents to come forth with complaints about the shop. And Manning's law partner, Melinda Sossamon, said that even if Bartnoff eventually orders Pearson to pay the Chungs' legal bills, there's hardly a chance that the family will see any money because Pearson has few, if any, assets.

We don't know what Pearson's plans are for his pants or his career. He wasn't talking yesterday. But in the D.C. courthouse, people were talking a whole lot about Pearson's future. As you may recall, Pearson, an administrative law judge for the city, is on ice at work, taking care of unspecified tasks as an "attorney-adviser" because his term as a judge expired in April and Mayor Adrian Fenty asked the panel considering whether to appoint Pearson to a full, 10-year term to hold off. Now, even if Fenty fills a vacancy on the panel, no decision is expected on Pearson's employment until Bartnoff decides whether to make the pants man pay the Chungs' legal bill.

Picture a vast circle of buck-passers surrounding the Chungs, with Pearson standing outside the circle, scheming to find new ways to keep the torment going. Is the family still living the American dream, the TV people wanted to know? "They've lost so much in the past two years, it's very hard to answer that question," came the reply from the couple's daughter-in-law, Soo Choi.

The family does take cheer from the fact that more than 300 well-wishers have donated $35,000 to a legal defense fund and that a tort reform advocacy group is holding a fundraiser for the Chungs. In a startling "kumbaya" moment, the tort reformers and the trial lawyers association came together to beg one another for forgiveness, share cups of grog and issue a joint statement deploring Pearson's excesses. Well, maybe not the begging and the drinking.

Manning pronounced this "a great day for American justice," and Bartnoff concluded that perhaps Pearson simply forgot which pair of pants he'd brought to the cleaners. Still, there was at the end of this case no way to conclude that another wayward customer could not come along and ruin another family's livelihood, pretty much on a whim. Which remains a frightening prospect.

In Dr. Seuss's story of those poor empty pants, "a strange thing happened. Why, those pants began to cry! Those pants began to tremble. They were just as scared as I!"


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