Commission Weighs Future of Litigious Judge

Roy Pearson, who sued his neighborhood dry cleaners, is waiting to hear whether he will be reappointed as an administrative law judge.
Roy Pearson, who sued his neighborhood dry cleaners, is waiting to hear whether he will be reappointed as an administrative law judge. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
By Raw Fisherfrom Marc Fisher's Blog
Friday, August 3, 2007

By the middle of next week, Roy Pearson, the D.C. administrative law judge who sued his neighborhood dry cleaners for $54 million and lost, will receive a letter that starts the process that could put him out of a job.

City sources said a marathon meeting of the Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges ended late Monday with agreement to meet again next week to finalize wording of a letter explaining the panel's doubts about granting Pearson a 10-year term on the bench. Pearson's initial term expired at the end of April, at the height of his legal battle against the Chung family, owners of Custom Cleaners on Bladensburg Road NE.

The panel's work on the Pearson case has been complicated by a series of conflicting recommendations by the chief administrative judge, Tyrone Butler. Over a few weeks, Butler told the commission "I do not oppose" Pearson's reappointment, "I recommend reappointment," and "I do not recommend" reappointment, according to sources who have seen the letters.

The first switcheroo came after the commission told Butler he was required to submit a yes or no recommendation. Butler came back with a pro-Pearson letter.

After Pearson wrote a series of e-mails disparaging the chief judge, calling him "evil" and mean-spirited, Butler then sent a third letter, this time recommending against reappointment. Butler did not respond to phone messages yesterday.

The panel's discussion about Pearson's future has focused on what role a judge's behavior outside the courtroom should play in assessing his qualifications. Was Pearson's extraordinary zeal in pursuing the case against the Chungs so embarrassing that it amounts to evidence of poor judicial temperament?

The commission is expected to address the Chung case in its letter to Pearson, pointing out that his no-holds-barred pursuit of mega-millions in a case stemming from a $10.50 alteration on a pair of suit pants raised public doubts about the court system. After receipt of the letter, Pearson would have the right to a hearing before the commission. Only after that hearing would the commission formally move to end Pearson's tenure as a judge.

Pearson has not been sitting as a judge since his first term expired. Rather, he is now considered an "attorney adviser" at the Office of Administrative Hearings. Asked what Pearson does in that position, a high-ranking city official said, "Zippo."

Pearson did not respond to messages left for him by phone and e-mail yesterday.

Separately, Pearson is preparing an appeal of Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff's rejection of his case against the Chungs.

Meanwhile, a fundraiser for the Chungs last week collected $62,000 toward the legal fees the family incurred in the Pearson suit. Together with more than $30,000 previously donated to a defense fund, the total comes close to covering the Chungs' bills for the first round of the case, but Pearson's plan to appeal the ruling will mean further legal fees.

The commission's chairman, Superior Court Judge Robert Rigsby, declined to comment on the Pearson case, saying only that "we met for several hours last night and discussed the vacancies and the reappointments of 11 ALJs."

As satisfying as it would be to see Pearson lose his post over his obsessive pursuit of the Chungs, the downside for the owners of the dry cleaners is that with Pearson out of a job, their chances of recovering the court fees that he has already been assessed and the attorney's fees that he may yet be ordered to pay could be severely diminished.

As has happened at every stage of this sorry case, it is possible to win the legal battle while still being destroyed by the process.

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