Litigious Judge's Future Unclear
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
The D.C. judge who sued his dry cleaners for $54 million over a pair of pants may want to begin looking for a new job.
A city commission has voted to formally notify Administrative Law Judge Roy Pearson that he may not be reappointed to the bench, according to a government source.
In a letter sent to Pearson yesterday, the Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges cited not only Pearson's infamous failed lawsuit against Custom Cleaners, but his work as a judge the past two years.
Pearson is not out of work yet. The letter is a key step, though, alerting him that his reappointment is in jeopardy. He has 15 days to file a rebuttal and could push for reappointment by appearing before the commission at its next meeting in September.
Pearson has not responded to recent efforts to reach him for comment, including e-mail and telephone messages this week.
The commission has been reviewing applications from several administrative law judges seeking reappointment. In a statement, the chairman, D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert R. Rigsby, said the commission has considered all of the applications "thoroughly and thoughtfully."
If Pearson appears before the commission, he probably will face questions about far more than his lawsuit, which generated jokes around the world and made him a target of the tort reform movement.
Concerns about Pearson's temperament as an administrative law judge preceded the publicity about the lawsuit this spring. The letter from the commission focuses on those concerns, addressing the lawsuit only briefly.
In e-mails sent to his fellow judges and cited in the letter, Pearson's contempt for Chief Administrative Law Judge Tyrone T. Butler was evident. In one of the missives, he spoke of protecting himself from any attempt by Butler "to knife" him. In another, he questioned Butler's competence and integrity.
Butler is a nonvoting member of the commission, as is George Valentine, a senior lawyer in the D.C. attorney general's office. The voting members are Rigsby, fellow Superior Court Judge Anita M. Josey-Herring and Peter M. Willner, a policy analyst with the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence.
Appointed in 2005 to an initial two-year term, Pearson had been seeking appointment to a full 10-year term. His lawsuit and subsequent trial turned what is typically a simple review process into a spectacle that has dragged on for months.
The lawsuit, filed in 2005, contended that Pearson was defrauded by the owners of Custom Cleaners and by the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign that once hung in their store on Bladensburg Road NE.
Pearson, a regular customer, had brought in a pair of suit pants for alterations shortly before he was to start his judgeship in the spring of 2005. But the trousers went missing, and Pearson disputed that the pants that were eventually presented to him were his.
He wrote the shop's owners, Soo and Jin Chung, demanding $1,150 to buy a new suit. After the Chungs did not respond, he swung into action, filing the lawsuit in Superior Court.
When the case went to trial in June before Judge Judith Bartnoff, the courtroom was crowded with media from Washington and around the world.
A lawyer for the poor for much of his career, Pearson represented himself at trial and styled himself as a champion of the little guy, safeguarding the rights of ordinary citizens who lacked his legal acumen. The Chungs contended that they were small-business owners trying to make a living and set upon by a vengeful, litigious customer.
After two days of tedious testimony, the judge elected to draft a written decision. Almost two weeks later, she issued a 23-page ruling finding that Pearson was not entitled to any money. Pearson may appeal the ruling.
The Chungs have asked the court to order Pearson to pay their attorneys' fees, arguing that Pearson acted in bad faith in suing the family.
The judge has not ruled on the Chungs' request, and Pearson has been given an extension to file his response to the Chungs' motion. Ordering a losing plaintiff to pay attorneys' fees is unusual and would require the judge to find that the case was frivolous.