By Marc Fisher
Thursday, September 20, 2007
E ven on the day they beat Roy Pearson in the $54 million pants lawsuit, Soo and Jin Chung looked as if they had taken blows to the gut.
Yes, after a two-year ordeal that turned a pair of gray trousers into a global symbol of how easy it is to hijack the U.S. legal system, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the owners of Custom Cleaners had not abused their customer in any way.
And yes, an outraged public embraced the couple and donated more than $100,000 to cover their legal bills.
But that's not the end of the story. Bowing to emotional and financial burdens created by the legal battle over a $10.50 alteration, Custom Cleaners has gone out of business. The Chungs announced yesterday that they have sold their shop on Bladensburg Road NE, let their employees go and are down to one store, Happy Cleaners on Seventh Street NW, across from the Washington Convention Center in Shaw.
I found Soo Chung there yesterday, sweeping the floor. She looked a bit more at ease, but the strain of two years of strangulation by lawsuit was evident as she wrung her hands and furrowed her brow at the mention of Pearson. But when the conversation turned to the couple's return to Happy Cleaners, she brightened.
"This is our first store, first job," she told me. "When we came to America in 1992, we worked here. Good job. Good store."
"They were just tired of the whole ordeal," said the Chungs' daughter-in-law Soo Choi. "A lot of people view this comically because the case is so outrageous, but my mother-in-law has gone down four dress sizes from this whole ordeal. They just want to put this in their past."
The Chungs, bewildered that one vindictive customer could cause a small business so much grief, found it hard to go back to the shop in Fort Lincoln each day. And the lawsuit proved to be a big drag on revenue at Custom Cleaners.
When Pearson started gathering material in his quest to squeeze a struggling Korean immigrant family for megamillions in 2005, he posted fliers on light poles in the neighborhood, asking residents to feed him horror stories about the company. Business, which had been strong, declined significantly and never rebounded, said Choi and the Chungs' attorney, Christopher Manning.
"You'd think the trial and all the publicity would have a good effect on business," Manning said, "but for a dry cleaner, it really doesn't, because your customers are from the immediate neighborhood."
Pants Man is appealing his defeat, so the Chungs are not free of him yet, although Manning said his firm will handle the appeal without charge. Pearson, who did not respond to a request to comment, is still technically a D.C. administrative law judge, but the panel that decides on reappointments has notified him that it intends to cut him loose.
Pearson's appeal is not expected to be heard until next year. Neither Manning nor the Chungs have heard from him since the couple dropped their demand that they be awarded attorney fees, a gesture they hoped would get Pearson to reciprocate by dropping his appeal. "It obviously didn't work," Manning said.
The Chung family spent their last days on Bladensburg Road writing thank-you cards to their regular customers. The prospects for profits were better at Custom Cleaners because the shop was equipped to clean clothes on site; at the downtown shop, the cleaning is outsourced and the margins are tighter, Choi said.
But the new setting is an emotional relief, a physical and psychological distancing from the customer who would not be satisfied.
"Far away," Chung said. "Back here, where we started. Where it was good."
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