By Abusing the Legal System, Judge 'Pants Suit' Weakens Public Trust in the Law

Is a pair of pants worth destroying three lives? 

In an apparent effort to ruin a dry cleaner who misplaced a pair of his pants, a Washington, D.C. judge is irresponsibly undermining the legal system itself.

Administrative Judge Roy Pearson, Jr. is suing the Chung family, Korean immigrants who own Custom Cleaners, for tens of millions of dollars for allegedly losing a pair of pants in 2005.  The process of defending themselves has caused the family to run up thousands in legal bills and exhausted their savings, forcing them to consider returning to South Korea.

USA Today reported that Pearson broke down in tears during the trial in “anguish” at losing his pants.  A messy divorce, concluded in 2005, also seems to have left him financially strapped. He also “confirmed he had only $1,000 to $2,000 to his name when his problems with the dry cleaners started in May 2005. Pearson also said he did not have a job at the time and was collecting unemployment benefits.”

Does Pearson's personal tragedy exonerate him for possibly ruining the livelihood of American citizens and forcing them out of the country?  While the New York Times, USA Today, ABC's Charles Gibson, and CBS's Harry Smith reported Pearson's sob story, only the Washington Post blog discussed the financial damage the Chungs will suffer even if they win the case.  The trial ran from June 11-13, and the judge is supposed to issue a ruling June 18.    

The New York Times reports that unnamed trial lawyer and tort reform groups are outraged that the case wasn't simply dismissed, claiming that it will erode “public trust in the legal system.”  

Other legal experts are aghast as well. Melvin Welles of the National Labor Relations Board wrote that if he were the judge in the case, he would throw out the lawsuit and order Pearson to pay the Chungs for their legal fees and mental suffering.  “The manifest absurdity of it is too obvious to require explanation.”

James Sandman of the District of Columbia Bar Association wrote: “As a member of the District of Columbia Bar, I believe that the widely reported actions of Mr. Roy Pearson, Jr. in pursuing a $65 million dollar lawsuit against a local dry cleaning business appear to constitute a serious abuse of the civil justice system and warrant a disciplinary inquiry from the Bar.” The amount demanded in the suit was recently reduced to $54 million.

Despite all the hype, Judge Pearson might get to stay on the bar anyway.  D.C. chief administrative law judge Tyron Butler indicates that he might consider rehiring Pearson.  

“Everyone agrees that to file a lawsuit asking for $65 million for a pair of pants is absolutely outrageous. But we are trying to keep that out of the discussion about reappointment. I don't think it's appropriate not to reappoint someone just because they file a lawsuit. You can't retaliate against someone for exercising their constitutional, First Amendment right to file a lawsuit to vindicate their rights.”

The Chungs say they found Pearson's pants several days after misplacing them, but Pearson claims the pants they found are not his. He claims the cleaner's “Satisfaction Guaranteed” sign requires the owners to pay him whatever he asks for even if they think he is lying. 

“He didn't even look, he didn't compare them to his suit jacket, he just said, 'These are not my pants,'” said Mr. Chung. 

Pearson, who testified to owning between 40 and 60 pairs of pants, claims the pair in question cost him $1,120.  But Pearson adopted a strict interpretation of the D.C. Consumer Protection Act, which imposes fines of $1,500 per violation, per day. Pearson counted 12 violations over 1,200 days, then multiplied the figure by three defendants.

Apart from the millions in the lawsuit, the Chungs, who immigrated to the United States in 1992, now face “tens of thousands of dollars in attorney's fees,” according to their lawyer Chris Manning. 

“Economically, emotionally, and health-wise as well, it's been extremely hard for us,” said Ms. Chung, according to The New York Times. “He would just come into the store as he pleased, taking pictures as we were running the business.”

Why didn't Judge Judith Bartnoff dismiss this case to begin with? 

The Washington Post reports that Judge Bartnoff claims she took the case, in part, because she wants to resolve “whether the signage that hung in Custom Cleaners was misleading.”  The Post notes that “After closing arguments, Bartnoff said she was taking the issues in the case seriously. 'I do think that this is a very important statute to protect to consumers, and I also think it's important that statutes like this are not misused,' she said.” 

David Niedrauer is an intern at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.