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Judge cuts pants plaintiff no slack

First he lost his trousers, now he's lost his suit, and he may have to dig into his pockets to pay defendants' legal fees.

June 26, 2007|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Roy L. Pearson learned Monday that his pants are not worth $54 million.

In fact, the lawsuit he filed when a pair of trousers went AWOL at a local dry cleaner set him back $1,000 in court costs -- and potentially a much larger sum in attorneys' fees for the folks he sued.

More broadly, Pearson's pant suit came to epitomize, for many, serious flaws in the legal system.

The saga began two years ago when Pearson was appointed an administrative law judge for the District of Columbia, which means he conducts hearings on claims concerning government programs. Required to wear a suit to work every day, Pearson found five old ones in his closet -- dating back to when he was trimmer -- and took them for alterations to a neighborhood dry cleaner.

When he went to retrieve the suits, one of them was missing its trousers. He asked for a $1,000 refund, the full price of the suit, he said, but was rebuffed.

So Pearson, a graduate of Northwestern University's law school, did what lawyers do. He sued.

The suit over his suit was not just any suit. Arguing that the dry cleaner had failed to live up to the "satisfaction guaranteed" sign in its window, Pearson demanded $67 million.

He later reduced the amount to $54 million.

The breakdown: $500,000 in attorney fees (he represented himself), $2 million for "discomfort, inconvenience and mental distress," $15,000 to rent a car every weekend to drive to another dry cleaner, and $51.5 million to set up a fund to help other dissatisfied local consumers sue businesses.

In Monday's ruling, D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff took Pearson to the cleaners.

In a 23-page finding, she wrote: "A reasonable consumer would not interpret 'satisfaction guaranteed' to mean that a merchant is required to satisfy a customer's unreasonable demands."

She also said Pearson had "not met his burden of proving that the pants the defendants attempted to return to him were not the pants he brought in for alteration."

About a week after Pearson tried to reclaim his suits, the owners of the dry-cleaning business, Jin Nam Chung and his wife, Soo Chung, found a pair of pants that they said matched the suit jacket. Their lawyer, Christopher Manning, said that the pants' measurements were precisely what Pearson had asked for and that its tag number matched Pearson's receipt.

Along with assessing court costs against Pearson, Bartnoff is considering a motion that he pay the Chungs' attorney fees.

When the trial began this month, Pearson broke down in tears when he explained to the judge his frustration over losing his pants. But he may soon have more serious reasons to cry.

Pearson was appointed to fill the final two years of a 10-year term as administrative law judge. In the wake of the publicity generated by his lawsuit, city officials are debating whether to follow through with giving him his own term.

The job pays $96,000 a year -- meaning Pearson would have to stick with it for 562 1/2 years to earn the $54 million he sought from the Chungs.

The Chungs expressed satisfaction with the verdict and no hard feelings toward Pearson.

"We're very pleased," Soo Chung said through a Korean interpreter. "The past two years have been difficult."

Manning said that if the judge did not require Pearson to pay legal fees, it was unclear how he and his partner would collect the $100,000 they have charged for their work on the case.

Pearson could not be reached for comment.

But Manning said Pearson had told him he would appeal an unfavorable ruling.

Legal experts said the decision went part of the way toward lifting a stain that the case had left on U.S. jurisprudence.

"Lawsuits like this that people consider frivolous give the legal system a bad name and lead to efforts to limit lawsuits and punitive damages in meritorious cases," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

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