Tearful Testimony in $54 Million Pants Lawsuit

D.C. lawyer breaks down in court, says dry cleaners lost his pants.

June 12, 2007, 9:15 AM

June 13, 2007 — -- A Washington, D.C. law judge broke down in tears and had to take a break from his testimony because he became too emotional while questioning himself about his experience with a missing pair of pants.

Administrative law judge Roy Pearson is representing himself in civil court and claimed that he is owed $54 million from a local dry cleaner who he says lost his pants, despite a sign in their store which ensures "Satisfaction Guaranteed."

The case gained national attention soon after the lawsuit was filed. The pants are expected to be introduced into evidence, although the judge says the pants are not his, and the correct pants are still missing.

The sartorial loss caused Pearson to suffer what he calls severe "mental suffering, inconvenience and discomfort."

The defendants, who own Custom Cleaners in the Fort Lincoln section of the district, told ABC News last month that they, too, are feeling inconvenience and discomfort.

They are expected to present their case Wednesday.

In his opening statement, Pearson came out swinging, telling the court "never before in recorded history have a group of defendants engaged in such misleading and unfair business practices."

Repeatedly referring to himself as "we,'' Pearson sought to represent himself as the leader of a class of tens of thousands, if not a half million local residents he believes are at risk of falling for such insidious business practices as posting Satisfaction Guaranteed' signs and "Same Day Service."

"Mr. Pearson, you are not "we.'' You are an "I," Judge Judith Bartnoff told Pearson.

But as he explained the details of the missing pants, Pearson struggled to get through his hour and a half of testimony, most of which concerned his credentials and his background.

He became visibly emotional when he reached the point in the story where he confronted Soo Chung from the dry cleaning store.

"These are not my pants,'' he testified yesterday, telling her "I have in my adult life, with one exception, never worn pants with cuffs."

But Chung insisted, Pearson testified.

"These are your pants."

Pearson rushed from the courtroom, tears streaming down his face.

Pearson has a long history with the Chungs. In 2002, after a disagreement over another pair of Pearson's pant which Custom Cleaners allegedly lost - and compensated him for with $150 - Pearson was banned from the store, defense attorney Christopher Manning claimed in court.

Manning said that Pearson pleaded with the Chungs to let him back into the store, because he didn't have a car, he said, and they were the only dry cleaners in the neighborhood.

"This case is very simple,'' Manning explained. "It's about one sign and the plaintiff's outlandish interpretation."

Even fellow trial lawyers are offended.

"It's outrageous and it's shameful,'' Bill Schulz, spokesman for the American Association for Justice, the largest trial lawyer group in the nation, told ABC News. The A.A.J. filed a complaint about Pearson recently with the District of Columbia bar association.

Schulz said the case is an embarrassing anomoly that "should not be used as an indictment against the civil justice system in this country because, it works quite well, thank you, for people -- ordinary people -- who are seeking real justice for real cases of negligence and wrongdoing."

"It's laughable,'' said Philip K. Howard, founder of the non-partisan law policy coalition Common Good. "It's like a parody of the American system of justice.

"Frivolous lawsuits like this one are an embarrassment to the profession,'' said attorney Eric Turkewitz, who writes a personal injury law blog.

"I see he has a claim for $500,000 in emotional damages. I don't doubt that he has some emotional suffering, but I don't think it's related to the pants. I suspect he'll be sanctioned."

The trouble began over a $10.50 dry cleaning bill for a pair of prized pants in 2005. That figure ballooned to $67 million dollars, but in recently amended court filings, Pearson now said he is only seeking $54 million. Last week, his term on the bench reportedly expired. It's unclear whether it will be renewed.

The lawsuit is based in large part on Pearson's contention that he was taken in by the "Satisfaction Guaranteed'' sign hanging on the store's wall. Pearson said at one point in court filings, that he planned to call 63 witnesses.

Defending themselves against the suit -- for two years running -- are Korean immigrants Soo and Jin Chung and their son, who own Custom Cleaners and several other local dry cleaning shops.

The bad blood between customer and store dates back to 2002, when the first pair of pants was allegedly lost by the dry cleaners.

The Chungs gave Pearson a $150 check for a new pair of pants. Three years later, Pearson said he returned to Custom Cleaners and, like some real-life "Groundhog Day" nightmare, another pair of trousers went missing.

It was May 2005 and Pearson was about to begin his new job as an administrative judge. He said in court filings he wanted to wear a nice outfit to his first day of work. He said that he tried on five Hickey Freeman suits from his closet, but found them all to be "too tight," according to the Washington Post, which first reported the story. Pearson said he brought one pair in for alterations and they went missing -- gray trousers with what Pearson described in court papers as blue and red stripes on them.

First, Pearson demanded $1,150 for a new suit. Lawyers were hired, legal wrangling ensued and eventually the Chungs offered Pearson $3,000 in compensation. Then they offered him $4,600.

Finally, they offered $12,000 for the missing gray trousers with the red and blue stripes.

Pearson said no. With neither satisfaction nor his prized gray pants, Pearson upped the ante considerably.

The judge went to the law books. Citing the District of Columbia's consumer protection laws, he claims he is entitled to $1,500 per violation. Per day.

What follows is the beginning of thousands of pages of legal documents and correspondence that, two years later, have led to a massive civil lawsuit. According to court papers, Pearson believes he is entitled to $1,500 for each consumer protection law violation, each day during which the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign and another sign promising "Same Day Service" was up in the store -- more than 1,200 days.

And he's multiplying each violation by three because he's suing Jin and Soo Chung and their son. He also wants $500,000 in emotional damages and $542, 500 in legal fees, even though he is representing himself in court. He wants $15,000 for 10 years' worth of weekend car rentals. He said in court papers he needed the car to get his dry cleaning to a store outside his neighborhood. He is also seeking other fees.

After enlisting neighbors and fellow customers, he sought to expand the case into a class action suit, but was denied, angrily, by District of Columbia Civil Judge Neal Kravitz.

"The court has significant concerns that the plaintiff is acting in bad faith and with an intent to delay the proceedings," the judge wrote in court papers. "Indeed, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion, given the plaintiff's lengthy delay in seeking to expand the scope of the case, the breathtaking magnitude of the expansion he seeks, his failure to present any evidence in support of the thousands of claims he says he wishes to add, and his misrepresentation concerning the scope of his first amended complaint."

The case will now be heard by another judge. Both Kravitz and the new judge declined to comment on the case to ABC News.

Ironically, less than a week after Pearson dropped off the missing trousers in 2005, Soo Chung said she found them. She tried to return them to Pearson but he said they were the wrong pants.

The Chungs said they are certain they have located the missing trousers.

"So these are the missing pants, huh?" ABC News asked the Chungs' attorney, Chris Manning, last month.

"These are," Manning said, holding up a flimsy pair of gray trousers. Manning's argument is based on both the receipt and the tell-tale "three belt loop situation," as he explains it.

"When the pants were brought in, Chung noticed the three belt loop situation and in finding them, realized that they were Mr. Pearson's pants," Manning said.

He also said the receipt tag on the pants "exactly matches the receipt that Mr. Pearson has."

The Chungs told ABC News that they have spent thousands of dollars defending themselves against Pearson's lawsuit.

"It's not humorous, not funny and nobody would have thought that something like this would have happened," Soo Chung told ABC News through an interpreter. Her husband agreed.

"It's affecting us first of all financially, because of all the lawyers' fees," Jin Chung said. "For two years, we've been paying lawyer fees. And we've gotten bad credit as well, and secondly, it's been difficult mentally and physically because of the level of stress." Later, Soo Chung broke down in tears.

"I would have never thought it would have dragged on this long," she said. "I don't want to live here anymore. It's been so difficult. I just want to go home, go back to Korea."

"I've been in the dry cleaning business for 14 years, but this has never ever happened before. If anything happened to our customers' clothing, we would always compensate them accordingly and fairly," Jin Chung said through a translator.

When ABC News first wrote about the case last month, reaction so was so overwhelmingly supportive of the Chungs that a defense fund was established on the Internet, according to their attorney Chris Manning.

"Justice has become disconnected from its purpose, which is to draw the lines of right and wrong,'' Howard, of Common Good, told ABC News. "Somebody has made up a logical theory of 'well, there's a statute that gives me a $1500 fine and if I multiply that by 400 days and I add emotional stress and puntative damages and...they owe me $60 million!

"Well, it's absurd. Everyone knows it's absurd," Howard said. "The judge should dismiss it and say 'maybe you've got a claim in small claims court for a couple hundred dollars but that's it. Case dismissed. But judges in America don't think they have that power.

"The victim here is all of society,'' Howard said at another point. "Where teachers are afraid to put their arm around a crying child and there's a warning label on every product.''

ABC News' Sarah Baker and ABC News Law & Justice Unit producers Elizabeth Tribolet, Mary Harris and Lauren Pearle contributed to this report.

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