The Pants Watch Never Stops
Pay no mind to those presidential campaigns--elections come and go. The big story is with us eternally: The $54 Million Pants Suit this morning reached all the way up to the top floor of the D.C. Superior Court building, to the District's Court of Appeals.
There, Roy Pearson, the man who loved his pants perhaps too well, pushed his battle to redefine "Satisfaction Guaranteed" to the city's highest legal authority, as a three-judge panel heard oral arguments in Pearson's three-year-old case against the dry cleaners that purportedly lost a pair of his trousers.
Wearing a trim, well-fitted dark blue suit--no cuffs, a somewhat awkward hem job on the jacket--Pearson barely got 30 seconds into his allotted half-hour of argument when the judges started to pepper him with questions. There was no doubt left today that the judges--Michael Farrell, Noel Kramer and Phyllis Thompson--are not buying Pearson's notion that a shop sign that promises "Satisfaction Guaranteed" means that a merchant must honor any cockamamie demand that an unhappy customer might make.
With the Chung family--owners of Custom Cleaners, the Northeast Washington shop that Pearson's lawsuit drove out of business--sitting two rows behind him, Pearson insisted as he has for years that "This is not a case about a pair of suit pants." Rather, he said, he fights for a clear statement from the courts that businesses that promise total satisfaction must do so without any conditions, or else be guilty of deception.
In his appeal, Pearson, who has lost his job as an administrative law judge in the D.C. government, argues that Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff botched his case when she ruled against him last year. Pearson says he should have been given a jury trial even though he missed the deadline for requesting one, and he argues that the judge erred in rejecting his claim to be a "private attorney general" fighting on behalf of the entire city against the vagueness of "Satisfaction Guaranteed" signs everywhere.
Pearson again today described the cleaners' sign as "so inherently deceptive." He claimed that he later discovered that Custom Cleaners had 13 hidden conditions on that guarantee, such as the fact that customers making a claim had to fill out a form (oh, my!) and even had to make their claim within a certain time frame (unheard of!).
So what? was the judges' reaction to that argument. "Certainly you're correct that there is no obligation of the consumer to read the mind of the person making the promise of 'Satisfaction Guaranteed,'" said Judge Farrell. But doesn't the law really depend on all parties considering what is reasonable? Can you really be arguing that the true meaning of the sign "depends entirely on what the consumer interprets it to mean?" Farrell asked.
All three judges were repeatedly frustrated by Pearson's inability to offer a direct answer when asked if he is arguing that any merchant who offers satisfaction must therefore bow to any customer's demand for damages, no matter how absurd.
Judge Thompson repeatedly tried to get Pearson to name some case, some legal authority, backing up his view of the meaning of "Satisfaction Guaranteed," but Pearson did not satisfy her.
"Why isn't this simply a contract dispute," Farrell asked, in which "you sue them in small claims court and you have an objective determination of your loss? Where is the fraud?"
The judges showed little patience for Pearson's version of the pants story. When Pearson slipped in a reference to his having been banned from the dry cleaners following a previous dispute, Judge Kramer interrupted: "Actually, they didn't ban you, did they? They might have liked to, but they didn't, right?"
Pearson backed down a little, conceding that he left the store but then contending that his business was not welcome there again until he wrote the Chung family a letter "demanding that they accept me."
Pearson's central argument today appeared to be that shopkeepers have a duty to spell out in extreme detail every possible condition that might apply to any guarantee of satisfaction with their goods or services.
Did this mean, Farrell asked, that merchants must assume that unhappy customers may make demands for satisfaction in which "the sky's the limit?"
"In terms of the demand, not the result," Pearson replied, in his typically cryptic manner.
The Chungs' lawyer, Christopher Manning--who is handling the appeal without charge because the family of Korean immigrants has been largely wiped out by the expenses they've incurred in defending themselves against Pearson's suit--didn't need to do much. Nor did the judges have much in the way of questioning for him. Manning merely reiterated what Bartnoff concluded in her decision at the trial: The Chungs did not set out to deceive Pearson, they have contended throughout that they have his pants, and it was Pearson who acted unreasonably by refusing to accept the pants.
"In fact, they offered the appropriate pair of pants," Manning said. To accept Pearson's argument would be to conclude that "a new customer could come in to Custom Cleaners and say 'Where are my pants?' and if Custom Cleaners says 'You never dropped off any pants,' they would nonetheless have to accede to his demands--for, for example, $54 million."
The key to the case, Manning argued, is reasonableness, and Roy Pearson is anything but a reasonable man. To accept Pearson's view would be, as a New York court ruled in a similar case, to unleash a tidal wave of litigation--any promise of satisfaction by a business is obviously governed by a standard of what's reasonable.
In the end, the Chungs acted reasonably, Manning said. "My clients have his pants. They're ready to be picked up by Mr. Pearson."
"An opinion will be issued in due course," Judge Kramer said at the end of today's hour of argument. That's likely to mean two to four months.
Pearson would not answer any questions as he left the courtroom. "Said it all on the podium," he said. Asked what he now does for a living, he said, "No comment." He took the stairs down six flights to avoid reporters.
The Chungs still operate one small store near the Washington Convention Center; they were forced to close their other two shops to pay their legal bills.
"Hopefully this is the last episode of this 31/2 year saga," Manning said.
Jin and Soo Chung declined to answer questions after the court session, except in Korean to Korean TV reporters. Those reporters said Jin Chung expressed his confidence that the court will rule in his favor and his relief that his ordeal is nearing an end.
There is only one appeal from the D.C. Court of Appeals, and that is to the U.S. Supreme Court. Stand by: The Pants Watch never stops.
By Marc Fisher |
October 22, 2008; 12:46 PM ET
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