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Appreciation: The Pants Suit Finally Ends

Adjust your belts, check your cuffs. The pants suit is over. The D.C. Court of Appeals today put the finishing touches on Roy Pearson's $67 million lawsuit over the pair of pants that he claimed never came back from the cleaners.

The good news: Pearson got cuffed, stuffed and otherwise rebuffed. The three-judge panel unanimously found not a shred of evidence, reasoning or argument to support any of Pearson's claims against Custom Cleaners, the Chung family or the District of Columbia's consumer protection law.

The bad news: The judges demonstrated far more discretion and class than Pearson ever displayed, and so today's ruling says not a thing about Pearson's abuse of the courts, his harassment of the Chung family (the owners of the cleaners, whose business was ruined by his wildly overblown legal crusade) or the shame he brought on the city, the courts and himself.

Pearson, who was a D.C. administrative law judge when this case started and whose tenure in that position ended in good part because of his pursuit of the pants suit, never showed the slightest remorse for what he put the Chungs through. To the contrary, he continued right up to his oral arguments in this appeal to contend that the pants the Chungs have consistently offered him are not his, that he deserves millions in compensation for the old trousers, that he is somehow a representative of the District's taxpayers in his foolhardy campaign, and that he has somehow discovered a level of protection in the city's consumer laws that no one else on the planet has ever found.

Today's ruling, written by Judge Noel Kramer, is cautious and reserved, a reflection of the extreme care with which the entire justice system has handled Pearson, in part because the judges don't want to engage someone who is quite evidently off, and in part because no one wants to commit the slightest error that might give Pearson cause to further his crusade.

But Kramer emphatically defends the decisions by both trial judges who handled the Pearson case, Superior Court Judges Neal Kravitz and Judith Bartnoff. Kramer doesn't really say which version of the facts she believes--Pearson's contention that Custom Cleaners lost his pants vs. the Chungs' assertion that they have his pants and he can pick them up anytime--but she dismisses his legal arguments handily.

Pearson's notion that a "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign promises a customer whatever remedy he may choose if he is not satisfied defies "basic common sense," the court ruled. Any such sign obviously cannot be interpreted as Pearson takes it, as "an unconditional and unlimited warranty...without regard to the facts or to any notion of reasonableness."

Similarly, the court rejects Pearson's argument that the shop's "Same Day Service" sign means that same day service is "always and automatically provided." That reading, Kramer writes, "frankly defies logic. If a person brings an item in for dry cleaning five minutes before the store closes, same day service could not reasonably be expected."

In the end, Kramer concludes that Pearson failed to show either that the Chungs misled him "or that they lost his pants."

It takes 23 pages to get there, and it took two years for this case to run its course. In the interim, the Chungs had to close Custom Cleaners and another of the three shops they once owned to pay the costs they incurred in defending themselves against Pearson, Pearson lost his job, the taxpayers had to foot the bill for the whole carnival, and the world--from Post readers to Korean TV viewers--had itself a grand time.

Pearson stopped talking to me fairly early in the process, but in the brief, early conversations I had with him, I found him to be courteous, extremely self-important, and quite bright. I wondered how someone who won praise from many lawyers who had worked for and against him earlier in his working life could have allowed a dispute over a pair of pants to dominate his life and lead him to global ridicule and potentially the end of a decent legal career. Some of those who had known him well in earlier years told me that Pearson was good at his work for a D.C. legal services clinic because he was relentless, creative and deeply committed to finding justice for the powerless people he represented.

Those same qualities were evident in Pearson's pursuit of the pants matter. By his own account, he devoted many hundreds of hours to preparing his case. He came to court with so much material, with binders so thick that he often seemed lost in the details, incapable of communicating to the court either his reasoning or his version of the facts.

What went wrong? Armchair psychologists focused on Pearson's divorce case, a battle that similarly went on for years and eventually led a Virginia appeals court to decide that Pearson had abused the system with excessive filings. Clearly, Pearson had more time on his hands than was healthy for him.

But he also clearly had something to prove here; surely, this was about something larger than pants, even from a nice Hickey-Freeman suit. During the trial, Pearson called his own son to the witness stand, and the young man seemed reluctant to testify, almost as if he were ashamed of his father's excesses. What was driving this man who had become estranged from those he loved, a man whose boss at his legal services job had, by Pearson's account, "ceased communicating with me," a man who had an increasingly desperate need to show that he was indeed someone with a distinctive talent? Or was the pants suit merely an expression of an obsessive personality stretched to the limit by a seemingly minor frustration?

It's not terribly likely that we'll ever know for sure.

What the Chung family knows is that the country they love, the adopted homeland that provided them with a means to raise their children from poverty to a strong middle class life, has a flawed justice system, one in which a single person with virtually no means can turn someone else's life into a harrowing nightmare.

"We are very, very happy with the result and thank everyone for supporting us," said Jin Chung. "The past three years have been very difficult but we hope this nightmare is finally over." The Chungs' lawyer, Christopher Manning, who donated many thousands of dollars' worth of his firm's time to the family, said he hopes "the vague and often unfair D.C. Consumer Protection Act (which was the primary statutory basis for the lawsuit) will be changed so that others do not suffer like [the Chungs] did."

It's possible that Pearson will ask the full Court of Appeals to rehear his appeal; it's virtually impossible that they would agree to do so.

The Chungs hope Pearson will now just leave them alone. But I have a hunch we will hear from Roy Pearson again. Having lost his job, he has more time than ever. He still has something to prove, and he's learned that in America, one person with time, energy and a passion for a good pair of pants can use the legal system to dismantle the lives of total strangers.

It's a frightening and in this case devastating power, but it's also what's cool and unique about the American system. One person really can make himself heard, without any resources and even without any cause.

By Marc Fisher |  December 18, 2008; 4:52 PM ET
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Nice article Marc. I agree with you on everything, except that comment "but it's also what's cool and unique about the American system."

I can't think of a legal system that allows a psychotic to destroy an innocent family "cool".

Hopefully the laws can be changed to provide more protection to people like the Chungs. And while we are at it, maybe we should look in to state assisted suicide for Pearson.

Posted by: SoMD1 | December 19, 2008 7:55 AM

A classic example of why some kind of tort reform is needed in the U.S. Big question now, will DC Govt actually try to reform their consumer protection law?

Posted by: pk_1 | December 19, 2008 9:01 AM

Careful, Marc. He might sue you next!


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 19, 2008 3:59 PM

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