June 25, 2007
Superior Court of the District of Columbia
Full case name
Roy L. Pearson, Jr. v.Soo Chung, et al.
June 25, 2007 (2007-06-25)
no. CA-4302-05 (Sup. Ct. D.C. June 25, 2007)
Pearson v. Chung, et al., no. 07-CV-872 (D.C. App. Dec. 18, 2008)
Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, Muller v. Oregon
Pearson v. Chung, better known as the "pants lawsuit," is a civil case filed in 2005 by Roy L. Pearson, Jr., an administrative law judge in the District of Columbia in the United States, following a dispute with a dry cleaning company over a lost pair of trousers. Pearson filed suit against Soo Chung, Jin Nam Chung, and Ki Y. Chung, the owners of Custom Cleaners in Washington, D.C., initially demanding $67 million for inconvenience, mental anguish, and attorney's fees for representing himself, as a result of their failure, in Pearson's opinion, to live up to a "satisfaction guaranteed" sign that was displayed in the store. The case drew international attention when it went to trial in 2007, and has been held up as an example of frivolous litigation and the need for tort reform in the United States.
Pearson sued a D.C. dry cleaning establishment, Custom Cleaners, for over $67 million for the loss of a pair of pants. On May 3, 2005, Pearson allegedly left a pair of gray pants that could be distinguished by a unique trio of belt loops on both sides of the front waistband. After a delay due to the pants being mistakenly sent to another dry cleaners, the pants were offered back completed several days after May 5, 2005, the initial pickup date. Pearson refused to accept the pants, claiming they were not his, despite confirmation by the cleaners' records, tags, and Pearson's receipt. Pearson demanded what he claimed to be the price of the pants as compensation, an amount of over $1000, which the Chungs refused. As a result, Pearson filed suit in the District of Columbia's Superior Court. The judge to whom the case was presented decided to bring it to trial on the basis of two of Pearson's claims. The first claim was the issue of the ownership by Pearson of the presented pair of pants. The second claim was on the issue of signs posted outside the business, advertising "Same Day Service" and "Satisfaction Guaranteed," which Pearson claimed to be misleading.
Over time, the Chungs presented three settlement offers in the amounts of $3000, $4600, and $12,000—all of which were rejected by Pearson. D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz stated that "the court has significant concerns that the plaintiff is acting in bad faith." The judge resolved some of the issues in the Chungs' favor in response to their motion for summary judgment, (which was filed at the close of discovery), but could not dismiss the case because some facts were in dispute.
The owners of the business, South Korean immigrants Jin Nam Chung, Soo Chung, and their son, Ki Chung, were reportedly considering moving back to South Korea. After an outpouring of support for the Chungs from members of the public, a website was set up to accept donations for the Chungs' legal defense.
On May 30, 2007, Pearson reduced his demands to $54 million in damages rather than $67 million. Among his requests were $500,000 in attorney's fees, $2 million for "discomfort, inconvenience, and mental distress," and $15,000, which he claimed would be the cost to rent a car every weekend to drive to another dry cleaning service. The remaining $51.5 million would be used to help similarly dissatisfied D.C. consumers sue businesses. Pearson also re-focused his lawsuit from the missing pants to the removal of window signs for "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service." Pearson claimed the signs represented fraud on the part of the Chungs. The Chungs' lawyer, Christopher Manning, alleged that the signs could only be considered fraud if a reasonable person would be misled by them, and that a reasonable person would not see the signs as an unconditional promise. The Chungs' lawyer portrayed Pearson as a bitter, financially insolvent man; under questioning, Pearson admitted that, at the start of the court case, he had only $1000–2000 in the bank due to divorce proceedings, and was collecting unemployment benefits.
On June 12, 2007, the trial began. Pearson broke down in tears during an explanation about his frustration after losing his pants, and a short recess had to be declared.
On June 25, 2007, the trial ended with District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff ruling in favor of the dry cleaners, and awarding them court costs pursuant to a motion which the Chungs later withdrew. The court took judicial notice of Pearson's divorce proceedings, where he was sanctioned $12,000 by the trial court for "creating unnecessary litigation and threatening both his wife, Rhonda VanLowe, and her lawyer with disbarment."
Post-trial motions and appeal
Pearson made a motion on July 11, 2007, to reconsider in the trial court, stating that he felt the judge had "committed a fundamental legal error," and had failed to address his legal claims. Pearson stated he believed the court had imposed its own conditional interpretation of "satisfaction guaranteed," rather than what Pearson believes is an offer of unconditional and unambiguous satisfaction. The court denied the motion.
It was revealed on August 2, 2007 that a panel recommended Pearson not be given a ten-year term as an administrative law judge after his initial two-year term expired mid-2007, in part because his suit against Mr. Chung demonstrated a lack of "judicial temperament." Pearson was appointed in 2005 and stood to lose his $100,512 salary if a hearing upheld that decision. On October 22, a D.C. commission voted against reappointing Pearson to the bench of the Office of Administrative Hearings. On November 14, it was confirmed that Pearson had lost his job by not being affirmed for an extension.
Roy Pearson filed suit against Washington, D.C. on May 2, 2008, claiming that he had been wrongfully dismissed for exposing corruption within the Office of Administrative Hearings. Pearson sought $1 million in compensation for lost wages and punitive damages as well as his job back. On July 23, 2009, federal district judge Ellen Segal Huvelle dismissed Pearson's May 2008 lawsuit, ruling the District of Columbia had not broken the law by declining to reappoint him as an administrative law judge. Pearson had maintained in the suit that the failure to reappoint him to the ten-year term was in part intended as retaliation for his suit against the dry cleaners. Pearson lost his appeal when the D.C. Circuit ruled against him on May 27, 2010.
The Chungs moved to recover $83,000 in attorneys' fees and to impose sanctions, but withdrew the motion after recovering their costs through fund-raising. The Chungs stated that they did so in the hopes of persuading Pearson to stop litigating, but on August 14, 2007, Pearson filed a notice of appeal.
On September 10, 2008, Pearson filed an appeal to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, where oral argument was held on October 22, 2008 before a three-judge panel consisting of judges Phyllis Thompson, Noel Anketell Kramer and Michael W. Farrell. Manning represented the Chungs on the appeal pro bono, and Pearson represented himself pro se. On December 18, 2008, the panel that heard Pearson's appeal announced that they were rejecting it. According to the Washington Post, "Pearson has two remaining avenues of appeal left: He could ask the entire nine-judge appellate court to review the case, or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in." On January 6, 2009, Pearson filed a petition with the D.C. Court of Appeals, requesting the case be reheard en banc by the full nine-judge court. On March 2, 2009, the appeals court denied the petition. Pearson's final option was to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. The 90-day deadline for seeking Supreme Court review elapsed without Pearson filing a petition for certiorari, bringing the dispute to an end.
The unusual circumstances of this case led the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and dozens of bloggers to refer to it as "The Great American Pants Suit," and to Pearson as "Judge Fancy Pants." The case has garnered considerable international attention. BBC News quoted Chris Manning, attorney for the Chung family, as saying that the experience for the Chungs has become the "American nightmare"—an ironic reference to the American Dream. Fortune magazine listed the case at #37 in its "101 Dumbest Moments in Business" of 2007. Cracked.com listed the case as "Exhibit 1" in its 2008 article "9 Insane Cases that Prove the US Legal System Is Screwed."
On July 24, 2007, the American Tort Reform Association and the Institute for Legal Reform of the United States Chamber of Commerce hosted a fundraiser for the Chungs to help pay their attorneys fees that reported having raised up to $64,000. The Chungs say they have received close to $100,000 from supporters to cover their attorneys' fees and lost business.
On September 19, 2007, citing a loss of revenue and emotional strain from the lawsuit, the Chungs announced they had closed and sold the dry cleaning shop involved in the dispute. The Chungs still owned one additional dry cleaning shop and said they would be focusing their attention and resources on their remaining shop.
The incident and lawsuit served as a basis for "Bottomless," an 18th-season episode of Law & Order, which aired originally on 16 January 2008.