Stella Case No. 120, Originally Published:
Imagine that someone has LOST YOUR PANTS.
That’s the horrific, unending nightmare that Roy L. Pearson Jr., 57, suffered for two and a half years. When his hard work as a longtime legal aid lawyer in Washington D.C. paid off with a probationary two-year appointment as an Administrative Law Judge in 2005, he brought all five of his suits to Custom Dry Cleaners in for alterations. But when he returned to pick them up, one pair of pants was missing.
To add insult to injury, when Pearson returned later, the proprietors — Jin and Soo Chung — tried, he claims, to pass off a cheaper pair of pants as his. He demanded $1,150 for a replacement suit; Pearson wants to look his best, so he is very particular about his suits despite a limited budget, and always buys the same style of suit from Hickey Freeman. The Chungs did not respond.
Luckily, Washington D.C. has the Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA), a law designed to protect consumers from being cheated by local businesses’ broken promises. This law goes beyond simply reporting someone to the Better Business Bureau, and grants a private right of action to sue for damages to be made whole again. After all, Custom Dry Cleaners brazenly displays signs claiming “Same Day Service” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed” in their store, despite Pearson’s catastrophic experience to the contrary. So he decided to avail himself of these rights. He did what any one of us would do: he sued the Chungs — for $65,462,500. That’s right, more than $65 million.
OK, now it’s not so funny anymore.
Judge Pearson represented himself, casting himself as the victim of an enormous, malicious fraud, and telling the court with a straight face, “You will search the D.C. archives in vain for a case of more egregious or willful conduct.” He even began to cry while testifying about the day he says the Chungs tried to substitute a cheaper pair of pants for his, then he asked for a break and dabbed away tears as he left the courtroom.
But if it’s sympathy he wants, perhaps Pearson should not have included the cost of renting a car every weekend for ten years in the amount of damages he’s seeking. Why a car? Oh, that’s for driving to another cleaner, since he doesn’t have a car of his own. But that accounts for only $15,000 of the absurd total; the rest is to compensate him and the rest of the Chungs’ customers for $1,500 per “violation” per day, times twelve violations, times 1,200 days, times three defendants, plus the over one thousand hours he claims to have devoted to prosecuting this case.
If it makes you feel better, though, Pearson also indicated that $51 million of these theoretical damages would be used to help similarly aggrieved consumers sue other business in the District.
By the time the case went to trial, the Chungs had offered to settle for $3,000 — then for $4,000 — and finally for $12,000. Pearson could have bought ten new suits for that, but he rejected the offer. Cloaked in the CPPA, he styled himself a “private attorney general” fighting for the rights of the over 26,000 customers the Chungs had bamboozled over the years with their “false promises” of “satisfaction guaranteed.”
“This case shocks me on a daily basis,” said the Chungs’ attorney, Chris Manning, before the trial. “Pearson has a lot of time on his hands, and the Chungs have been abused in a ghastly way. It’s going to cost them tens of thousands to defend this case.”
As to trying to bring in all of the Chungs’ 26,000 customers into the case, D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz said that “the court has significant concerns that the plaintiff is acting in bad faith” due to “the breathtaking magnitude of the expansion he seeks.”
Among the questions Pearson demanded the Chungs answer: “Please identify by name, full address and telephone number, all cleaners known to you on May 1, 2005 in the District of Columbia, the United States and the world that advertise ‘SATISFACTION GUARANTEED’.” Got that? All the dry cleaners in the world. Since they didn’t have personal knowledge of any, the Chungs were able to answer “None.” before they went on to answer the rest of the interrogatories….
The trial ended as you might expect (or at least hope) it would: Superior Court Judge Judith Barnoff ruled in favor of the Chungs, even awarding them court costs on the grounds that Pearson had “engaged in bad faith and vexatious litigation.” But naturally, that wasn’t the end of it: Pearson filed a motion for reconsideration, which claimed that Judge Barnoff had “committed a fundamental legal error” and failed to address his claims. He argued that the court had substituted its own interpretation of “satisfaction guaranteed” rather than accepting his argument that the signs were unconditional. The court disagreed and denied the motion.
The Chungs later withdrew their motion for court costs, attorneys’ fees, and sanctions, as supporters — including the American Tort Reform Association, the Institute for Legal Reform of the United States Chamber of Commerce, and Washington Post newspaper readers — had raised nearly $100,000 to help cover their defense. They said they also hoped that withdrawing the motion would persuade Pearson to stop litigating.
But it didn’t: a day before the deadline, Pearson filed a notice of appeal in the pants lawsuit — so the Chungs are not yet completely off the hook.
The loss wasn’t the only blow to Pearson. In August, the Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges was charged with deciding whether he should receive a full, 10-year term to continue his work as a judge.
Reports from inside indicate that even after Chief Administrative Law Judge Tyrone Butler had submitted a letter recommending Pearson’s reappointment, Pearson sent a number of e-mails within the ALJ staff calling Butler “evil” and “mean-spirited.” Butler changed his recommendation.
Based on that, and on questions about Pearson’s judicial temperament and ethics arising from the lawsuit, the commission came back with a unanimous decision not to recommend his reappointment. After two months of foot dragging (it’s unclear whether by Pearson or by the Commission — but we can guess), this week the Commission hand-delivered a letter ordering Pearson to clean out his office and get out within 90 minutes. He was paid about $100,000 year as a judge.
The Chungs sold the Custom Dry Cleaners shop in question in September, citing emotional strain and a loss of revenue. They still own one other dry cleaning shop, and have said they will be focusing on that one for the future. The infamous pants, meanwhile, have hung in their attorney’s closet for well over a year — turned over to him because Pearson wouldn’t accept them. “We believe the pants are his,” Manning said. “The tag matches his receipt.”
The True Stella Awards has often said that judges should work harder to keep frivolous, and especially vexatious, suits out of the courts. How shocking, then, to find a judge who not only brings such an action to court himself, but keeps it going even in the face of unanimous condemnation. The unanimous action by the Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges is heartening, but now it’s time for Judge Pearson to lose his license to practice law.
- “Lawyer’s Price for Missing Pants: $65 Million”, Washington Post, 26 April 2007.
- “Kick in the Pants”, Washington Post, 3 May 2007.
- “Judge Tries Suing Pants Off Dry Cleaners”, New York Times, 13 June 2007.
- “Judge Who Filed Suit Plans to Appeal Defeat”, Washington Post, 15 August 2007.
- “Judge Who Lost Pant Suit Loses Job”, Washington Post, 31 October 2007.
- and various court filings.
Dismissed, appealed, dismissed again. Appealed again to the full 9-judge appeals court panel, rejected, and the case finally came to a close on 2 March 2009 when the Appeals Court rejected the last appeal.
Yet the fallout echoed for years afterward:
First, the District of Columbia Board of Professional Responsibility suspended Pearson from legal practice for 90 days for engaging in frivolous litigation, thereby interfering with the administration of justice. He appealed that decision, too, and it wasn’t concluded until the middle of 2020!
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the suspension: “Instead of accepting responsibility for his actions — or even contemplating any possibility that he may have engaged in professional misconduct — Pearson has chosen at every step of the disciplinary process, including as recently as his oral argument in this appeal, to levy accusations against Disciplinary Counsel, the Board, the Hearing Committee, and this court. The ongoing nature of Pearson’s conduct indicates that a ninety-day suspension is appropriate.” (Source: District of Columbia Court of Appeals decision, No. 18-BG-586, in re Roy L. Pearson, Jr., Respondent, 4 June 2020)
Amazingly, as of re-publication Pearson is still an “active” member (in “GOOD STANDING”! [capitalization from the original]) with the Washington D.C. Bar Association. (Source: DC Bar)
Naturally, TSA was far from the only lawsuit site covering Pearson. Here’s one example:
Apparently trying to destroy a business by using the legal system to extort millions from the owners isn’t his big sin; his big sin is being rude to his boss:
Concerns about Pearson’s temperament as an administrative law judge preceded the publicity about the lawsuit this spring. The letter from the commission focuses on those concerns, addressing the lawsuit only briefly.
In e-mails sent to his fellow judges and cited in the letter, Pearson’s contempt for Chief Administrative Law Judge Tyrone T. Butler was evident. In one of the missives, he spoke of protecting himself from any attempt by Butler “to knife” him. In another, he questioned Butler’s competence and integrity.
(Source: Overlawyered, 8 August 2007.)
Judge Pearson “won” the 2007 Stella Awards, and probably should have won the Overall Stella Award.
My 2022 Thoughts on the Case
This is the third case written by a guest author, an attorney.
Sure Pearson was slapped down by everyone who heard the case (in court and, I’d think, in the media), but the Chungs are still working to pay off the legal bills for their defense.
But wait, there’s more: Pearson went back to court in 2022 when he didn’t get what he wanted from his landlord(!!). He had been renting from said landlord, Gardenia Brown, since 1999. But (sob!) she had raised Pearson’s rent. He filed a complaint with the Columbia Rental Housing Commission asking for three years of free rent as compensation for the allegedly illegal rent increase, and triple damages.
The CRHC ordered a compromise: a lesser increase, but Pearson appealed to his old friends at the District of Columbia Court of Appeals: he wanted what he wanted, and was going to use the court to get it. Appropriately, the court threw the case out instead.
Again, TSA calls for Pearson to be disbarred: he clearly does not have the temperament to represent anyone in a court of law, least of all himself.
Barry in California: “Are you a lawyer? I love your insights, and wish there were more lawyers like you.”
No, I’m not, and I’ve never even studied law (not counting “Legal Issues in Journalism” in college, which I can hardly remember anymore). Rather, I’m a social commentator who just doesn’t like what he sees in our courts. My main gig is a weird-but-true weekly news roundup called This is True.
My readers there kept sending me the urban legend “Stella Awards” saying I should write about them. I thought that if the premise was that there’s a problem with frivolous lawsuits in our courts, why are people using fake cases to illustrate the problem?
I knew from writing “TRUE” (as I call my other column for short) that there were plenty of real cases to write about — and I proved it by filling a book with them, along with my conclusions about what such cases say about our society and what we as citizens, can do about it besides reading newsletters and muttering, “Ain’t it awful?”
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