Millions for a Pair of Pants? Judge Says No! Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher talks about the Washington, D.C., judge who lost his $54 million lawsuit against a dry cleaner over a pair of misplaced pants.
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Millions for a Pair of Pants? Judge Says No!

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And here's one case unlikely to reach the Supreme Court. The judge here in Washington, D.C., who sued his dry cleaner for 40 - $54 million plus court costs because they lost his pants.

Today, he lost his shirt in court. Not only will he not get any money, the judge say he may have to reimburse the owner's of the dry cleaner for their legal expenses. The suit-suit, as it has been called, gained fans from around the world as an example of the American legal system run amok.

Marc Fisher followed the case in his column in The Washington Post metro section. He's been on our air most recently talking about the history of radio in his book, "Something in the Air." He joins us from his studio at the Washington Post. Marc, nice to talk to you again.

Mr. MARC FISHER (Columnist, The Washington Post): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: So no $54 million pants?

Mr. FISHER: No, I'm afraid not. Roy Pearson, the fellow who decided to try to get $67 million in compensation for mixed up at his neighborhood dry cleaner, will go home without a penny of those millions. However, his pants are still waiting for him at the dry cleaner if he'd like to stop by.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHER: They've been holding on to his pants for two years now. And I have to tell you, I saw the pants up close and personal today and I - and they do not match the suit jacket in question. However, the judge who issued her ruling this morning said that doesn't really matter. It may well be that Roy Pearson simply brought the wrong pair of pants to the cleaners in the first place and doesn't recall which pair of pants he asked them to alter.

In any event, the case is unfortunately for the Chung family, the owners of Custom Cleaners. This case is not yet over because Roy Pearson is almost certain to appeal, adding to the very large legal bill that the immigrant family faces. They've already wracked up more than $100,000 in legal fees, and it's wiped out their savings.

At one point, they were considering moving back home to South Korea. They've now decided to stay here and try to make the money back at their business. But that, too, has suffered while they've been fighting this case.

CONAN: This is an administrative law judge who's bringing the suit. Can I ask a dumb question? What is he thinking?

Mr. FISHER: Well, he was thinking about millions and millions of dollars. He may not have been thinking enough about holding on to his job, which is now in question because it just so happens that the timing of this trial came right at about the same moment when his term was up as an administrative law judge.

And so he - the panel that would decide whether to reappoint him for a full 10-year term has put off that decision. They want to see how the rest of this legal case plays out. And then they will decide whether this case shows that Roy Pearson perhaps does not have the judicial temperament to be sitting in judgment of others.

CONAN: There's this question about this, is there?

Mr. FISHER: Well, there appears to be some question. You know, Judge Bartnoff, in her decision this morning, did not really pine on Roy Pearson's suitability as a judge. We may get more of that from her when she makes the decision about whether Pearson should pay the Chung family's legal fees.

She did decide that Pearson has to pay for their court costs, but those are just the very small cost involved in having a transcription of the case and so on. She hasn't yet decided about the attorney's fees. That's the big number and that's yet to come.

CONAN: We're talking with Marc Fisher of the Washington Post about the suit-suit. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as you look at this case, this is - this judge who brought the suit - I'm trying to be calm here. This is not his - this is not the first example of eccentric behavior.

Mr. FISHER: No, I'm afraid not. He was actually chastised by a high court in Virginia for the way in which he fought his divorce case. They said that he was extremely litigious in that case and got way beyond the bounds.

In this particular case involving the pants, he wanted to have more than 100 witnesses, more than 100 exhibits. He wasn't allowed to do all that. That'll be a basis for his appeal. This case happened - one of the magical things about it is that it brought together the twerp(ph) reform folks and the trial lawyers who, for the first time, I think since the dawn of time, actually issued a joint statement chastising Roy Pearson for the way he abused the court system in this case. You know, this is the moral equivalent of the Israelis and the Palestinians issuing a joint statement on something.

CONAN: Yep.

Mr. FISHER: And so - you know, there is that bit of goodness happening here. But really, it is a sad story because the Chung family - a classic American immigrant success story - they came here just little more than a decade ago, they now have three dry cleaners, they're doing well enough, except that their entire life savings were wiped out by this case. And this case really shows that while there are some checks on our legal system, usually a matter of money.

You don't - you can only go so far in our legal system as your checkbook will allow. But when you are like Roy Pearson and your time seems to be of no particular value to you, he says he put 1,400 hours of his own time into pushing forward his own case. That - when you don't have money as a check, you can really go to town as he did here.

CONAN: But let's get back to the case itself. At one point, the Chung's offered him $12,000, just take the pants and go away.

Mr. FISHER: Right. And he not only didn't take the money, he said that he demanded - he said the sign in the dry cleaners that said satisfaction guaranteed meant that no matter how preposterous the demand a customer might make, the owner of the store simply had to provide that satisfaction.

The judge today called that an absurd line of reasoning and said that really a satisfaction guaranteed sign means just what any reasonable person would think it would mean that the store will make some reasonable effort to satisfy the customer.

CONAN: He similarly raised questions about their same-day service sign. It's been two years since he last saw his pants.

Mr. FISHER: That's true. And maybe he doesn't remember them well, although he really does insist that he never wore pants with cuffs. He somewhat argued that he was cuffed about today and the pants do indeed have cuffs. Roy Pearson even called his own son to the stand to say that, no, dad never wears cuffs. And the judge didn't think terribly much of that either.

CONAN: So this goes next to - he has the right to appeal from the - District of Columbia's District Court?

Mr. FISHER: The American legal system is endlessly forgiving and in fact, he not only has the right to appeal, he also has the right to fight to get his attorney's fees paid for.

Now, you might say what are his attorney's fees when he represented himself. And the judge in this case asked that very same question. So it seems highly unlikely that Roy Pearson will get any money out of this.

But unfortunately, it's not terribly likely that the Chung family will see any money even if the judge rules in their favor on the attorney's fees. It looks like Roy Pearson is not likely to be reappointed to his job as judge. He was unemployed for several years before he got that job. And it looks like he may be returning to the ranks of the unemployed, which would make it extremely unlikely that the Chungs would ever be able to get any money from him.

CONAN: Well, Marc Fisher, as you know, it's been suggested that in fact, all that Judge Pearson, the man who filed the suit over the lost pants, all he really needed to do was show up in the court the first day with the jacket, the shirt, the tie and the socks and the shoes, and say, your honor, I rest my case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHER: Yes. We were a little bit disappointed when he did show up the first day in court actually wearing pants. But this case has brought out all kinds of interesting fashion decisions. Some of the TV reporters on hand showed up in rather brightly colored pants, all the better to win more time for their live spots.

This case drew attention from all around the world. The courtroom was filled with reporters, TV folks from Korea and from virtually, every country in Europe. It's the classic case where foreigners get to bash the American legal system and say, look at the excesses that you allow.

But in fact, today, they have to do at least a little bit of eating of crow and that the judge did make it clear that at least in this courtroom, you do not get $67 million of a $10 alteration.

CONAN: Marc Fisher, thanks for very much for your time.

Mr. FISHER: Good to be with you.

CONAN: Marc Fisher, a columnist of the Washington Post, author of the book "Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation." He joined us from a studio at the Washington Post.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Andrea Seabrook will be here filling in tomorrow. We'll see you Wednesday. I'm Neal Conan.

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