Thursday, May 03, 2007

YOUR 15 MINUTES: Taken to The Cleaners

My colleague randomly bought me this gorgeous shirt she thought looked like something I would love. I did and I wore it once then sent it off to the cleaners. It was silk jersey and absolutely needed to be dry cleaned. Let me preface the rest of this story with the fact that I have serious trust issues when it comes to clothing. I love my clothes and I put a lot of time and effort into my wardrobe, therefore, the anonymity and uncertainty of a dry cleaner drives me semi-insane. The other day I picked up a bunch of items and transported them to my closet. I decided to change into the shirt my colleague randomly bought me and it happened… The dry cleaner ruined the shirt. It had about 5 different holes and 4-5 weird pulls in the fabric. They’re currently trying to fix the shirt but I’m pretty sure it’s going to the rags. I’m slowly coming to terms with this idea and I think I’ll make it through this. One of my fellow DC’ers had a different idea about how this situation should be handled:

The Chungs, immigrants from South Korea, realized their American dream when they opened their dry-cleaning business seven years ago in the nation's capital. For the past two years, however, they've been dealing with the nightmare of litigation: a $65 million lawsuit over a pair of missing pants. Jin Nam Chung, Ki Chung and their son, Soo Chung, are so disheartened that they're considering moving back to Seoul, said their attorney, Chris Manning, who spoke on their behalf. "They're out a lot of money, but more importantly, incredibly disenchanted with the system," Manning said. "This has destroyed their lives." The lawsuit was filed by a District of Columbia administrative hearings judge, Roy Pearson, who has been representing himself in the case.

The problem began in May 2005 when he brought one pair in for alterations and they went missing -- gray trousers with what Pearson described in court papers as blue and red stripes on them. First, Pearson demanded $1,150 for a new suit. Lawyers were hired, legal wrangling ensued and eventually the Chungs offered Pearson $3,000 in compensation. No dice. Then they offered him $4,600. No dice. Finally, they offered $12,000 for the missing gray trousers with the red and blue stripes. Pearson said no. With neither satisfaction nor his prized gray pants, Pearson upped the ante considerably. The judge went to the lawbooks. Citing the District of Columbia's consumer protection laws, he claims he is entitled to $1,500 per violation. Per day. What follows is the beginning of thousands of pages of legal documents and correspondence that, two years later, have led to a massive civil lawsuit in the amount of $67 million. According to court papers, here's how Pearson calculates the damages and legal fees: He believes he is entitled to $1,500 for each violation, each day during which the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign and another sign promising "Same Day Service" was up in the store -- more than 1,200 days. And he's multiplying each violation by three because he's suing Jin and Soo Chung and their son. He also wants $500,000 in emotional damages and $542, 500 in legal fees, even though he is representing himself in court. He wants $15,000 for 10 years' worth of weekend car rentals as well. "He's somehow purporting that he has a constitutional right to a dry cleaner within four blocks of his apartment," Manning said. Much of Pearson's case rests on two signs that Custom Cleaners once had on its walls: "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service. Based on Pearson's dissatisfaction and the delay in getting back the pants, he claims the signs amount to fraud. He sought to expand the case into a class action suit, but was denied, angrily, by District of Columbia Civil Judge Neal Kravitz. "The Court has significant concerns that the plaintiff is acting in bad faith and with an intent to delay the proceedings," the judge wrote in court papers. "Indeed, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion, given the plaintiff's lengthy delay in seeking to expand the scope of the case, the breathtaking magnitude of the expansion he seeks, his failure to present any evidence in support of the thousands of claims he says he wishes to add, and his misrepresentation concerning the scope of his first amended complaint." The case will now be heard by another judge in June.

Sherman Joyce, president of the American Tort Association, has written a letter to the group of men who will decide this week whether to renew Pearson's 10-year appointment. Joyce is asking them to reconsider. Chief Administrative Judge Tyrone Butler had no comment regarding Pearson's reappointment. The association, which tries to police the kind of abusive lawsuits that hurt small businesses, also has offered to buy Pearson the suit of his choice. And former National Labors Relations Board chief administrative law judge Melvin Welles wrote to The Washington Post to urge "any bar to which Mr. Pearson belongs to immediately disbar him and the District to remove him from his position as an administrative law judge." "There has been a significant groundswell of support for the Chungs," said Manning, adding that plans for a defense fund Web site are in the works.

To the Chungs and their attorney, one of the most frustrating aspects of the case is their claim that Pearson's gray pants were found a week after Pearson dropped them off in 2005. They've been hanging in Manning's office for more than a year. Pearson claims in court documents that his pants had blue and red pinstripes. "They match his inseam measurements. The ticket on the pants match his receipt," Manning said. Manning is angry with Pearson, saying the judge has terrorized the Chungs for spite. "They came to the United States hoping for the American dream," Manning said, "and Roy Pearson has made it a nightmare."

The ABC News Law & Justice Unit has calculated that for $67 million Pearson could buy 84,115 new pairs of pants at the $800 value he placed on the missing trousers in court documents. If you stacked those pants up, they would be taller than eight Mount Everests. If you laid them side by side, they would stretch for 48 miles. [source]

I've written about how I absolutely despise frivolous lawsuits. They are incredibly detrimental to our society. "People in America are now scared of each other," legal expert Philip Howard told ABC News' Law & Justice Unit. "That's why teachers won't put an arm around a crying child, and doctors order unnecessary tests, and ministers won't meet with parishioners. It's a distrust of justice and it's changing our culture."


Jessica Prokop said...

I am ashamed and angry that we have such a man in our legal system. My husband is a lawyer with hopes to be a judge someday and Mr. Pearson is an embarrassment to every good person in the legal system and to the United States. No wonder other countries look at us so poorly. What a greedy, appalling, repulsive man.

xine said...

My thoughts exactly! My dad is a judge and he was completely appalled by this story and this man's actions. It's really a shame. Thanks for reading this post - it was really long but I couldn't cut anything out fearing I’d miss some of the absurdity. I think it's important for people to become more aware of issues like this and what it does to society. I can’t imagine this man has many friends but I really do hope they find grounds to remove him from serving in our legal system.

Annie said...

I am a dry cleaner myself in another part of the country. As you have experienced, Xine, horrible mistakes happen--and we won't even get into the sloppy thoughtless cleaners that are out there.

However, the Cheungs did all the right things in trying to make this right for this customer. I am outraged as well that someone can abuse the legal system to this extent. I know for myself, it will completely change the way I manage my business for fear of a "copycat" doing something like this to me.

It is stuff like this that drives so many small, family-owned businesses right OUT of business. Thank you for being supportive of this small business.

xine said...

Mistakes do happen. Honestly I don't even trust myself with my clothes. I used to have my grandmother do my laundry but she kept spilling bleach. My boyfriend keeps throwing rags with cleaner into the laundry baskets and spotting up stuff - I can deal with a shirt that got caught on something at the cleaners...especially since they know how to iron and I don't. Who knows...maybe the shirt was total shit. Brands don't mean everything.

I'm all about supporting small business - my little neighborhood has all of these great small places with character-you get to actually meet the owners and workers and they recognize you when you come in and ask about your family and stuff. It makes me sad to think about what these people are going through. I thought it was obscene that they wanted to settle for thousands and he still said no. $12,000 was very big of them! I'll follow up on this article and see what kind of progress the Cheungs make - seems like the community is starting to back them.