WASHINGTON – A missing pair of pants has led to one big suit.
A customer got so steamed when a dry cleaner lost his trousers that he sued for $65 million. Two years later, he is still pressing his suit.
The case has demoralized the South Korean immigrant owners of the mom-and-pop business and brought demands that the customer — an administrative law judge in Washington — be disbarred and removed from office for pursuing a frivolous and abusive claim.
Jin Nam Chung, Ki Chung and their son, Soo Chung, are considering moving back to Seoul, seven years after they opened their dry-cleaning business in the nation's capital, said their lawyer, Chris Manning.
"They're out a lot of money, but more importantly, incredibly disenchanted with the system," Manning said. "This has destroyed their lives."
The customer, Roy L. Pearson Jr., who has been representing himself, declined to comment.
According to court documents, the problem began in May 2005 when Pearson became a judge and brought several suits for alterations to Custom Cleaners in Washington. A pair of pants from one suit was missing when he requested it two days later.
Pearson asked the cleaners for the full price of the suit: more than $1,000.
But a week later, the Chungs said the pants had been found and refused to pay. Pearson said those were not his pants, and decided to take the Chungs to the cleaners and sue.
Manning said the cleaners have made three settlement offers to Pearson: $3,000, then $4,600, then $12,000.
But Pearson was not satisfied and expanded his calculations beyond one pair of pants. Because Pearson no longer wanted to use his neighborhood dry cleaner, he asked in his lawsuit for $15,000 — the cost of renting a car every weekend for 10 years to go to another business.
Manning said Pearson somehow thinks he has the right to a dry cleaner within four blocks of his apartment.
The bulk of the $65 million demand comes from Pearson's strict interpretation of Washington consumer protection law, which imposes fines of $1,500 per violation, per day. Pearson counted 12 violations over 1,200 days, then multiplied that by three defendants.
Much of Pearson's case rests on two signs Custom Cleaners once had on its walls: "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service." He claims the signs amount to fraud.
The case is set for trial June 11.
Sherman Joyce, president of the American Tort Reform Association, an organization that fights what it considers abusive lawsuits against small businesses, has asked that Pearson be denied a renewal this week of his 10-year appointment. The association has also offered to buy Pearson the suit of his choice.
Chief Administrative Judge Tyrone Butler had no comment on Pearson's reappointment prospects.
Melvin Welles, former chief administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board, wrote to The Washington Post to say that if he were the judge in the case, he would throw out the lawsuit and order Pearson to pay the Chungs for their legal expenses and their mental suffering. He also called for Pearson's ouster and disbarment.
"The manifest absurdity of it is too obvious to require explanation," Welles wrote.
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 almost right away, and have been hanging in Manning's office for more than a year. Pearson claims in court documents that his pants had blue and red pinstripes.
But Manning said: "They match his inseam measurements. The ticket on the pants matches his receipt."