News Service Jun. 29, 2007, 8:00am
This is a local legal journal, so we generally steer clear of issues and conflicts that don't originate here in our backyard.
To be sure, our own judges, lawyers and lawsuits provide no shortage of compelling material. But sometimes, the events of elsewhere are so illuminating they cannot be ignored.
Enter Washington, D.C., Judge Roy Pearson, who by now everyone knows sued his dry cleaners for $54 million dollars over a pair of (allegedly) lost suit pants. This story walked and quacked like a "Saturday Night Live" satire. Sadly, it was just another flash of notoriety for America's increasingly demented civil justice system.
The facts are now lawsuit abuse legend. With a straight face, Pearson demanded $2 million for "discomfort, inconvenience and mental distress," $15,000 to rent a car on weekends so he could drive to another dry cleaners, $500,000 for attorney fees (he represented himself) and $51.5 million so he might help other aggrieved customers sue D.C. area cleaners duped by the promise "Satisfaction Guaranteed."
Custom Cleaners, the small street corner business in the judge's crosshairs, offered $12,000 to drop the suit. Pearson, who told the court he had less than $2,000 to his name, declined the offer. He was going for the gusto.
The judge didn't get it. Last week, after two years of fighting, the court ruled and Pearson lost. But Jin, Soo and Ki Chung, the owners of Custom, don't feel like winners. They're stuck with $100,000+ in legal fees.
Those of us who routinely cover our legal system know too well that this kind of behavior by sworn "officers of the court" is no aberration. We meet self-absorbed lawyer-bullies like Pearson all the time. They threaten suit the moment they don't get their way, toting law degrees like weapons, stored at-the-ready in a side holster.
"Justice" is theirs, goes the attitude. We citizens can concede, or face their wrath. Our biggest risk is "winning," and getting stuck with a giant legal bill.
From this purview, the properly-applied emotion here is not laughter or tears, but outrage. That's not just at Pearson, who as a sitting judge didn't hesitate to use his power and position to attempt and line his own pockets, but at a system that allows such lawyer harassment to run unchecked, without consequences.
That's our universal take-away from the saga of Roy Pearson and his pants. Until abusive lawyers face real repercussions when they behave this way, they'll continue to behave this way. And we'll continue to act shocked when they do.