Dry Cleaning Lawsuit Results in 90-Day Suspension

This case was covered in the news media. it has now resulted in a 90-day suspension from the practice of law. In re Roy L. Pearson, No. 18-BG-586, June 4, 2020, District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Pearson sued his dry cleaner alleging that the dry cleaner lost a pair of his pants. The sanctions resulted from his approach to the litigation. The facts are summarized in part:

The allegations of misconduct arise from the litigation culminating in Pearson v. Chung, 961 A.2d 1067 (D.C. 2008).[2] In that case, Pearson sued three defendants (Soo Chung, Jin Nam Chung, and Ki Y. Chung) who jointly owned and operated Custom Cleaners, a dry cleaning business. Id. at 1069. The dispute originated with Pearson’s allegation that the Chungs lost a pair of pants that he had brought to Custom Cleaners for alterations. Pearson initially demanded $1,150 in compensation. He then filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court claiming that defendants had violated the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act, D.C. Code §§ 28-3901 to -3913 (2013 Repl. & 2019 Supp.) (“CPPA”), and committed common law fraud, negligence, and/or conversion. Pearson’s claims rested on his interpretation of three signs in the Chungs’ store: “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” “Same Day Service,” and “All Work Done on Premises.” In the initial complaint, he sought at least $15,000 in compensation for emotional distress and $15,000 in punitive damages from each defendant.

Pearson’s demands for compensation escalated dramatically as the case went on. His claims for emotional damages increased to $3,000,000 by trial. He asserted that he was entitled to $90,000 to obtain a rental car so he could travel to a different dry cleaner in the city. He claimed that he had expended 1,200 hours of work on the matter, worth $500,000 in attorney’s fees. He sought prospective relief requiring the Chungs to pay him $10,000 within twenty-four business hours if he notified them that they were not providing him with acceptable service.[3] His damages theories often included multiplying his claims by three (for each defendant), by two (for his separate statutory and common law claims), by three (for treble damages under the CPPA), by three (for each sign), by seven (for each CPPA subsection allegedly violated), and/or by every single day that a particular sign had been on display within the statute of limitations (under his theory that each day represented a separate violation of the statute and was independently compensable). By the time the Joint Pre-Trial Statement was filed, Pearson claimed that he was owed more than $67,000,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Pearson’s theories of liability likewise expanded — or at least were clarified as being extremely expansive — as the litigation progressed. In his motion for partial summary judgment, Pearson claimed that the “Satisfaction Guaranteed” sign represented “an unconditional and unlimited guarantee of satisfaction, as a matter of law” (emphasis in original) so that any customer who claimed dissatisfaction, regardless of whether the claim was made in good faith, could demand any compensation whatsoever. Custom Cleaners would then have to meet that demand, no matter what it was, in order to resolve the customer’s dissatisfaction. Pearson testified at trial that this would include situations in which the Chungs — or any other provider — knew that the customer was lying and/or when the customer demanded an exorbitant amount of money, such as a trillion dollars. Respondent’s theories regarding the other two signs were similarly expansive. For example, in his trial brief, Pearson listed as an “undisputed fact” that the “Same Day Service” sign meant that “any customer request for any of defendants’ service would be completed the same day” (emphasis in original). The trial court granted judgment for the Chungs on this claim as a matter of law because Pearson’s “Same Day Service” theory was “completely unreasonable,” failing to consider any other factors, such as when customers dropped off the clothes, how many items they wanted serviced, what kind of services they were requesting, and whether customers asked for or even desired same day service.

As the case progressed, the trial court repeatedly expressed concerns about Pearson’s characterizations of case law, statutes, and the court’s own orders. In one instance, the court pointed out that Pearson had misquoted a case, attempting to imply that it had involved an identical “Satisfaction Guaranteed” sign. The court reminded Pearson that he had “an obligation to the Court to be accurate in the representations you make with regard to what cases are about.” Pearson initially conceded that he had misquoted the case and apologized, but later filed a “Correction,” attempting to rescind that admission, because he claimed that there was no “rational basis for distinguishing the meaning of the term `unconditional guarantee’ from the meaning of the term `satisfaction guaranteed’ . . . . In plaintiff’s view, . . . the two terms are indistinguishable in substance and meaning.”[4]

The Hearing Panel and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals concluded that Pearson violated Rules 3.1 and 8.4(d). Rule 3.1 prohibits the lawyer from bringing frivolous litigation. The original claim (for the lost pants) was not frivolous. The theories of liability and the enormous demands for damages were frivolous. The explanation:

In this case, the Board took care to explain that “[a]ttorneys in the District of Columbia should not fear discipline for making aggressive and creative arguments.” It emphasized that “[f]rivolous is more than ultimately meritless, and the good faith exception to a Rule 3.1 violation allows a wide range of creative and aggressive challenges to existing law” (internal quotation marks omitted). But the Board also explained that, while a Rule 3.1 violation may not have been clear at the outset, “[a]s his lawsuit progressed, Respondent’s liability and damages arguments morphed into the preposterous.” It was “the entire course of Respondent’s extreme conduct over the course of the suit,” not a showing “that the claims were frivolous when first made,” that convinced the Board that Pearson had violated Rule 3.1.

We agree that this distinction is crucial and that, as his theories expanded and his tactics grew more extreme, respondent failed to comply with his continuing responsibility to conduct an objective evaluation of the merits of his claims. Yelverton proves instructive. The attorney in that case “filed numerous repetitive and unfounded motions in Superior Court and in this court, and . . . twice asked the trial judge to recuse himself from the case when he lacked any objective reason to do so.” 105 A.3d at 426. The Board found that Pearson’s motions and discovery practices were similarly repetitive — both during the initial litigation and during this disciplinary proceeding — and that his unfounded allegations of bias against Judge Kravitz were strikingly similar to the motion to disqualify in Yelverton.[8] These conclusions are well supported by the record.

Pearson’s liability and damages claims compounded the mischief of his motions and discovery practice. Pearson protests that his liability claims cannot fairly be deemed frivolous, as he survived summary judgment and a motion to dismiss and was allowed to proceed to trial. The trial court also opted not to sanction him. But, while relevant, those decisions are not dispositive of whether the legal theories ultimately were frivolous.[9] Pearson’s claims continually expanded throughout litigation and his liability and damages theories became more clear — and more outlandish — as the case progressed. As noted above, the trial court granted judgment as a matter of law rejecting Pearson’s claims based on the “Same Day Service” sign. In light of the entire record, surviving summary judgment cannot be taken as a dispositive ruling that Pearson’s theories had legal support. Instead, as noted by the trial court and quoted by the Board, once Pearson’s legal theories “clearly were articulated,” they “were unsupported in fact or in law.”

It is also true that, as a technical matter, some of Pearson’s theories presented a matter of first impression. But the lack of a definitive holding precluding a legal theory does not mean that it cannot be frivolous.[10] “Were this not the case, a patently frivolous but novel legal argument — `novel,’ perhaps, because no litigant would dream of bringing it with a straight face — would not be sanctionable.” Ozee v. Am. Council on Gift Annuities, Inc., 143 F.3d 937, 941 (5th Cir. 1998). We agree with the Board that this is one such case. The total damages figure is shocking in itself; simply put, Pearson asked the trial court to award him $67,292,000 because of his dissatisfaction with defendants’ dry cleaning services. But the constituent parts of that $67,292,000 total are equally troubling. Pearson asked for $90,000 to rent a car, a facially disproportionate request in response to the alleged need to patronize another dry cleaner. He claimed that his emotional distress over a few common and innocuous signs and a lost pair of pants was so severe that he was entitled to $3,000,000 in damages. Perhaps most remarkable was his request for a judgment obligating the Chungs to provide him with ongoing services and to pay him $10,000 immediately based on nothing more than his own request, a demand that the Hearing Committee called “patently non-cognizable,” was made after the defendants had already taken down the signs at the heart of the controversy, was tethered to no statutory basis, and was completely out of proportion to any likely shortcoming in dry cleaning service. These damages theories were utterly frivolous, implausible to the point of having “not even a faint hope of success,” and they violated Rule 3.1. Spikes, 881 A.2d at 1125 (internal quotation marks omitted).

We agree with the Board that Pearson’s theories of liability also violated Rule 3.1. Under Pearson’s interpretation of the signs in question, “customers” acting in bad faith could bankrupt any business in the District with such a commonplace sign, as he acknowledged no requirement of good faith by the customer, no limitation on the demands the customer could make, and no allowances for “basic common sense.” Pearson v. Chung, 961 A.2d at 1075. Pearson did not make the required objective inquiry into whether his liability claims had even a faint hope of success. Instead, he did the opposite, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge contrary legal authority, engaging in extensive puffery, and pressing his preferred interpretations of the signs even after they were rebuffed by his own witnesses at trial. Indeed, even in his filings in this disciplinary case, he has continued to refer to his theories as “indisputable.” As the Hearing Committee noted, “Respondent has never, to this day, made the requisite objective appraisal.”

The court also found a violation of Rule 8.4(d) which prohibits interference with the administration of justice. A 90 day suspension was ordered.

Comment: should you have a legal ethics question, do not hesitate to call me to discuss it. My number is 312-357-1515, Extension 1.

http://www.clintonlaw.net

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