Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Monday, May 7, 2007

A Dirty Shame: Partial Law & Strict Interpretation

My friend Tyrone Kapricorne brought to my attention a lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., that exposes the corruption of the American legal system by frivolous, "bad faith" torts. Most amazing (aside from the amount of money being requested in damages) about this suit is that it was filed by a D.C. judge himself.

You can read about the suit yourself in this article by AP writer Lubna Takruri. The suit was filed by one Roy Pearson, an administrative hearings judge for the D.C. circuit. Two years ago, Judge Pearson brought several suits that needed to be altered to a dry-cleaning business owned by a Korean immigrant family, the Chungs. When one of the judge's pants went "missing" a few days later, Pearson set in motion a series of events that culminated in his $65 million suit against the Chungs.

Now at first Pearson demanded that the Chungs reimburse him for the price of the suit (of which the pants was a part), more than $1,000. But one week later, the Chungs recovered the pants, without any damage, and simply wanted to return it to the judge. Pearson refused to accept this and, after several months of rejecting settlement offers by the Chungs (as much as $12,000!), instead filed his lawsuit.

How Judge Pearson arrived at the extraordinary figure of $65 million is too complicated (and too loathsome) for me to summarize here. So I'll defer to Lubna Takruri's excellent account:
Because Pearson no longer wanted to use his neighborhood dry cleaner, part of his lawsuit calls for $15,000 — the price to rent a car every weekend for 10 years to go to another business.


But the bulk of the $65 million comes from Pearson's strict interpretation of D.C.'s consumer protection law, which fines violators $1,500 per violation, per day. According to court papers, Pearson added up 12 violations over 1,200 days, and then multiplied that by three defendants.
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.
Remember, of course, that the pants were found, without any damage, by the Chungs only a week or two after they had presumed it had gone missing. And remember that despite Judge Pearson's clear unreasonableness, the Chungs were willing to pay as much as $12,000 to avoid going to court. The pants in question have been hanging in the Chungs' lawyer's office, untouched, for over a year. Amazingly, Pearson now claims this pair is not his, even though the inseam measurements match his own and the ticket matches his receipt.

How, then, are we supposed to judge the actions of Judge Pearson? In what ways can we understand law, and how it works, when one of its own administrators (or "interpreters") is so clearly intent on bending words and provisions and clauses to suit his personal needs? To what extent do Judge Pearson's actions reveal a larger culture of toxic litigation in the American legal system? And how uncommon is his strategy of reading, or interpreting, the law among supposedly impartial, freestanding judges and justices in a country that prides itself on having a legal system in which "justice is blind"?

Note Takruri's gloss on the reasoning behind Pearson's lawsuit: his is a "strict interpretation" of D.C. consumer law. For those unfamiliar with contemporary ideologies of legal interpretation, the "strict reading" of law is championed mainly by conservative judges who base their decisions on "literal" or "originalist" readings of legal documents. Pearson is a classic literalist when he argues that the Chungs' signs did not accord with the service he received -- he was literally "not satisfied" by his service (i.e., the Chungs couldn't guarantee his satisfaction), and though his pants were eventually recovered, this happened too late for "same day service" to apply here. And then of course we have Pearson's calculations, which inflate his assumed damages to extraordinary proportions and continue to assume that he is "damaged" every day that goes by without his pants being returned to him.

This case is a travesty, to be sure, but Pearson's legal ideology is in fact not at all uncommon. In addition to numerous judges at the state and federal levels, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court espouse extreme forms of literalism and originalism in their readings of the U.S. Constitution. For Scalia and Thomas, if the "framers" of the Constitution didn't intend something -- protection of certain rights, let's say -- in their writing up of that document, then it cannot be defended as constitutional. Scalia and Thomas have lambasted abortion rights and affirmative action policies, for example, for having no foundation whatsoever in the framers' understanding of what could be protected by law in American society. In their view, abortion is legalized by a radical reading of the Constitution's protection of "privacy" and affirmative action, which gives minorities an "unfair" advantage over whites, amounts to reverse racism and discounts the Constitution's understanding of "equal protection." Scalia defends his strategy of reading in an eloquent yet troubling book, A Matter of Interpretation. (Chief Justice Roberts is also by and large a literalist. Though I haven't the time to research his decision online, Roberts's tenure on the D.C. Circuit Court saw him uphold some form of harsh punishment for a girl who ate french fries in the subway when the subway's policy was that no food was allowed there.)

Given this thumbnail sketch of strict interpretation, what's revealing about the Pearson-Chung case, at least for me, is the way Judge Pearson's recourse to literalism is so clearly linked to a perverse pleasure in exercising power and making the law do what you say it does. I would go so far as to argue that Pearson's bad faith is in fact symptomatic of the literalist legal position: if your reading can be said to accord precisely with "what the law means" (or "what the framers intended"), and if there's an absolute coherence of your position and what you say the law says, then you confer upon yourself the authority of what Derrida calls "the force of law." You are the Law. This is the literalist ideology, and if you ask me it's not terribly different from the fundamentalist's claim that, knowing exactly what God means or intends, he acts in the name of God, with the force of God behind him. This is the literalist ideology, and it breeds hatred, disillusionment, and bad faith.

Pearson's case will be heard by D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal Kravitz on June 11 of this year. If you wish to help support the Chungs in their defense, please visit the Custom Cleaners Defense Fund.

1 comment:

legalreform said...

As you are undoubtedly aware, a $54 million lawsuit was recently brought in DC District Court against a small neighborhood drycleaners over a pair of alleged lost trousers. While the Court found resoundingly in favor of the business owners, Jin and Soo Chung, their ordeal is not yet over—they have drained their saving accounts contesting this frivolous lawsuit, and they have racked up over $100,000 in legal expenses.

In order to help the Chungs defray their legal bills, ILR and the American Tort Reform Association are co-hosting a fundraiser on Tuesday evening, July 24 at 6 p.m. at the US Chamber Building in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, businesses large and small across America must deal every day with similar extortionist tactics from some plaintiffs’ lawyers. The collective outcome is not justice, but lost jobs, ruined businesses and billions of dollars in lost economic opportunity. Additional details, sponsorship opportunities and easy online registration are available at