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Pearson v. Chung

December 18, 2008


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-4302-05) (Hon. Judith Bartnoff, Trial Judge) (Hon. Neal E. Kravitz, Motions Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kramer, Associate Judge

Argued October 22, 2008

Before KRAMER and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and FARRELL, Associate Judge, Retired.

Appellant, Roy Pearson, who is an attorney, sued the Chungs, the owners of a dry cleaner called Custom Cleaners, alleging common law fraud and violations of the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act ("CPPA"). His lawsuit was based upon signs that the Chungs displayed in their store stating "Satisfaction Guaranteed" and "Same Day Service." At the conclusion of a bench trial, Judge Judith Bartnoff, in a well-reasoned opinion, found for the Chungs on all claims. Pearson argues that the trial court misapplied the law and erred in denying his motion for a jury trial. We affirm the trial court's decision.

I. Factual Background

Judge Bartnoff's opinion provided the following overview of this matter.

This case has its origin in a dispute between plaintiff Roy Pearson and defendants Soo Chung, Jin Nam Chung and Ki Y. Chung over a pair of allegedly missing pants. The defendants own Custom Cleaners, a dry cleaning store on Bladensburg Road, N.E., within walking distance of the plaintiff's home. Mr. Pearson claims that he took his pants to Custom Cleaners for alterations in May 2005, that [the Chungs] lost his pants, and that they then attempted to substitute another pair of pants for his. The defendants deny the plaintiff's allegations, and they insist that the pants they attempted to return to him -- which he has refused to accept -- are the pants that he brought in to be altered.

Mr. Pearson also claims that a "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign that, until recently, was displayed in Custom Cleaners was an unconditional warranty that required [the Chungs] to honor any claim by any customer, without limitation, based on the customer's determination of whatever would make that customer "satisfied." According to the plaintiff, the defendants did not honor and had no intention of honoring that purported unconditional guarantee of satisfaction to their customers, which he contends is an unfair trade practice under the Consumer Protection Procedures Act, D.C. Code § 28-3901 et seq. ("CPPA").

As Judge Bartnoff noted, "based on the 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' sign and on [Pearson's] claims involving his pants . . . [Pearson argued that] each of the three defendants is liable to him for seven different violations of the CPPA, for every day Custom Cleaners was open over a period of several years." Pearson also sued for common law fraud based upon the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign and "Same Day Service" sign.*fn1 By Judge Bartnoff's calculations, the damages sought could have been as much as $67 million dollars.

A. Pearson's Evidence at Trial

The Chungs' customer relationship with Pearson began in October 1999, when Pearson began patronizing Custom Cleaners. Inside of the cleaners was a sign that read "Satisfaction Guaranteed." That sign continued to be displayed during the entire time period relevant to this case.

In July 2002, Pearson brought a pair of pants to Custom Cleaners for either cleaning or alterations (he was not able to recall which) and was waited on by Mr. and Mrs. Chung's son, Jai (who was not an owner). When Pearson went to pick up the pants, they could not be located. Jai agreed that the cleaners would compensate Pearson in the amount of $150 for the pants, which was what Pearson represented it would cost to replace them. Several days later, when Pearson returned to get the check in that amount, Jai suggested to Pearson that $80 would be more appropriate compensation since the pants were not new. When Pearson reminded him, however, that $150 was the amount agreed upon, Jai gave him a check in that amount.

Pearson testified that about a week after he received the $150 payment, he again brought some clothes to the cleaners, and Soo Chung told him that the family no longer wished to accept his business. Pearson advised her that he believed it was unlawful for Custom Cleaners to refuse to continue to do business with him in light of the "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign if that action was taken in the aftermath of a customer complaint that had been satisfied. Otherwise, Pearson asserted, the guarantee of satisfaction was in effect a guarantee of satisfaction only once, which the merchant had a duty to disclose. Soo Chung, however, stood firm.

Several days later Pearson wrote a letter to Custom Cleaners stating that its actions constituted an unfair trade practice under the CPPA because it added a condition after-the-fact to their guarantee of satisfaction, and he asked them to reconsider their decision not to trade with him anymore. Thereafter, Pearson received a phone call from a woman named Amanda Chun on behalf of the Chungs. He recalled that she asked him why he did not go to another cleaners if he was not satisfied with the work of Custom Cleaners and suggested that he should take his business elsewhere. Nonetheless, when he took some clothes into Custom Cleaners a week later, Soo Chung accepted his order without comment. Thereafter, he continued patronizing Custom Cleaners without incident until 2005.*fn2

In April of 2005, Pearson accepted a position with the District of Columbia government that required him to wear a suit. Thus, before the first day of his job, which was Monday, May 2, 2005, Pearson began dropping off the pants to each of his five suits to be altered one at a time because he had gained some weight and because he was pressed for money (and, thus, could not afford to have them all altered at once).His testimony in this regard is not entirely clear, but a claim ticket in evidence dated Saturday, April 30, 2005, shows that on that date he left a pair of pants to have the waist let out. Those pants were to be ready by 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 5, 2005.Another claim ticket in evidence dated Tuesday, May 3, 2005, shows that on that date he left a second pair of pants at the cleaners to have the waist let out. Those pants were also to be ready by Thursday, May 5, 2005. Pearson testified that this second pair were the pants from an expensive Hickey Freeman suit with burgundy and blue pinstripes that he had purchased from Saks Fifth Avenue. At the same time he dropped off those pants, Pearson testified, he also dropped off a pair of charcoal grey pants that were not part of a suit (and thus did not need to be altered expeditiously).When he received the claim check from Soo Chung indicating that the pants from the Hickey Freeman suit would be ready on Friday, May 6, 2005, he pointed out to her that he needed the pants on Thursday, May 5, so, as shown on the claim check admitted into evidence, Soo Chung struck through Friday and wrote in Thursday at 4:00 p.m.

Pearson testified that when he came to pick up the pants on Thursday, May 5, 2005, Soo Chung first told him that she had not "gotten around" to altering them. Then, when he asked that she simply return them to him unaltered, she told him that she had done the work and put them in a cart to be pressed; and then, when he suggested that he go to the back room of the cleaners to look for them, she said that they had mistakenly been sent to another store. Pearson testified that she assured him that the pants would be ready at 7:30 the next morning, that is, Friday, May 6, 2005.

When he returned the next morning, however, the pants still had not been located, although Soo Chung pointed out that the charcoal grey pants were ready. At that time he informed her that it would cost him at least $1000 to replace the Hickey Freeman suit. Pearson testified that upon learning this, Soo Chung immediately switched into a mode of "let me measure these grey pants," and she measured the inseam and waist of the grey pants. Ultimately, because Pearson was unable to pay for them, the grey pants were left at the cleaners. At Soo Chung's request, he ...

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