Dry cleaner's defense lawyer seeks $83K in fees

By: The Daily Record Admin, The Daily Record, July 30, 2007

At a cocktail party last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Tort Reform Association sought funds to pay legal bills for Soo and Jin Chung, the most famous dry cleaners in Washington, D.C.

While a judge ruled last month that the Chungs don't owe $54 million for allegedly losing Roy Pearson's pants, the cleaners still have a hefty legal bill, the fund-raisers said.

How high? Reports from the cocktail party put the figure at "about $100,000."

Their lead lawyer, Christopher Manning, asked for nearly $83,000 in the motion for legal fees he filed July 5.

That's about $4,600 per month since Manning, who says he went to law school with a cousin of the Chungs, took the case in January 2006.

While that total may seem extreme for a case that led to a two-day trial, some - even plaintiffs' lawyers - say it could easily happen.

"Based on what a lunatic the plaintiff was, I'm not surprised," said Daniel M. Clements, a Baltimore trial lawyer. "I can imagine he just papered them up one side down the other and they had to file responses to it all."

Pearson filed "literally hundreds of discovery requests," Manning's motion for attorneys' fees states. Pearson's motions explored multiple theories and approaches, citing "hundreds of cases that have to be researched" along the way, Manning said in an interview last week.

In response to Judge Judith Bartnoff's 23-page written decision in the case issued June 25, Pearson filed his own 35-page motion for reconsideration, arguing Bartnoff failed to give the words "Satisfaction Guaranteed" their plain and unambiguous meaning.

"It's just hundreds and hundreds of hours working on the case," said Manning, of Manning & Sossamon in Washington.

Manning's motion for attorneys' fees does not detail what's included in the total. When asked what rate he charged the Chungs, he would only say that it was "significantly reduced" and that the Chungs are on an "extremely lenient payment plan."

"We're basically not requiring them to pay us until they have the money from outside sources," Manning said.

According to reports from the chamber's Institute for Legal Reform and the American Tort Reform Association, which co-hosted the fund-raiser last week, donors have mostly covered the Chung's bill.

ATRA spokesman Darren McKinney said last week that $64,000 had been raised and that the campaign, which has included telephone and e-mail solicitations and a Web site, will continue until "this nightmare is over."

Any contributions over the Chung's costs will be donated to charity, McKinney said.

Donors listed on the Web site as having given $1,000 so far include the Washington Examiner, State Farm Insurance, Caterpillar Inc. and Manning's law firm.

Manning's motion for attorneys' fees, in which he argues Pearson's "lawsuit has been frivolous, vexatious, harassing and ultimately pursued in bad faith," asks the court to order Pearson to pay.

Bartnoff, who earlier awarded the Chungs about $5,000 in costs, should rule on the matter this week, Manning said.

Overcoming the hurdles

Linda Hitt Thatcher, who argued a recent case at the Maryland Court of Appeals concerning her own fee award, said "the fact that this judge is entertaining an award" is notable "because normally...it's tough to get attorneys' fees for defending a case."

There are two hurdles Manning will have to overcome to secure a fee award, said Leizer Goldsmith, who has argued attorneys' fees at the Court of Appeals once and will again soon in the case of Friolo v. Frankel.

First, Manning must prove Pearson acted in bad faith. Then, if Bartnoff decides to award fees, Manning must show his charges are reasonable.

Saul Jay Singer, legal ethics counsel for the D.C. Bar, said the reasonable standard is not "any iron-clad black and white rule." Singer said the standard is based on a series of factors, like the time and labor required and the novelty and difficulty of the case.

Paul D. Raschke, chairman of the ethics committee of the Maryland State Bar Association, said "reasonable" can vary.

"If you're defending a case, what you do for your client is driven by what the opposition is doing," he said.