Roy Pearson, a Washington, D.C. administrative law judge, is suing his drycleaners for $54 million for losing his pants and posting signs saying “satisfaction guaranteed.”
His ridiculous lawsuit is now being tried in the D.C. Superior Court, where it has become a media spectacle, with news crews from at least five countries observing the trial.
The dysfunctional Washington, D.C. government apparently refuses to remove Pearson from his position as judge, despite his bizarre suit. It refuses to remove him despite the fact that judges are supposed to exercise good judgment, and the fact that ALJs like Pearson don’t enjoy life tenure like federal judges do.
D.C. officials apparently believe that Pearson is immunized from any discipline or removal by the First Amendment, whose freedom of petition clause protects a citizen’s right to bring non-frivolous law suits.
But they are wrong, both because Pearson’s suit has frivolous elements to it, and because he is a public employee, not an ordinary citizen. Public employees’ First Amendment rights against their employers are much more restricted than an ordinary citizen’s rights against the government.
Moreover, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals observed in Lytle v. Wondrash (1999), a public employee can be disciplined, or terminated, for bringing even a non-frivolous lawsuit, if the lawsuit has the potential to undermine his employer’s mission or adversely affect its interests, or if the original subject matter of the lawsuit was so petty that it did not involve a matter of public concern.
Here, Pearson’s suit undermines confidence in the legal system in general and in Washington, D.C.’s administrative tribunals in particular. So the Washington, D.C. government can remove him from his position without violating the First Amendment.