November 15, 2007

The moral of losing your pants, your suit, and your job

Back in mid-June I posted about the case of a DC administrative law judge who sued a local cleaning establishment for losing his pants. He requested a settlement of 54 million dollars for inconvenience, mental anguish, and attorney's fees. Later in the same month I wrote about how this judge lost his lawsuit against the cleaners. Now we learn that he has lost his job as well.

Judges without pants (not to be confused with doctors without borders) can be embarrassing, both to themselves and to the courtroom.  But that didn't turn out to be the case here. Apparently he covered his bottom with another pair and never missed a step as he passed his judgments in the courtrooms of DC. Until this month anyway.

As far as I can tell, even though the judge felt dishonored, he didn't physically attack the business owners who had lost his pants. That's progress of a sort, I suppose, because in the olden days, duels often ensued when a person's honor was questioned. Today, we have courts of law, where fights like that can be resolved (by awards of monetary compensation) using negotiated language rather than with swords or pistols. But even in the days of dueling, negotiation was possible. Parties on both sides had "seconds," whose job it was to deliver the challenge, request an apology, and negotiate an amicable settlement short of bloody combat. Careful uses of appropriate speech acts were highly regarded. Short of success in this, they stood by their friends during the duel. So even in those bloodier days, the language of negotiation played an important role. The judge in this case refused negotiation and went for the financial kill instead.

It's not totally clear whether his pants problem was the reason that his employment was terminated but it's hard to see how it helped him keep his job. The press drools over stories like this and it's likely that the DC Commission on Selection and Tenure of Administrative Law Judges was concerned about its own image. Try to imagine a court case in which one business brings a grievance against another. Further imagine that a judge who had sued a business over losing his pants was presiding. Well...

However anguished and angry the judge was (and haven't we all been frustrated by little things like our cleaner losing our pants?), wouldn't it have been prudent for him to have taken a deep breath, gathered his wits about him, considered the relative importance of it all, and resorted to using language to negotiate a reasonable outcome? Negotiate? We haven't seen a lot of that lately in the news. As humans progressed from fighting bloody duels to using language to resolve disputes, we have learned something about the way negotiation trumps physical fighting. Or have we? Maybe recent international events are an exception. By comparison, the judge's failed lawsuit pales in significance to many other more important failures to use diplomatic language to settle disputes. If there's a moral to the judge's case, maybe it's that people in high office could learn something about the need to use language to get better results.

Hat tip to Amy Forsyth

Posted by Roger Shuy at November 15, 2007 12:56 PM