By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
When he was in federal prison, Michael Easton studied the law and the Scriptures. Now Easton, who is also an ordained Baptist minister, counsels attorneys he is fighting in court on the Bible, sending them spiritual advice by fax and e-mail, or in letters emblazoned with the Texas state seal.
He refers to himself and the attorney for whom he works, Peter J. Riga, as Duke & Duke after the Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd pair in the film Trading Places. ("And remember, Valentine it makes no difference whether our clients make money or lose money, we at Duke & Duke always get the commissions.")
Easton, 50, a fanatical baseball fan, sits in his office wearing a Texas Rangers shirt, shorts and running shoes. Sometimes he talks like a rap star, speaking in a rhyming homeboy patois. Other times he rattles off baseball statistics. He has an almost photographic memory, and can name the winner and relate details of every World Series. His Hyundai Elantra sports the bumper sticker "Real Men Love Jesus."
He smokes cigarettes as he relishes victories over his legal adversaries with quotes from the Bible and Jungle Book, which he watches time and again with his five-year-old son. "How delicious," he says with a grin, taking a drag on his cigarette.
So Easton is an ex-con as well as a minister and devotee of sports minutiae. One thing he is not is an attorney. And therein lies the problem for this very active paralegal.
Some attorneys say Easton steps out of the bounds of the duties a paralegal customarily performs, acting as a lawyer himself. They accuse him of hiding behind his paralegal status, pulling stunts that would get an authentic attorney disciplined.
Easton dismisses the complaints, saying the attorneys who criticize him simply resent his ability with the law, and that he does nothing unethical.
While the arguments continue, the Texas Supreme Court's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee is delving once again into complaints about Easton -- for the 14th time in 14 years. He says he's been cleared of any wrongdoing in the first 13 inquiries, and remains confident that it will happen again.
Easton knows the law as well as many attorneys, and some legal assignments he has been involved in have turned into precedent-setting case law. Easton, who says he is a Puerto Rican who legally changed his name, is often crass and unkind about the background of others.
He's called one black adversary "homeboy" and a white opponent "trailer trash.'' In a court pleading, he recently referred to a sheriff's deputy as "Barney Fife." But even his harshest critics call him brilliant. They also say he is unethical and rude, and that he oversteps the boundaries between paralegal and attorney.
Some of his earlier experience with the law came at times as a criminal defendant.
In 1990, he was convicted and sentenced to three years for felony theft of a diamond ring from Gordon's Jewelers in Westwood Mall in 1986.
He pleaded guilty in 1999 to making false statements to a government agency and trying to deceive a bank to obtain a loan. Easton had sued in an unsuccessful effort to block the state from revoking his private investigator's license in 1991.
In 1999, Easton received two 27-month prison terms after pleading guilty to bankruptcy fraud and fraud involving student loans. He also had his state probation revoked. Three years earlier, a judge had found he acted in bad faith in pursuing an involuntary bankruptcy action against a landlord, and Easton was hit with about $92,000 in sanctions.
Six years ago, U.S. District Judge David Hittner forbade Easton from filing cases under his own name in the Southern District, but Easton now is working on a case under attorney Riga's name in that same jurisdiction. In 1997, Hittner wrote in a court order that he was "concerned about the vindictive tone, continually demonstrated by Easton in the pleadings and documents authored by him and submitted to the court and to other state and federal courts, as well as in correspondence with others in the legal community in general."
Attorney Damian LaCroix is now echoing those same sentiments about this premier paralegal, who was paroled from prison only last November. LaCroix's firm of Cain, Buche & LaCroix represented plaintiff Sanjeev Dabubhai Patel and his Akal Investments Corporation in what seemed like a standard civil suit over about $850,000 in disputed funds. Patel said he'd lent the funds to the defendants, longtime business associate Suresh Kumar Shah and Shah's Vaishnavi Enterprises Inc.
The defendants argued that the money received from Patel was a refund, although a state district court jury ruled for Patel last November. Shah was ordered to pay the plaintiff about $1.1 million, which included interest on the original funds.
Shah's attorney is Riga, and the plaintiff's lawyers soon found themselves facing his zealous paralegal, Easton. LaCroix and partner John Karl Buche say Easton has engaged in all sorts of nefarious delay tactics to keep Shah from having to pay up on the judgment.
LaCroix said Easton's methods include racial slurs, harassment, constant bombardment with letters, motions and filings, and even a lawsuit.
"He has sued us personally and sued our secretary for doing her job," LaCroix said.