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.
Easton said he isn't suing them, but his client is.
John Karl Buche, a law partner of LaCroix's, said no one fights Easton, because lawyers and even judges are afraid of him.
"He has sued several judges and a handful of attorneys," Buche said. "I have 23 published lawsuits in which he was a plaintiff. Everyone is scared to do anything about him, because they know he will sue them. He causes so much misery. He keeps people tied up in court for years."
But Easton said he has changed, and hasn't filed a lawsuit in ten years. His client is the one doing the suing, he said.
Buche and LaCroix took their complaints to the unauthorized legal practice committee, accusing Easton of representing clients in court, advising clients and otherwise handling the duties of an attorney rather than a paralegal. Buche said his firm has been "inundated with the most vindictive, embarrassing and unprofessional correspondence and pleadings." He added, "I expect to be sued for addressing this issue and I routinely receive threats to be sued and sanctioned for everything under the sun."
The two contend that attorney Riga permits Easton to act as an attorney, and even to file pleadings that aren't reviewed by the lawyer.
"I must confess that I am deeply troubled by what I have witnessed and by the fact that Mr. Easton is permitted vis-à-vis Peter Riga, with seeming impunity, to harass and plague the Houston legal community," Buche said. "Michael Easton is the de facto lawyer on our case for virtually ever legal issue encountered."
In a document submitted to the committee's chairman, Riga denied the accusations against him and Easton. Riga said that everything in the pleadings that leave his office is filed with his consent. Riga wrote that Easton does refer to himself as quasi-counsel, which Buche complained about. But Riga said that is no cause for disciplinary action.
"Mr. Buche and LaCroix obviously started a fire they can't put out, and now they grieve me," Riga wrote to the committee. "In fact, Mr. Easton has had hours upon hours of amusement with these lawyers, as he does not lack the candor or sense of humor to play along with them."
Riga has on his letterhead numerous degrees, as well as the titles "attorney at law," "notary public" and "author and novelist." According to his ten-plus-page résumé, Riga holds a law degree and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as a theology diploma and advanced degrees from Louvain University in Belgium. For years, he served as general counsel for the Arab Defamation League in Houston.
Riga said that other lawyers are too sensitive and become easily offended by Easton and his e-mails and faxes.
In the Patel case, Easton wrote, "The notion that you are going to be wearing an 'Indian Head Rag' and run the Shahs [the clients'] hotels is again part of that gold-rimmed Cadillac mentality that you dream about."
In a March 31 fax from "Quasi-Counsel" to LaCroix, Easton wrote in large bold type, "Damian, who's your daddy in case law? I'll bet you'll never let that slip by you again. See, I ought to send you a bill for all this knowledge that law school never taught you Now say 'Pa-Pa, Da, Da.' (Just kidding my friend.)"
Robert Schuwerk, a professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center and a specialist in legal ethics, said there are disciplinary actions and even criminal laws regarding paralegals who overstep their bounds -- as well as attorneys who permit it.
While Schuwerk had no specific information on the allegations involving Easton, he said that in general a paralegal is barred from representing clients in the courtroom. "He can't appear in court unsupervised," the professor said. "Whether or not anyone wants to call him on it is another matter."
Schuwerk said that Easton is probably unable to become an attorney because of his criminal record, and if he had been an attorney, he likely would have been disbarred for engaging in earlier felonious activity. He said that what paralegals do and what lawyers do is markedly different.
"Paralegals can do drafts of things, and do things like document reviews. They can have very limited client contact, only if the lawyer is telling them exactly what to say and do. They can't appear in court, period."
In the battle involving the civil case, Easton himself has accused LaCroix of unethical practices. That came after LaCroix used the word "whore" in court and threatened to put his foot up Easton's ass.
Tim J. Clyne, an investigator on the committee, said Easton may have an abrasive style, but the past complaints were not shown to involve harm to the public or the need for litigation against him. "It irritates some people, but no harm, no foul," Clyne said.
In the current complaint, both sides may bear some blame for the foul language and untoward actions, he said. Clyne said that if Easton's allegations against the two attorneys are found to be true, Clyne would take them to the Texas State Bar for action.
LaCroix was incredulous that the committee's investigator would play down Easton's conduct; the attorney said there is ample documentation of Easton's conduct.
"How can an organization have the same person in front of it  times and not see that there is a problem?" Buche asked. "There is a problem with the system."
He concluded, "The day I get in trouble for reporting this, I don't want to be a lawyer anymore. What is happening now is no different than allowing a convicted felon to have a law license."
Easton argues that LaCroix and Buche just want to dwell on his past.
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"I've paid for my sins and bad judgment," he wrote them in an e-mail. "(I don't call them mistakes. Mistakes are when you forget your car keys, not when you think you are slicker than grease itself.)"
"He is making an absolute mockery of the civil judicial system," LaCroix said. "This isn't a situation where a couple of lawyers get their feelings hurt. We are litigators. But this is over the top."
Easton said he has been open about not being a lawyer and that his detractors are the hypocrites.
"I say things they wish they could say," Easton said. "I think I hold up a mirror to lawyers. They see themselves in me, and they don't like what they see."