A Closet Full of Suits

When Paula Larsen feels wronged, she sues--and she never lets go.

Paula Larsen, the first woman in America to use a new federal law to help her collect child-support payments, didn't get a lot of attention for earning this pioneering title.

Her ten years of effort, which included a lawsuit against such notables as Denver's district attorney, didn't go unrewarded, though. She got a nice letter from an out-of-state congressman. She got a big check that allowed her to pay off some legal bills and put something away for her son's college education. She had a celebration with her son, her sister and her mother at Cliff Young's.

Then she started getting the checks of $430 per month, which helped her send her son to private school. The father successfully argued to have the amount lowered to $330, but Larsen's life returned to normal.

This is what "normal" is to Larsen: She's now suing her own lawyer in a completely separate case that started out as a dispute with her son's dentist about whether she was abusing the child. Neither party came close to being prosecuted, but Larsen's civil case against the dentist was settled and sealed. And it became the basis for her suit against her own lawyer. And that suit has made its way as high as the Colorado Supreme Court, where it could drag on into the next millennium.

Perhaps a strong urge to litigate is part of being a lay pioneer in the field of law. Perhaps in order to become the first woman in America to use the federal Child Support Recovery Act, you have to be a little like Paula Larsen.

Sherry Seiber thinks so. She's a lawyer who once gave some free advice to Larsen. Although she no longer practices law, Seiber has kept an eye on Larsen's legal wranglings, and she understands that Larsen has probably rubbed quite a few people the wrong way.

"I think it takes somebody who is incredibly tough, if not downright ornery, to go up against people who want things to go along the way they always have," Seiber says. She hesitates about using the word "ornery" because she doesn't want to say anything bad about Larsen, but she admits the word fits.

Seiber says the person she's reminded of when she thinks of Larsen's tenacity is Clarence Earl Gideon, a man who made legal history more than thirty years ago.

In 1960 Gideon was a fifty-year-old ex-con drifter who floated into Bay Harbor, Florida, looking to get away from his third wife and make some money by getting into poker games with GIs at Tyndall Air Force Base. Someone broke into a pool hall and stole money out of a cigarette machine; Gideon was the definition of a likely suspect.

At his trial, Gideon's request for a lawyer was denied. A judge convicted him and sentenced him to five years in prison. From his cell at the Florida state penitentiary, Gideon wrote a four-page appeal in pencil and sent it to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, for the first time in his life, he won a legal battle. As a result of that case, the court changed the rules so that any person accused of a crime would be entitled to a lawyer.

Gideon's place in history is assured. But his own mother chose not to put a marker on his grave when he died in 1972. At a graveside ceremony arranged by the American Civil Liberties Union to put up a headstone a dozen years after his death, a man from his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, called Gideon a "no-good punk."

Larsen, now 45, is spoken of more highly, even by the targets of her suits. "She is a very interesting personality," says the dentist who was wrapped up in court with Larsen for years. He also says, "She took me through a living hell."

Larsen's current case against her lawyer, which is on appeal, probably won't go to the U.S. Supreme Court, and chances are she won't win in state court. She is, however, dead set to continue fighting as long as she thinks she is right and has any kind of legal recourse, even if she is labeled as suit-happy. "If you are called litigious pursuing what is right, so be it," Larsen says. "Am I willing to go through all of these battles? You're darn right."

Larsen doesn't immediately project the image of a battler. She is short and slight, conservatively dressed. At first glance, she looks like someone who might work as, say, a secretary. In fact, that's been her profession for the past twenty years.

Obviously intelligent, she's well-spoken. But she's a fast talker who goes off on tangents and makes connections through space and time between people, events and theories. Sometimes she can leave a listener bewildered by a blizzard of information.

During a November 1995 deposition in her lawsuit against her lawyer, the lawyer's lawyer stopped grilling her at one point and said: "You are going so fast, I'm really having trouble tracking you. And it's not a rebuke, it's just we're--we had one conversation where it seemed to be something would happen in the future. Now all of a sudden what was going to happen in the future actually occurred, and now I've got two conversations. So just--let's all stretch for a minute. I'd like you to think through the chronology of this, and maybe this is a good time to break for lunch."

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