A Closet Full of Suits
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."
Paula Larsen's legal troubles began in 1979, when she was pulled over for going the wrong way on a one-way street during a rainstorm in Capitol Hill. She knew she de-served a ticket, but when an officer was rude to her mother, who was with her in the car, she got mad--so mad that the cops grabbed her and forced her into the backseat of a police cruiser. Then they did the same to her mother.
She was so offended that she did what she thought a person should do in America: She sued. She recalls being willing to fight that suit as long as it took but got a settlement offer of $500.
She dropped the suit and took the $500 because she got what she says she was looking for all along: a letter of apology.
"I just thought they needed to apologize. After that, I didn't think anything more of it," Larsen says.
What happened to her in March 1982, she says, could not be handled by a letter.
Larsen went on a date with a friend of a man she worked for. It was on that first date, she says, that she got pregnant.
Larsen had grown up as a strict Roman Catholic. She went to Catholic schools and says she believed everything the nuns taught, including some of the intangibles. She says she is inspired to this day by their quiet determination. "They did install a good backbone in you," Larsen says. "When you really know you are right, it gives you confidence to do anything."
Even facing life as a single mother. There was no question that she would keep the baby. "You know, you get faced with these situations and you just have to make the best and things work out," she says. "It didn't seem great at the time, but I'm so glad I have my son."
While she was willing to put the time into raising her son, she felt the father, William Moskalik, should be contributing financially.
Court records filed by Larsen claim that Moskalik fought against making child-support payments. First, according to Larsen, he denied being the father, but a court-ordered blood test cleared that up. He paid some support money, she says, but after he moved to another state, he stopped paying.
So Larsen joined the legion of women who were owed back child support. The U.S. Justice Department reports that in 1994 non-custodial parents owed $48 billion, but only about $14 billion was collected. The numbers for the decade of the 1980s were similar, and women had little recourse to get court-ordered child support if the men didn't want to pay it.
The fact that there were millions of women in a similar plight didn't really matter to Larsen, she says: She decided to get the money owed to her, whatever that took. Larsen and attorney Tom May pored over state law and found an interesting line regarding felony non-support complaints: "When such complaint is filed by any other officer or person than the district attorney, it shall be made under oath, as required by law."
Larsen's position was simple: "I'm a person," she says, "and the law said 'any other person.'" So she went to a judge with May and asked to file charges directly. If the judge would agree, she herself could ask to extradite Moskalik.
The transcripts reveal that Denver County Court Judge Brian Campbell seemed a little stunned by the request. Traditionally, only people like district attorneys file charges. But at a July 1991 hearing, Campbell ruled: "The unusual proceeding of allowing an attorney to file this, rather than the district attorney file it, is also seemingly authorized."
Campbell allowed the filing but held it for thirty days so the Denver District Attorney's office could check it out. Lamar Sims, a deputy DA, fought it, saying it represented a "policy change."
The judge, however, agreed with Larsen and issued a warrant for the arrest of Moskalik. Nothing ever happened with it, though, because the DA still controlled the process of extradition and wasn't willing to use it in the Moskalik case.
Larsen had come closer than most women to seeing her back child-support payments, but she didn't have anything to show for it. That made her mad enough to sue.
The problem was that there were no clear-cut targets. From her perspective, the one who stood in her path was Denver District Attorney Norm Early. But suing a sitting district attorney was suicidal, right? "I didn't care who he was," Larsen says.
So she sued Early, along with his deputy Sims, seeking a judgment that would order them to follow Campbell's ruling.
While she worked on that case, something strange happened: The law changed.
On April 1, 1992, Senate Majority Leader Jeff Wells went to the microphone of the Colorado Senate and asked for a change in the "antiquated language under the criminal non-support section."
When other senators started asking Wells questions, wondering if this was a change that would somehow make it easier for "deadbeat dads" to get away with not paying, Wells said that it would not. The amendment to a larger bill was adopted on a voice vote and became law after little discussion. The amendment eliminated the bit about "any other...person." Larsen says now that the move to eliminate that provision of the law was specifically aimed at cutting her case off at the knees.
Wells says that charge is not true. "I'd never heard about this woman," he says. "But frankly, I wish I had, because I would make the exact same argument and use her as an example." Wells thinks Larsen's point--that anybody should be able to file charges against a person for not paying child support--is ridiculous. He says the fact that Larsen tried to use the law was proof that it needed to be changed.
Wells adds that he doesn't have anything against Larsen, and he says he has carried bills that attempt to force non-custodial parents to pay what they owe. He says he doesn't even mind what Larsen did to him when she found out he had changed the law.
That's right. She sued him, too. When Larsen found out about the change, she says she felt that it was a direct attack on her and therefore not something covered by the immunity given to lawmakers for what they do as politicians.
"A conspiracy to mislead fellow legislators is not a proper pursuit in the legislative process," Larsen wrote in a document seeking to add Wells's name to her suit against Early, "and legislators do not have immunized power to act in such a manner."
A judge allowed Wells on as a defendant, something the senator says was unique for him. "This was the first and only time I've ever been named individually for something I did as a senator," Wells says. "I got the definite impression that she was interested in the principle more than in the money."
Larsen agrees, adding, "I just think the courts are so strong if you don't pay what you owe on a house or a car, so why not on a kid?"
Her quixotic case against all the powers that be did not go well. She lost every court battle she entered but kept appealing until she reached U.S. District Court.
Once there, District Judge John Kane dismissed her suit without benefit of a trial or even a hearing. His written order said power over extradition matters was "properly held" by the district attorney, not by private citizens. As for Wells, Kane ruled that immunity for a legislator was absolute.
Larsen says her interest in that suit started waning anyway in direct proportion to increased rumblings about a new federal law being proposed by Henry Hyde, a Republican U.S. congressman from Illinois. She calls herself a natural fan of Hyde, a staunch abortion foe who had talked publicly about how he believed in protecting children before birth and after. In 1992 he was proposing a law to make it a federal crime to move across state lines to avoid paying child support.
Larsen wrote to Hyde when the bill was first proposed. That began an extensive correspondence between her and Hyde aide Alice Horseman. The two women spoke the day the legislation passed.
"We talked on the phone and just cried," Larsen says. Horseman remembers that emotional day, too, and says of Larsen, "She's some kind of woman. The bureaucracy can really wear you down, but she persevered."
Brown, according to Larsen, found Moskalik, called him and explained that he could face federal charges if he didn't pay the money he owed. Moskalik wound up writing a check for the full amount: $16,000.
"I think she set a precedent," Horseman says. "People call here all the time and ask if the law works, and I always say that it worked in Colorado."
Even after it worked, Larsen was told that it would take thirty days to clear the check through the state government bureaucracy. She got on the phone to Meg Porfido, chief legal advisor to Governor Roy Romer, and got it sooner. The check was delivered on Valentine's Day 1993.
Reached at his home in Kansas, Moskalik declines to comment, other than to say that Larsen "sensationalized" the case and "manipulated the system."
Larsen did get a congratulatory letter from Congressman Hyde for being the first person to take advantage of the new law. Through the rest of 1993, however, there was only one conviction under it. Through April of this year the government has filed only about 350 cases. Even Hyde has said he is frustrated that the law hasn't been used to catch more "deadbeat dads."
Looking back at her own result, Larsen says, "I was damn lucky to get it."
Luck also may have had something to do with Larsen's other massive legal battle. Bad timing, anyway.
This crusade began on May 22, 1986, when Larsen's mother, Marian, took Paula's son to see a pediatric dentist. Exactly what happened during that appointment is unclear. Larsen says she'd like to talk about it but can't because she is under a court order not to. The dentist refuses to talk about it. The case is sealed, but some details appear in other court documents.
Paula and her son made another appointment for the following June 4, but the dentist told the Larsen family that he would have to change the appointment because he was going on vacation.
Larsen called the dentist to ask him to treat her son before he left, but he refused. Larsen says she told him that she thought his refusal to treat her son was unethical--she later said her son was in pain--and that she was going to call the dental board. She then got another dentist.
At some point, the first dentist called the state social services department and reported Larsen as a possible child abuser, according to testimony Larsen's attorney gave much later in another case. (No Larsen litigation is simple, it seems.)
Public records do not show exactly what social workers did or what Larsen had to go through to prove that she was not a child abuser. No charges were ever filed, and she didn't lose custody of her son. But she was mad enough to sue.
It didn't matter that she was, at the time, entangled in the child-support case. She apparently didn't even care that suing a dentist for "outrageous conduct" and "defamation" would be difficult at best because a dentist is what is known as a "mandated reporter," meaning that he can actually get in trouble if he sees something that looks like child abuse and doesn't report it. As a dentist, he also has immunity from making a report that turns out to be false, as long as it was made in good faith.
Nevertheless, Larsen got a lawyer, Baine Kerr of Boulder, and went to trial in August 1989.
That trial record is now sealed at the dentist's request, but later testimony in another case indicates that the jury sympathized with Larsen. According to court documents, one of the jurors hadn't disclosed that she had been abused as a child. That juror, according to later testimony by Kerr, refused to find that the dentist had done anything wrong, contending that people who report child abuse should be protected, no matter how inappropriate the report. The jury deadlocked, forcing a mistrial.
Kerr recommended against going to trial again, though. He was going on an eighteen-month-long sabbatical and wouldn't be able to take the case to trial a second time. He said later that he tried to find another attorney in his firm who was interested in taking the case but could not.
So he negotiated a settlement of $30,000, of which Larsen would get about $12,000 after court costs and lawyer's fees had been taken out. He recommended that she sign the agreement, and she did, on January 26, 1990.
Under the terms of that agreement, Kerr later said, Larsen "was restricted from talking to the parents of other patients or going to the media, but she was not restricted from going to the dental board, law enforcement, district attorney, whoever beyond that. And that was what she specifically told me she wanted out of this."
But it didn't work out that way for Larsen. After the trial she tried to talk to the dental board, but the dentist, she later said, hauled her back into court. To this day, she is under a restraining order that forbids her to talk about the case to anyone. "They have made it very clear to me that I will go to jail if I say one wrong word," Larsen says. "That's why I'm so angry. That's why I'm going through all of this."
All of what? Another lawsuit, this one against her own lawyer, Baine Kerr.
"Paula Larsen is a singular individual," says Steve Hopkins, the lawyer defending Kerr. "He went out and won her a great settlement and then she chose to sue her own lawyer." Kerr declines comment under orders from Hopkins.
How did she come to sue her own lawyer? Like all Larsen litigation tales, it's complicated.
After the settlement against the dentist, Larsen read a March 1991 story in Westword that mentioned Richard Krugman, director of Denver's Kempe Center and a nationally recognized expert on child abuse. She was sympathetic to the tale in the story, which pointed out that Krugman was willing to testify that a mother had beaten her own baby to death when there was a great deal of forensic evidence that she had not done it.
Larsen called the lawyer in that case, Sherry Seiber, and told her that Krugman had testified in her case as well. Seiber spoke with Kerr. According to later testimony, Kerr told Seiber that he was glad she was taking Larsen on as a client and that--except for one juror--Larsen might have gotten a big award levied against the dentist. He told Seiber, according to court documents, that the jury foreman thought the case against the dentist was worth a half-million dollars or more.
Seiber later asked Larsen why she decided to settle the case when the first time through they came so close to such a huge award. Larsen didn't know what Seiber was talking about. She says her lawyer, Kerr, never told her about his interview with the jury foreman who wanted to give her $500,000. She complained to a lawyers' review board, but that went nowhere. Larsen's current lawyer, Bob Hancock, says that was no surprise: "A chicken went to a panel of foxes and complained about a fox in the chicken house. Of course the panel of foxes found that particular fox didn't do anything wrong. What else would you expect them to say?"
Larsen sued Kerr in January 1992. At first Kerr tried to fight the suit, claiming that the kind of action Larsen filed required expert testimony from other lawyers. Larsen and Hancock took that battle all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court and won. A judge ruled in June 1995 that a layperson could decide whether Kerr should have told Larsen about the jury foreman's comments.
The case went to trial in Boulder in August 1996. That suit revealed some details of Larsen's original suit against the dentist. Kerr brought out several lawyers to say that everything he did--and didn't do--was kosher. Kerr himself testified that Larsen's mental state played a role in why he didn't tell her about the big number.
"They were able to bring in all this stuff about her mental state," Hancock says. "It was disgusting the way they attacked her."
For instance, Larsen was labeled as being obsessive. "Every client is obsessive when it comes to their own case," Hancock says. Kerr himself testified about conversations he had had with Larsen's therapist in preparation for her case against the dentist, saying that Larsen's therapist described her as "flaky" and as having "socialization difficulties." Speaking of Larsen's therapist, Kerr testified: "He said the best thing in the world for Paula would be regular therapy and to stop thinking about litigation." Kerr also testified that the dentist's lawyer "was going to try to show that Paula was what we call a vexatious litigator, someone who files a number of lawsuits and is obsessed with the idea of litigation."
As to the supposed sympathy of the jury, Kerr argued that the figure of a half-million dollars was unreasonable, would never have been agreed on by an entire jury and would have been thrown out by a judge even if a jury did agree to it. Kerr had mentioned the large sum in a letter to the dentist's lawyer but didn't tell Larsen about it. He explained during his own trial that bringing up the large number was just a negotiating tactic to get the dentist to settle for something more than the $1,500 he had originally offered.
"From the time I first took the case on," Kerr said during his trial, "it was--the details were novel and interesting. I put my heart into this case, and I did everything I could, under sometimes difficult circumstances, to communicate as well as possible with her and to assist her decision-making."
The jury agreed with Kerr, even issuing a statement saying that "the evidence shows conclusively that [Kerr] discharged his professional responsibility with the highest care and acted with the utmost good faith and loyalty for the benefit of his client. We therefore regret that [Larsen] would not or could not reach the same conclusion."
"As far as I'm concerned," says Kerr's lawyer, Steve Hopkins, "that's a slam dunk. Paula needs to get a life."
This is life, though, for Larsen, who has taken the jury's decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals. "The way they're acting, I think they are worried about it," Larsen says of Kerr and his lawyers, although she knows the chance that the verdict will be overturned is slim. "All I've got is hope."
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gideon's Trumpet, author Anthony Lewis offered this insight about Clarence Gideon:
"As prisoners often do, Gideon complained of so many raw deals that it was hard to separate fact from feelings of persecution. He spoke of harsh sentences some of his fellow inmates had been given and of inequities in Florida law. At times his wanderings into legalism grew incoherent, and he had to be steered back to the point."
Sometimes, Paula Larsen, while not incoherent, also strays from her original points. She's good at connecting the dots--whether the dots mean anything or not.
Here's an example: "I just think this is really interesting," she says, "that William Gray--who was the one who they paid to be the expert witness to say that Baine Kerr was such a great guy and did such a good job representing me--is now working for John and Patsy Ramsey and was on the Web page for them and is doing all this other work for them."
Interesting? Maybe. But when steered back to the fundamentals of her current case, Larsen says she knows exactly what she wants. "I think lawyers should be sent a message," Larsen says, "that they should always have to tell the truth to their clients."
And looking back over all her legal battles, she says it is probably true that she is a bit ornery. "If you keep closing doors in my face," she says, "I'm just going to push that much harder to open them up.
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