Courthouse bully

Legal assistant Jim Carrao works the dark corners of the justice system. He serves papers, does background checks, files annoying cases--and knows just enough law to be dangerous.

Jim Carrao stares through the windows of a ninth-story conference room into a thicket of fog that has swallowed the city's skyline and blotted out the view of the world outside. And he frowns.

Once again, it seems to him, forces beyond his control are engaged in a conspiracy. How they must snicker as they carry out in whispered tones a plot to leave him standing alone, again the victim of hollow loyalties, broken promises, and heartless strangers.

His sharp, piercing eyes blink behind silver-framed glasses. Averting his gaze from the gathered mist, he buttons his trench coat and tugs his Sherlock Holmes hat over his head. Before he leaves his attorney's office, having spent a late December afternoon fending off unwanted questions, Carrao wants an answer to a question of his own.

"How long must I be punished?"
The question is one that nobody, except possibly Carrao himself, can answer with any certainty. That's because Jim Carrao seems to define the concept of crime and punishment very broadly, using it to justify any one of the countless, often bizarre legal snares he's been entangled in for the better part of three decades.

In recent years, Carrao has worked diligently to build up his Dallas business called Lawmart. In many ways, he has put a history marred by civil sanctions, jail cells, and broken homes behind him to become a success within the local legal community.

Equipped with a supply of fax machines, which transmit solicitations to law firms and other local businesses 24 hours a day, Carrao peddles a range of freelance legal services more commonly provided by private investigators or in-house paralegals. They include everything from serving people with legal papers and doing background checks on individuals by digging into their pasts to interviewing witnesses for lawyers.

A legal assistant or paralegal, Carrao has never been a lawyer, though he wishes he were one. While he doesn't hold himself out to be an attorney--an activity the State Bar of Texas enjoined him from some 18 years ago--Carrao, for all practical purposes, acts like one. But unlike real lawyers, who make their living by representing clients, Carrao is his own best client and seems to have a taste for suing his customers, many of whom are lawyers.

Type his name into the computer down at Justice of the Peace Al Cercone's court or across the hallway in the District Clerk's office, and more than 100 lawsuits crowd the screen. Many of the cases feature Carrao, representing himself, suing attorneys who he claims didn't pay their bills.

What's remarkable about Carrao is not just the volume of cases he files, or that he sues the very people who are the source of his livelihood, but that this wannabe lawyer isn't altogether bad at what he does. In many cases, Carrao emerges victorious, and on more than one occasion, he has had defendant-attorneys brought to court in the company of the sheriff, their bank accounts garnisheed after they refused to respond to his claims.

Carrao's record for beating lawyers on their own turf could inspire cheers among the growing number of Americans who think lawyers are sub-human, but he doesn't limit his practice to attorneys alone. He also sues former employees, friends, and even his relatives, whom he has accused of depriving him of everything from their love and affection to trivial possessions, such as underwear, tubes of K-Y Jelly, and in one case, a frozen chicken.

Taken individually, few of these cases are especially fascinating. Together, though, they reveal a pattern of personal vindictiveness carried out through the court system by a man who seems well aware that he has a constitutional right to sue as many people as he chooses and that there are few judges who will stop him. The legal system has allowed him to flourish despite considerable evidence that he abuses it.

While Carrao happily uses the law--especially the pre-trial process of discovery--to question people's behavior and pry into their personal lives, he is offended by the notion that someone would take a peek into his own. The only reason they would do so, he insists, is because they intend to punish him for his past--which includes a prison sentence for arson.

Carrao may indeed soon be punished; to be more precise, his activities as a legal assistant may be curtailed.

Because he is a convicted felon, Dallas County civil district judges are for the second time deciding whether Carrao should be removed from the list of people they authorize to serve process. At the same time, state regulators are continuing to investigate complaints that Carrao is working as a private investigator without a license--an offense that, if proven, could land Carrao in jail again. In Austin, meanwhile, the State Bar is trying to figure out how Carrao became a member of its legal assistants division despite a rule that prevents felons from joining.

But the prospect of sanctions, or even a little jail time, is the sort of punishment that Carrao has faced in the past. Attacks from lawyers, threats from judges, countless appearances in court--these are just the cost of doing business. There is, however, one court in which Carrao's understanding of the law can't prevent the kind of harsh judgment he fears: the court of public opinion.

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