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.

In early 1994, a Denton County judge granted the woman's motion to quash Carrao's discovery and ordered him to pay $1,500 in court costs. The judge later dismissed Carrao's suit and sanctioned him because he failed to pay the court costs.

Today, Carrao vehemently denies the allegations that he threatened to kill the woman and, when asked to explain the purpose of his discovery in the case, he becomes evasive.

"What was the point of a lot of things that she did? Are we going to discuss the things she did?" he asks. "Can we move on to another case?"

Located within blocks of Carrao's West End-based Lawmart, the George Allen Courts Building is the place where Carrao continues to practice his own version of the law, at times seeking payback from the people he believes have done him wrong.

Since 1991, Carrao has filed more than 80 lawsuits in Justice of the Peace Al Cercone's court against attorneys and other customers who have hired Carrao to perform various investigative and paralegal services. Across the hallway, the public terminals at the District Clerk's office contain an additional 40 cases dating back to the 1960s that Carrao has brought, some of them appeals from Cercone's court.

To the courthouse employees who work here, Carrao is an all too familiar face--a regular who always seems to come around, cracking jokes about how yet another employee has up and quit. Carrao is also known as a guy who doesn't much care for attorneys, though he seems to enjoy acting like one.

"When attorneys don't pay their bills, he sues them," says one clerk, who speaks in whispered tones for fear that Carrao might be in earshot. "He hates attorneys. He thinks they're idiots. I don't know his motivation, but he thinks he's smarter than them."

Dallas attorney Jim Carroll is one attorney who Carrao claims is conspiring to put him out of business. It is an allegation Carroll doesn't bother denying. In fact, he's spent a year gathering information about Carrao on behalf of several clients whom Carrao has sued. Carroll likes to think of his willingness to share the information as "his good deed" for the year.

"If he is ever brought to justice, it will give me a certain satisfaction. He's obnoxious," Carroll says. "Someone looking at it objectively may think I have a crusade to get him, but something needs to be done."

Carroll, who practices primarily in the area of debt collection, is currently defending an Austin-based attorney whom Carrao sued in Cercone's court for unpaid bills, as well as a former employee, Jack Medford, whom Carrao accused of criminal theft after he quit Lawmart to accept a better job.

Carroll finds Carrao's tactics particularly offensive because he sues his customers for amounts so small that most people, attorneys included, can't afford to take the time off to argue about it--even if they don't believe they owe the money.

No matter the criticism leveled at Carrao, Judge Cercone says that for those who disregard his summons to appear, he has no problem issuing writs of attachment ordering the sheriff to escort them to court. Particularly attorneys. "It's unbelievable that an attorney would do that," Cercone says. "I see a lot of these attachments...once it gets that far, they all of a sudden realize how serious it is."

One example is the case of Rex Moxley, who, until recently, practiced law. In 1997, Carrao sued him for $200 in unpaid computer work. "I'll be the first to admit I was late on paying," says Moxley, who quit the law profession to become a financial planner. Although he complains that Carrao is a "bitter man," Moxley admits he didn't take his case seriously. "JP court is really no big deal."

For months, Moxley ignored the case until Cercone signed an order of attachment and had him brought to court. Cercone also allowed Carrao to garnishee his bank account. "At that point I wised up," Moxley says. "My money was frozen."

Carrao says the reason he sues anyone, including lawyers, is very elemental: He doesn't like getting stiffed. While he contends that his suits are standard in his business, there is plenty of evidence that he thoroughly enjoys playing lawyer. In a 1994 case he filed against a female attorney for unpaid bills, Carrao sent the lawyer 72 requests for admissions as part of his discovery process. In part, Carrao wanted her to admit to things like "You consider yourself a failure as an attorney."

Another attorney, who asked that her name not be published because "I don't want the guy in my face," says Carrao sued her for less than $100 without even bothering to let her know she had an unpaid balance. "Usually when there's a dispute, as a matter of professionalism, you work things out," says the attorney. "I got the distinct impression that he liked being able to sue lawyers."

The attorney had hired Carrao after she received a fax from him peddling his services. "The fax list indicated to me that he was working in a capacity for which I had hired private investigators in the past," the attorney says. "I figured I'd give the guy a try."

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