Persistent as Hell
Paula Greisen isn’t going to wait around for someone else to enact change
Published in 2019 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine
on March 28, 2019
Updated on May 11, 2020
Paula Greisen sits in the gallery of a federal courtroom in downtown Denver, legs crossed and hands splayed out on the wooden bench on either side of her, radiating impatient energy.
She’s watching a preliminary hearing in the federal lawsuit Masterpiece Cakeshop Incorporated et al v. Elenis et al. It’s one of two cases being dubbed “Masterpiece 2.0,” following up on Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the blockbuster 2018 Supreme Court case over Colorado cake baker Jack Phillips’ 2012 refusal to make a wedding cake for same-sex couple Charlie Craig and David Mullins. The case came to be seen as a clash of two constitutional principles: the right to freedom of religion, and the right of people to not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. While the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the cake baker in June, the decision was narrow, largely sidestepping the constitutional issues at play.
Now Masterpiece Cakeshop is back in court over a different incident: In 2017, Phillips refused to make a cake for a transgender woman, Autumn Scardina, to celebrate her birthday and the anniversary of her gender transition. In doing so, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a state board, found probable cause that Phillips had discriminated against Scardina, and the matter is now making its way to an administrative law judge for a formal hearing. Meanwhile, Phillips has sued the governor of Colorado and other state officials in federal court for allegedly engaging in a “crusade” against him—the hearing for which Greisen is currently attending. One way or another, in other words, Masterpiece Cakeshop could once again end up in the Supreme Court, this time forcing the justices to issue a far more sweeping ruling.
While Greisen isn’t involved in the federal lawsuit, she is representing Scardina in the complaint based on a probable cause finding by the Colorado Civil Rights Division. But even if she wasn’t, she’d likely be here today, listening carefully as the attorneys involved argue over how much discovery the plaintiff is allowed to ask of the state. That’s because Greisen was the lead trial lawyer for Craig and Mullins, the same-sex couple at the heart of the original Masterpiece case. And like nearly every case this civil rights attorney takes on, it’s not easy for her to let the matter go.
“I’m stubborn and I am a perfectionist,” says Greisen. She also owns up to an impatient streak. “I am guilty of being impatient for people to be tolerant of others,” she says. “I am impatient with entrenched bureaucracies.”
That impatience has led Greisen to take on federal and state governments and some of the biggest companies and law firms in the country—not to mention the Colorado state prison system multiple times—over discrimination based on gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. It has helped King & Greisen, the law office Greisen helps run, become one of the most prominent employment and civil rights firms in the state.
That impatience is also why Greisen is leaning forward as she listens in on the federal hearing. She’s eager to fight for her client, to have the issues at stake receive full consideration. As she says as the hearing wraps up and she heads for the courtroom door, “All right, let the fun begin.”
“It takes a special kind of crazy person to be a civil rights lawyer,” says Greisen, resting her cowboy boots on her desk. She has a note from a prisoner involved in a major prison lawsuit pinned to her office door. “Don’t mess with the law queen Ms. Greisen,” it reads. “You taught those dirty punks a lesson.”
“She is the tiniest little thing, but has the biggest personality and presence I have ever been around,” says David Mullins, whom she represented in the Masterpiece case.
“Many lawyers will reach out to you and ask for information, and then after a while they kind of forget about it and put it on the back burner,” says Denver plaintiff’s attorney Christina Habas, who first got to know Greisen when Habas faced off against her as a defense attorney. “Paula is like a heat-seeking missile. She will ask you for something and follow up on it, and if you don’t respond, she will continue to follow up on it until you give in.”
Greisen’s father was a Marine and her mother ran a legal aid organization before becoming a political science professor, and as the family moved from one community to the next, the couple instilled in Greisen and her two brothers a deep passion for social justice. But while deep down Greisen always wanted to be a lawyer, the occupation wasn’t held in high esteem in her household. So she pursued a geological engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma, a male-dominated field in which she repeatedly faced sexist critiques. She graduated first in her class, then got married and later moved to Houston, where she became a substitute teacher.
It was the TV show L.A. Law, of all things, that reminded Greisen of her interest for the law. “You saw people fighting for the right causes in the courtroom,” she says, adding with a laugh, “And everyone looked good doing it!”
After graduating from the University of Colorado School of Law, she and her husband moved to Australia, where Greisen learned about a hotshot female criminal defense lawyer who’d set up shop in Sydney’s red-light district. “I showed up at her door and said, ‘I want to work for you,’” Greisen recalls. “She said, ‘Here are your files.’ From there, the show was on.” Soon she was representing international drug kingpins and helped an aboriginal defendant prevail in a high-profile murder case.
When Greisen moved back to Colorado and settled in Denver in 1993, she partnered with David Lane. She wanted to focus on civil rights cases. “I was taken with the concept of David versus Goliath,” she says. “I wanted to try to give power to the people who didn’t have the voice in our society that they deserved to have.”
An opportunity to do so soon fell in her lap when Lane and Greisen received a letter from Jesus “Jesse” Montez, a hemiplegic who was serving time in the Territorial prison in Canon City. Montez had filed a pro se lawsuit against the Department of Corrections for discrimination and failure to comply with the recently passed Americans With Disabilities Act, saying that using a wheelchair meant he was essentially confined to his cell. Montez directed her to so many disabled inmates with similar stories that they filed a class-action lawsuit against the DOC.
“No one wants prison to be pleasant, but it should be the same level of bad for people with disabilities as it is for people without disabilities,” she says.
The state fought her every step of the way. Finally, in 2003, she won the case, but it took the state nearly another decade to come into compliance. For her efforts—which included working on the case for 10 years without getting paid—Greisen received the Edward Sherman Award from the ACLU of Colorado and the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association Case of the Year Award. She also learned an eye-opening lesson in how people in power can abuse their authority and how others can still hold them accountable. “It’s good to know that you can start off with basically zero and still win,” she says, adding that aspects of the case are still ongoing. “But you have to be persistent as hell. And maybe a little crazy.”
In 2002, Greisen joined forces with employment and civil rights attorney Diane King. “I think we have very similar values as far as what is important to us,” says King. “We do this work because this is a cause for us. We are not doing this to make a lot of money and retire early.”
Greisen hardly even took much of a break when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. “I tried to continue to work,” she says. “I needed something.” During her draining treatment and recovery, she tried to focus on the fact that so many women with breast cancer, including those in the law, suffer in silence. “We don’t want to let the courts know and we don’t want to let our law partners know because there is such a stigma,” she says. “That is so wrong.”
In one memorable case, she represented a woman whose son was killed when her car was hit by someone being chased by the police at high speeds through a school zone. As part of the settlement, not only did the police department change its high-speed chase guidelines, but the police chief met with the mother and apologized for everything she had been through. “Faced with her loss, that may not seem like much,” says Greisen. “But that was a moment of true human interaction, and there was real importance to having her pain be acknowledged.”
Because of her experience in LGBTQ-related cases, the Colorado ACLU asked Greisen in 2013 if she would represent Craig and Mullins in the Masterpiece Cakeshop matter, which was then going to trial. While Greisen, who had never been involved in a U.S. Supreme Court case before, didn’t argue the case in front of the justices, as the lead trial lawyer for Craig and Mullins, she was involved through the entire process—including sitting with them during oral arguments in Washington, D.C.
“David and Charlie are the reason I have a social life,” she says, laughing. “They’re part of my family now. We get together all the time, and I remember vividly talking with them the morning cert had been granted. We talked for over an hour, trying to get over the shock, and laugh and cry, and start to brace ourselves for what was to come.”
“I call her the Sherpa with brass knuckles,” says Craig. “I felt like we were climbing a mountain together and she was blazing the trail for us.”
The ascent wasn’t easy. At one point, the Colorado Attorney General’s office was notified that someone had sent a message threatening ominous consequences if the cake shop didn’t prevail. On the morning leading up to the administrative law judge’s decision, Greisen wondered whether someone was going to take a shot at them. “Maybe I had a small taste of the fear that the LGBTQ community has had to endure for so long,” she says.
After investing so much in the case, Greisen was devastated at first when the Court ruled, 7-2, in favor of Masterpiece Cakeshop. But once she read the decision, she found a ray of hope. The court based its decision on the fact that certain statements made by members of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission appeared to show anti-religious bias. The narrow ruling upheld the state’s prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation. “The court didn’t strike down Colorado’s civil rights law,” she says. “In fact, Justice Kennedy said in the majority opinion that laws protecting gay people or gay couples are unremarkable, that they are embedded in our consciousness and are now part of our culture.”
It’s one of the reasons Greisen is representing Autumn Scardina—to help confirm, once and for all, that sexual orientation and gender identity are constitutionally protected characteristics along the lines of race, religion and gender. But the matter is also personal for her. Greisen has a close family member who is part of the LGBTQ community. “I have come to see the pain and come to understand the issues in ways that I didn’t before,” she says.
It’s why she’s again taking on Colorado’s Department of Corrections, this time on behalf of Lindsay Saunders-Velez, a young transgender woman incarcerated at the CDOC who is suing the prison system, alleging that it is discriminatory and dangerous for transgender inmates because it houses prisoners based on their birth-assigned gender, not their gender identity. The fight is again uphill. As one of her first efforts as Saunders-Velez’s attorney, Greisen stayed up late writing an emergency restraining order to prevent the prison from moving Saunders-Velez to a disciplinary pod that included men who had been threatening her. A judge denied the request, and within hours of being moved, Saunders-Velez reported she was raped.
“She has since been raped two more times,” Greisen says, “and there are at least 117 transgender women in Colorado prisons. If the state does not deal with this appropriately and protect these women’s rights, I’m not going to stop.
“Sometimes we keep beating our head against the brick wall,” she adds, “and we get very tired of getting bloody.” It makes her wish for the hypothetical day she and King like to joke about, when there’s no more civil rights abuses and they’re put out of business. Maybe she’d be able to open the garden shop she fantasizes about.
She knows that’s not going to happen. “I think it is important for us as a nation to show that we are not done,” she says. “There are still wrongs being committed, and until they are addressed, we are not going away.”