A lawyer in the Lower Merion webcam case wants to be paid now

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Mark S. Haltzman (left), attorney for Blake Robbins (right), a Lower Merion student suing the school district. (Ed Hille/File)

The Lower Merion webcam case is far from over, but the plaintiffs' legal costs already exceed $400,000 - and the lawyers are asking to be paid now.

Mark S. Haltzman, lead attorney for student Blake Robbins, asked a federal judge Monday to order the Lower Merion School District to pay $418,850.60 while the case is pending.

The request comes on top of expenses - estimated in June at $780,000 - Lower Merion has covered for outside lawyers and computer experts since the lawsuit over privacy violations was filed Feb. 16.

The court, Haltzman wrote, has already ordered the district to end the monitoring of students' school-issued laptops' cameras, as Robbins requested when the lawsuit was filed Feb. 16.

Since Robbins' side is now a "prevailing party," it is entitled to have the district pay some of the outstanding bills, Haltzman wrote. Under federal law, a successful civil-rights plaintiff can recover attorneys' fees and other costs of going to court from the losing side.

Haltzman said in an interview he had not planned to ask U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois to order a payout in the middle of the case. He said he expected fees would be paid out of a settlement in a class-action suit that covered all Lower Merion students monitored through their computers. But the school system challenged the class-action status, setting in motion a potentially long process to decide who is covered in the case.

"That could be a year down the road," Haltzman said, adding that his was a small firm that "can't afford to carry" the case.

Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., who is representing the district, said he could not yet say whether the district would contest Haltzman's request.

"We'll respond to it at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way," Hockeimer said.

In a breakdown of the costs provided to the court, lawyers' fees account for $316,707, with $201,280 - nearly half - described as the cost of Haltzman's time, at $425 an hour.

The next-largest charge is an $87,925 expense for a computer-consulting company.

Robbins, 16 and a sophomore at Harriton High School when the suit was filed, and his family claim their privacy rights were violated when the district's technicians remotely turned on the camera on his school-issued Apple MacBook as part of a security policy designed to track computers.

The district has acknowledged that more than 58,000 photos and screen shots were captured from students' computers while the remote-monitoring policy was in place. More than half the images, the district has said, resulted from technicians' forgetting to turn off monitoring software after computers were recovered.

An internal investigation found that the remote-monitoring software had been used to activate laptop webcams 76 times in two years and that no evidence suggested students had been spied upon.

A proposal introduced at a district meeting July 19 would ban laptop webcam monitoring.

 


Contact staff writer Derrick Nunnally at 610-313-8212 or dnunnally@phillynews.com.