LMSD to opposing lawyer: Go pound sand

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

Thursday was the day the Lower Merion School District had to answer the lawyer who wants it to pay his firm more than $400,000 for forcing the elite suburban district to halt its webcam monitoring and otherwise safeguard students' privacy.

The district's reply: Go pound sand.

In a filing in federal court, Lower Merion's lawyers argued that the request by attorney Mark S. Haltzman was unjustified, thin on details and "far exceeds the bounds of reasonableness."

In their 46-page answer, the district lawyers also took a broader shot at the motives of Haltzman and his clients, Harriton High School student Blake Robbins and his parents. They questioned why the family waited three months to air their concerns about students' privacy - and did so "quite publicly" with a lawsuit - instead of approaching school officials when they first learned about the laptop tracking last November.

"Had they done so, they unquestionably would have accomplished, at less expense to taxpayers, the same result that their lawsuit immediately prompted . . .," wrote the district's team of attorneys, led by Henry E. Hockeimer Jr.

Contacted Thursday by the Inquirer, Haltzman defended his petition. "The work done was necessary to fully understand the extent to which the privacy of LMSD students and their families were violated," he wrote in an e-mail. "It was because of all this work as reflected in the fee petition ... that the court found that there was 'good cause' for the entering of the various Injunctions designed to protect LMSD students and their families."

The district's filing marked the latest salvo in an increasingly acrimonious and costly dispute. Through July, the fees amassed by both sides had topped $1.5 million.

The clash over fees was one reason U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois summoned Hockeimer and Haltzman into a closed-door conference two weeks ago. It failed to yield an agreement.

Haltzman also wants the lawsuit certified as a class action - ostensibly to protect thousands of Lower Merion students who take home the state-of-the-art laptops issued by their schools.

And still unresolved is the initial lawsuit, in which Robbins and his family say school officials invaded their privacy by surreptitiously snapping hundreds of laptop images, including webcam photos taken inside the Robbinses' Penn Valley home.

In July, Haltzman filed a similar suit on behalf of a second student, Jalil Hasan, one of about 40 students who were notified that district technicians had remotely activated the theft-tracking feature on his laptop.

Lower Merion disabled the tracking software in February. Officials said it was used only to recover missing or stolen laptops and that there was no evidence anyone used it to spy on students.

On Monday, the Lower Merion school board is scheduled to adopt or amend five policies governing the use and monitoring of laptops and other high-tech equipment by student and staff.

Last month, Haltzman asked the judge to order the district to pay his firm, Lamm Rubenstone L.L.C., $418,000 for its work so far on the case. Half of that tab - $201,000 - represents Haltzman's fees, billed at $425 an hour.

Such fee requests are routine in class-action suits. But the school district and a group of Lower Merion parents say the case doesn't deserve or need to be declared a class action.

They contend that what happened to Robbins - now a junior whose webcam was activated last fall on a school computer he took home without approval - was unique.

They also note that the school district has enacted new policies and taken other steps to prevent any unauthorized laptop monitoring. And they argue that certification of a class action will only cause the case to drag on and the bills to go up.

In their filing Thursday, the district's lawyers took pains to pick apart Haltzman's bills. Underlying most of their challenges was the same theme: that much of the billings by Haltzman and his firm was for work devoted not to protecting Lower Merion students - but to winning damages for his clients.

"They do not, because they cannot, make any serious effort to explain how all the work they did from November 2009 to July 2010 reasonably related to the relief entered by the court," the lawyers wrote.

In particular, they noted the $44,000 in legal fees Haltzman is claiming for work done before he filed suit, $17,000 he cited for work fighting the parents' group that opposes his class-action claim, and $87,000 for a computer consultant "without providing any detail about what the consultant did or why."

They also pointed to the $15,000 Haltzman says he deserves for researching and preparing his motion asking to be paid.

The district asked the judge to deny the fee motion entirely or whittle it down to something more reasonable.

Four lawyers at the Ballard Spahr firm, including Hockeimer, are listed on the brief for the district. Ballard has piled up fee requests of its own: Through last month, it had billed Lower Merion $743,000 for its work, which included overseeing an internal investigation and defending the district in the suit and a related, ongoing FBI probe.

At the same time, the district has been paying for a separate legal battle with its insurer over who should pay the bills and any settlement in the webcam case.

 


Contact John P. Martin at 610-313-8120 or at jmartin@phillynews.com.