Lower Merion School District ordered to pay plaintiff's lawyer $260,000

Posted: August 31, 2010

A federal judge Monday ordered the Lower Merion School District to pay about $260,000 now - and potentially much more later - to the lawyer who brought the lawsuit over the district's webcam monitoring.

In a 14-page opinion, Senior U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois said Mark S. Haltzman deserved to be paid for work that led to a preliminary injunction against the district in May. And he said Haltzman could submit the rest of his bills when the case ended.

The injunction banned Lower Merion school employees from activating webcams on students' district-issued laptops without their consent and required new policies governing the use of technology.

A spokesman for Lower Merion said school officials were "deeply disappointed" in the decision. Haltzman called the ruling fair and appropriate.

The order seemed to end a bitter skirmish over fees in an ongoing legal saga that could cost district taxpayers several million dollars. Each side pledged Monday to continue working toward a settlement, but each also slammed the other.

Still unresolved is the underlying lawsuit Haltzman filed for Harriton High School student Blake Robbins and his parents, claiming Lower Merion staff members spied on students through the webcams. The district contends it activated the software only when laptops were lost or missing.

Haltzman had asked that Lower Merion pay him more than $435,000 in fees and expenses that he said he and his firm, Lamm Rubenstone L.L.C., incurred through July investigating Robbins' claims and initiating a proposed class-action lawsuit. In class-action cases, plaintiffs' legal fees usually become part of a settlement.

Lawyers for the school district countered in court papers that Haltzman's bills were excessive and lacked detail. In a 46-page filing Aug. 12, they scrutinized his request, questioning items such as $87,000 for a computer consultant, $4,800 to videotape depositions, and $15,000 he said he spent preparing the motion asking to be paid.

Lower Merion's lawyers also challenged his motives, arguing that most of the work was designed to win money for the Robbinses, not to protect the district's students.

The judge brushed aside nearly all of those arguments. He noted that neither side took issue with Haltzman's $425 hourly fee, and concluded that much of the other costs he had submitted were reasonable expenses to investigate the claims and seek a broad injunction.

He did, however, find that Haltzman's costs for preparing his fee motion were a bit too steep. He sliced the $15,000 down to $10,000.

The judge also said Haltzman at this point is entitled to collect only fees and expenses incurred up to the May 14 injunction, and cannot submit the rest of his bills until DuBois enters a final injunction.

The order did not include a bottom-line figure, but it instructed the sides to agree on a sum. Haltzman said that should be about $260,000.

In a statement, a spokesman for the school district said officials believed the judge "gave only fleeting consideration" to their arguments and repeated that Haltzman did not deserve to be paid.

"We believe that the Robbinses' attorney has protracted this matter, increasing costs to taxpayers," said the statement from spokesman Doug Young.

Haltzman said DuBois' order validated the "valuable service" his firm provided and repudiated the district's case against him.

"They went after us and everybody and used it as a shot to attack us," Haltzman said. "And at the end of the day, not a single one of their arguments was bought by the court."


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

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