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Lower Merion's legal fees near $1 million in webcam case

Legal fees in the Lower Merion School District's webcam case are inching toward $1 million, a sum that could end up handed to local taxpayers.

Legal fees in the Lower Merion School District's webcam case are inching toward $1 million, a sum that could end up handed to local taxpayers.

A district spokesman on Monday disclosed that the bills to defend the use of the now-disabled laptop tracking system have grown to about $780,000.

At the same time, the lawyer whose lawsuit over the webcam monitoring drew worldwide attention disclosed in court papers that his fees - costs he is likely to ask Lower Merion to pay - were more than $148,000 and climbing.

And the district's insurance firm renewed its contention that it shouldn't have to foot the bill in the case.

The insurer, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance, argued in a filing in federal court that the school district had violated the terms of its insurance policy when it hired lawyers to defend the case without first getting the insurer's approval.

The developments, all which came Monday, suggested progress but also potential roadblocks to resolving the four-month-old case.

The district has already approved payments of more than $550,000 to the Ballard Spahr law firm and L3, a computer forensics firm hired to help investigate the laptop-monitoring program and defend against the suit. District spokesman Doug Young said Monday that the law firm had since submitted bills for an additional $235,000.

In a motion seeking class-action status for the case, attorney Mark S. Haltzman offered the first glimpse of his fees. His motion for certification, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, said he had already devoted more than 350 hours to the case, which, at $425 an hour, translates to $148,750. Two partners have assisted, the motion said, and the firm also hired a computer forensics expert.

Haltzman asked U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois to appoint him and his Trevose firm, Lamm Rubenstone L.L.C., as the lawyers for the class, arguing that the firm is qualified and has devoted hundreds of hours to the case.

Haltzman represents Blake Robbins, the Harriton High School sophomore whose lawsuit brought the tracking program to light.

Robbins alleged the district secretly spied on him at home through his laptop webcam. His suit said Robbins was a member of a class of victims - Lower Merion students - whose privacy may have been violated.

The district has since disabled the system, and acknowledged that it was plagued by poor planning and management and that it captured thousands of images of students.

Last month, DuBois signed an injunction that bars Lower Merion from using such invasive technology without getting written waivers from students and their parents.

Haltzman has said he would not seek a lump sum of damages on behalf of the class because Robbins and other students photographed by laptops had unique experiences and couldn't be equally compensated.

Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., the lawyer representing the school district, declined to comment on the filing.

Who will pay the legal tab remains unclear. Attorneys for Lower Merion contend that the district's multimillion-dollar insurance policy covers Robbins' claim. But in its Monday filing, Graphic Arts contended the district had breached its policy by "unilaterally retaining counsel and incurring other obligations and expenses."

"While the matter is still in litigation, the insurer has a clear responsibility to fulfill its coverage obligations," Doug Young, the district's spokesman said. "We intend to recover all expenses covered by the policies we have purchased. Our commitment is to the Lower Merion taxpayers and we will continue to strongly contest the insurer's position."