Laptop family is no stranger to legal disputes
The vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission could scarcely contain his scorn. Before the commission was yet another appeal from a Philadelphia-area family, again seeking a break on unpaid electric and gas bills that by last year were closing in on $30,000.
The vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission could scarcely contain his scorn.
Before the commission was yet another appeal from a Philadelphia-area family, again seeking a break on unpaid electric and gas bills that by last year were closing in on $30,000.
This family lived in a $986,000 house on the Main Line. The breadwinner, until recently, had earned well more than $100,000 per year. Yet he and his wife were in hock to creditors, ranging from Uncle Sam to their former synagogue - and had regularly been stiffing Peco Energy for five years, breaking payment plan after payment plan.
"Our procedures," the commission's Tyrone J. Christy wrote in a Dec. 17 motion, "were not meant to allow customers living in $986,000 houses, with incomes in excess of $100,000 per year, to run up arrearages approaching $30,000."
The debtors in question were insurance broker Michael Robbins and his wife, Holly, who now find themselves in the national spotlight after suing the Lower Merion School District, saying it allegedly spied on their child at home via a Web cam on a school-issued laptop.
Before filing the suit, lawyer Mark S. Haltzman said he had warned the family that its members' lives would be placed under a microscope.
"I absolutely advised them, because I know the low level that newspaper people will go to for a story," Haltzman said yesterday, "even if it has nothing to do with the merits of the case."
But the couple could easily have been in the news even without the lawsuit.
Longtime Peco spokesman Michael Wood said this week that the family's debt was the largest household delinquency he could recall, except for one theft-of-services case.
In addition to the Peco debt, the PUC noted, the Robbinses had been hit with numerous civil judgments in recent years totaling more than $365,000.
To Haltzman - who had taken them to court himself in 2002 - their finances and personal lives are irrelevant to the Lower Merion lawsuit.
"Why does that matter?" Haltzman said when asked about the debts this week. "This is typical of any time someone stands up for their rights. Everyone tried to find a way to bring them down."
Even so, it was the apparent failure to pay a fee - a $55 insurance payment to permit the Robbinses' son Blake to take his laptop home from Harriton High School - that might have prompted the district to activate the Web cam.
Haltzman's federal suit makes clear that the family is not necessarily expecting a large payout. "Since the damage suffered by individual class members may be relatively small," the expense of individual litigation might not be affordable without a class action, it says.
Certainly not for the Robbinses.
According to court records, their unpaid debts range from $62,692 owed to the IRS to lesser debts of a few thousand to their dentist, their former synagogue's preschool, and a Montgomery County lawyer.
The Peco bill still stood at more than $29,000 a few weeks ago. But after reaching a new agreement with the utility, the family paid off half of it last week, Wood said.
Haltzman has not made the Robbins family available for extensive interviews, saying the family members' personal life is irrelevant. In a statement issued by the family yesterday, the Robbinses said their lawsuit "is not about . . . us."
Nor would Haltzman address how such an outwardly prosperous family dug itself such a deep financial hole.
It is in the PUC case and other litigation that a picture of the Robbins family begins to emerge.
Michael Robbins, 52, and Holly Robbins, 47, have been married for 22 years. Blake Robbins, 15, is the middle of five children ranging from college age to early grade school.
Michael Robbins is currently embroiled in a legal dispute with his former employer, Interstate Motor Carriers Agency Inc. of Freehold, N.J.
In a federal lawsuit filed by Haltzman last year, Robbins contends that Interstate owes him about $5 million in commissions. Bill Buckley, an attorney for Interstate, declined to comment.
The dispute has taken a financial toll, Holly Robbins said in the PUC file. "Things have dramatically changed with my household income," she wrote.
Her husband, who earned $150,000 in 2007 and $122,000 in 2008, is down to making about $5,000 a month, she said, or $60,000 a year. Their only other household income, she said, was the Social Security Disability Income paid to her mother, a stroke patient who lives with the family.
None of which impressed the PUC, which said most of the debt was accumulated before Michael Robbins' job woes began.
And none of which concerns their privacy lawyer.
"My personal opinion is that it's not relevant," Haltzman said. "I'm not going to get into those issues."