Former Lower Merion School District student Paige Robbins on Wednesday morning withdrew her lawsuit that alleged a district laptop’s camera took photos of her undressed without her knowledge.
Robbins and her parents said after a hearing at U.S. District Court in Philadelphia they plan no further legal action against the district. Their son, Blake, won a $175,000 settlement in 2010 after he was photographed by his school laptop at home.
“I just wanted to make sure there were no (laptop) pictures of me that would ever be seen again,” Paige Robbins, 19, said.
“This is the end of it,” said Holly Robbins, her mother. “We were never doing this for the money. We wanted to find out if there were any pictures still being held by the school district.”
U.S. District Court Judge John Padova granted Robbins’ request at a hearing originally called to discuss Robbins attorney Mary Elizabeth Bogan’s motion to be relieved as counsel, citing irreconcilable differences.
Those differences became clear in the hearing and even more so in media interviews afterward. The Penn Valley family said Bogan refused their request to drop the case back in December, while Bogan said the family interfered with her work and demanded she work the case pro bono after she already had a written fee agreement.
Robbins acknowledged she and her family wanted the case done pro bono to improve the public perception of them, “so we wouldn’t have to be bashed the way we were the first time” when her brother Blake filed suit.
The proceedings were further complicated when Mark Haltzman, the attorney employed by the family in Blake Robbins’ case, tried to enter an appearance on Paige Robbins’ behalf, confusing and eventually irritating Padova as the two went back and forth over procedure and semantics.
"As we said weeks ago, this was a shameless, opportunistic suit that had absolutely no merit and should never have been filed. Clearly, it’s time to move on," wrote Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young in an emailed statement.
Scheduled for 10 a.m., the hearing began shortly after Robbins, her mother and Haltzman arrived together at 10:20. Robbins sat at the plaintiff’s table with Bogan, while Haltzman sat in the gallery. Paige's father, Michael Robbins, arrived soon afterward.
Padova asked Robbins and Bogan whether they agreed to Bogan's withdrawing as counsel due to irreconcilable differences. They did.
As Padova moved to grant the request, Haltzman interjected from the gallery, trying to speak on Robbins’ behalf and saying she wanted to make a statement. The judge told Haltzman he only cared about the one issue before him, which had seemingly been resolved.
At that point, Haltzman told Padova that beyond just the issue of who would represent her, Robbins wanted the case itself dismissed. Padova was prepared to grant that request, but Haltzman said Robbins wanted Bogan to make that motion before departing as counsel.
Padova granted Bogan her departure, and the attorney went to sit in the back of the courtroom. Haltzman told the judge though he had spoken on Robbins’ behalf, he would not be taking up the case. Padova addressed the plaintiff herself and asked what she wanted.
“I want to withdraw the whole case,” she said.
Though there was some confusion about whether Haltzman would be further involved, Padova dismissed the case.
“Thank you for coming in today,” Padova said.
“Thank you for being patient with my ignorance of this,” she replied.
As the Robbinses left the courtroom, Padova summoned Haltzman to his chambers.
Robbins’ case, filed in U.S. District Court in December, alleged the district “remotely accessed the webcam feature on the laptop issued to the Plaintiff while she was in the bathroom, or in the nude, or partially dressed or sleeping or in her bedroom in a compromised state.”
The district called Paige Robbins’ case “the epitome of an attempted money-grab and a complete waste of tax dollars.”
The seven-count lawsuit accused Lower Merion of interception of electronic communication under the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act; theft of intellectual property under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; invasion of privacy (state and federal laws); and violations of the Stored Communications Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act.
Paige Robbins’ was the second webcam-related lawsuit against Lower Merion School District filed by the Penn Valley family.
Her brother, Blake, now a senior at Harriton High School, filed a similar case in 2010. He and his parents were named as plaintiffs in that suit.
The case was settled out of court. A $175,000 cash settlement was placed in a trust for Blake Robbins (then 15 years old), and Lower Merion School District had to pay the Robbins’ lawyers another $425,000. A separate settlement for legal fees cost the district’s insurance provider Graphic Arts more than $1.2 million.
The federal class action lawsuit first filed on behalf of Robbins in February 2010 brought negative worldwide attention to Lower Merion School District after Robbins alleged the district inappropriately used photos taken automatically by an anti-theft tracking feature on school-issued laptops to monitor students’ activities.
The theft-tracking feature was activated from Oct. 20, 2009 to Nov. 4, 2009, and 210 webcam images were obtained of Robbins, along with 218 computer screen shots from his laptop, according to an investigative report issued by the Ballard Spahr law firm.
Jalil Hassan, a Lower Merion High School student who brought a second suit against the district in 2010, received $10,000 in trust. Both Robbins and Hassan were represented by attorney Mark Haltzman.
In August 2011, the Lower Merion School District Board of Directors unanimously voted to recommend the district pay $10,000 to an unnamed student in another laptop-camera lawsuit.
In December 2011, Lower Merion School District agreed to settle another lawsuit, brought by former Harriton student Joshua Levin, out of court for $10,000. The district maintained Levin’s suit was motivated by monetary interests.
The Robbinses said they only wanted to ascertain through the suit whether compromising photos of Paige existed in the school district’s possession or elsewhere.
“I have a reasonable belief that there are, but there’s no obvious proof of that at this point,” Bogan said after the hearing.
Bogan “became very angry,” Holly Robbins said, when the family wanted the case dropped.
“She suggested donating (any potential settlement proceeds) to charity,” Michael Robbins said, adding that his daughter said, “’We’re not holding a fundraiser.’”
Asked what incentive they thought Bogan would have to take their case without payment, Holly Robbins replied, “To help my daughter out,” and Michael Robbins said, “There was a lot of national attention the first time.”
In a separate interview, Bogan told reporters she originally took the case because “the issue of privacy rights is a very important issue in today’s world and I’m a strong believer in those rights,” but she was unable to do her job for Robbins the way she wanted.
“The management of the case was being continually interfered with by her family. They wouldn’t let me speak in confidence with my client. It presented me with not much of a choice but to stop representing her,” Bogan said. “I told them to put their seat belt on. They couldn’t handle the negative publicity. They panicked, and instead of asking, they demanded that I do this on a pro bono basis. They know that I’m a good lawyer and wouldn’t take the case pro bono.”
Bogan said she has “lost money on the case” but will not be pursuing payment from the Robbinses. Asked whether she regretted taking the case, the attorney chuckled and replied, “Ask me that in a month.”
As for the Robbinses, do they think they might regret dropping the case?
“Not as long as the photographs don’t appear later on,” Holly Robbins said.