Jim Boyle Oct. 3, 2014, 10:12am


In 2011, a new app hit the iTunes store that parodied the Philadelphia School District's budget woes. Inspired by Angry Birds, the game, "Teachers of Philly" depicted three schoolteachers as superheroes going up against villains such as the Superintendent and the Mayor, doing battle on game levels reminiscent of the district headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.; the School Reform Commission meeting auditorium and the superintendent's office.

An article by The Philadelphia Inquirer featured an interview with one of the game's developers, Rand Lu, who said that a mole in the school district gave the makers information to create the levels, plot and characters.

A lawsuit filed at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by the Philadelphia School District claims that the name Rand Lu was a pseudonym for the district's former webmaster, who unlawfully developed the game using district computers while earning an annual salary from taxpayers.

The suit says that Christopher Akers earned a salary of more than $60,000 while performing work for his personal profit instead of supporting the district's needs, constituting a breach of contract and fiduciary duty. He has also been accused of using false names and misappropriating district logos to promote mobile app downloads for his businesses.

According to the complaint, Akers repeated violations of the district's computer ethics code began six months after his hire in 2008. The claim says he used school district hardware to create an app called Comic Wars and continued working on the files until a cease and desist letter was sent by Marvel Comics in May 2010 that forced him to stop using the company's trademarked characters in his program.

Akers moved on to develop Teachers of Philly, the complaint says, registering the domain name Gamemian.com, a site for the game's developing company, GameMian. The site teachersofphilly.com (now defunct) was then registered to GameMian, which is also a defendant in the suit, and paid for by Akers' personal credit card. The district contends that Akers is the principal owner of GameMian, plus two other businesses that benefited from his use of district time and equipment, Kaizhi Designs and Appzhao, Inc.

In September 2009, the complaint says, Akers used a district computer to create a contract detailing service packages and fees regarding web-development work performed by Kaizhi Designs for other clients.

The complaint says that during Akers' employment with the school district, his productivity was slower than his co-workers, often causing his assignments to be redistributed throughout the department. Between May and September of 2011, Akers' work sharply declined even more.

He offered vague excuses, such as malfunctioning software, that caused his supervisor to begin investigating his web usage. On Sept. 8, IT security discovered that Akers had transferred data from school district servers to a private server, the complaint says. The next day, the Inquirer's article about the launch of the game was published, prompting a full forensic investigation of Akers' work equipment.

Akers was suspended with pay on Dec. 9, 2011. On Dec. 13, 2011, Akers claimed in a philly.com article that he created "Teachers of Philly" under the direction of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman as a secret project to promote the ex-school's chief.

The claim denies that the school district ordered Akers to design the game and says that it never received any portion of the proceeds from the app's 70,000 downloads at the time of his suspension.

The claim says that Akers' employment was terminated March 15, 2012. A few months later, the complaint says, he sent an e-mail under the name Zamir Summers soliciting the district to enter into a contract to have him build an Appzhao page for the Philadelphia School District. Created by Akers, Appzhao is a social network for people to share their favorite apps.

Akers said in an article that he came up with the idea for Appzhao in December 2011 while an employee of the school district. He discussed with teachers ways to better communicate with students the apps they would need to help with their schoolwork and developed the concept of Appzhao. However, the claim says, since he was a district employee at the time, he failed in his fiduciary duties to disclose the idea so the school district could develop and profit from the app.

Further forensic analysis by the district on the Appzhao site found a link to another page called lusport.com, the suit says. It says that the webpage, registered under Akers' alleged pseudonym Rand Lu, contains hundreds of district files, source code, emails and other confidential material.

The school seeks declaratory and injunctive relief against Akers and his businesses, plus punitive and compensatory damages on 10 separate counts including fraud, unjust enrichment, trademark infringement and dilution.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the Tucker Law Group.

The federal case ID is 2:14-cv-05588-AB.

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