Call it legal déjà vu.
Two years after a high school sophomore brought a federal lawsuit against the wealthy Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia for alleged civil rights violations after he claimed that the webcam on a school-issued, take-home laptop computer remotely snapped photos of him, the boy’s sister filed her own civil action against the beleaguered district.
Last week, Paige Robbins, 19, older sister of Blake Robbins, announced she had filed a lawsuit against Lower Merion for the same alleged violations that were the subject of her brother’s earlier complaint.
District officials, meanwhile, have taken issue with the news, and appear to be fighting back against the latest civil filing, calling the lawsuit a “money-grab and a complete waste of tax dollars.”
Philadelphia attorney Mary Elizabeth Bogan filed the lawsuit on Paige Robbins’ behalf Dec. 7 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
The defendants named in the suit are the Lower Merion School District, the district’s board of school directors and district Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory, punitive, and liquidated damages, as well as declaratory and injunctive relief and attorney’s fees.
Liker her brother did in 2010, Robbins, of Penn Valley, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia, alleges in her complaint that while in her junior and senior years at Lower Merion – she graduated in 2010 – her school-issued laptop computer indiscriminately snapped photos of her without her knowledge.
“Based upon information and belief, Defendant 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 lawsuit claims.
Robbins claims her knowledge of the pictures arose out of a deposition given by Harriton High School Assistant Principal Lynn Matsko.
The April 2010 deposition took place in response to Blake Robbins’ lawsuit.
“Ms. Matsko confirmed that the School District, in fact, had the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a students’ personal laptop computer issued by the School District at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam all without knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer,” Paige Robbins’ lawsuit states.
In Matsko’s April 7, 2010 deposition relating to the prior civil action, the current lawsuit states, the assistant principal was asked if Paige Robbins was naked in the photos “you looked at. Do you remember? Her top was off, right? In the picture that you looked at?”
Matsko’s response, according to the complaint, was, “There was a picture of probably Paige Robbins’. I can’t imagine any IT [information technology] person umm, I mean, it …”
The school district shot back against the claims, with spokesman Douglas Young saying the complaint is “deceptive and misleading, relying on excerpts from a deposition transcript that have been edited to omit key words. A full reading of the complete excerpts … makes this quite clear.”
In his statement, Young noted that a “thorough, exhaustive investigation” by federal authorities “determined that no one ever saw a compromising image of Ms. Robbins or anyone else. Indeed, the investigation did not recover any images of Ms. Robbins.
“It should also be noted that this complaint comes nearly two years after the original case was filed,” Young’s statement continued. “It appears Ms. Robbins simply waited to turn 18 so she could attempt to obtain a payout of her own from LMSD taxpayers. The District will vigorously defend its position and the taxpayers of this community.”
The lawsuit accuses the school district of violating the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act and Pennsylvania common law.
The lawsuit also alleges Fourth Amendment constitutional violations, and accuses the school district of invasion of privacy.
The Lower Merion School District, which is considered one of the wealthiest districts not just in Pennsylvania, but in the nation, settled with Blake Robbins for $175,000 six months after his February 2010 complaint was filed, according to past news reports.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the district, as of August, has spent more than $1.6 million litigating the webcam scandal, which also led to a handful of other lawsuits by students and their families.
Amid criticism over the two-year period between when the alleged violations occurred and when Paige Robbins filed her civil complaint, Bogan, the plaintiff’s attorney, said her client delayed filing the suit “due to the sensitivity of the subject matter of what had occurred,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Friday.
The original lawsuit filed by Blake Robbins put the family in the national spotlight, with the so-called webcam-spying story reported on by news outlets across the country.
The webcams on the student-issued laptops at Lower Merion were deactivated following a judge’s orders after the first serious of lawsuits.