What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010

Remember that Pennsylvania school that was spying on its students through their laptop computers? The school has agreed to pay out a $610,000 settlement.

But check out how that figure breaks down:

The settlement calls for $175,000 to be placed in a trust for Robbins and $10,000 for a second student who filed suit, Jalil Hassan. Their lawyer, Mark Haltzman, will get $425,000 for his work on the case.

So public school officials get caught illegally spy on students. But no one gets fired. And none of the offending parties will be fined. Instead, a municipal insurer (which will ultimately affect taxpayers) will pay a decent settlement to one student, a small settlement to another, and a small fortune to their lawyer.

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53 Responses to “What’s Wrong With This Picture?”

  1. #1 |  the innominate one | 

    Appalling, but not surprising. After all, lawyers designed the legal system, naturally they would manage it to maximize their own benefit.

  2. #2 |  Amazed | 

    And this article succinctly lays out all the ways in which we have allowed our culture and society to break down, from the schools to the lawyers to the courts. Now how will we fix it?

  3. #3 |  fwb | 

    That’s because lawyers have fooled everyone into thinking they are of value. A JD is nothing but an extended BS. Lawyering was considered a trade for most of history. It was not and really is not a “profession”. Lawyers serve in legislative and executive branches of government in violation of the separation of powers paradigm of our system of government. All lawyers who are members of the bar are officers of the court and therefore members of the judicial branch. In order to serve in the other branches of government, a lawyer should be required to resign from the bar.

    How do we fix it? I’d sy we need to teach everyone to understand that judges DO NOT have the final say.

    Here’s what Blackstone had to say:

    For, whenever a question arises between the society at large and any magistrate vested with powers originally delegated by that society, it must be decided by the voice of the society itself: there is not upon earth any other tribunal to resort to.

    Sir William Blackstone, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I, Chp3, pg.205/6

  4. #4 |  zendingo | 

    mom was right, i should have been a lawyer:/

  5. #5 |  Nando | 

    Wait, don’t lawyers only get 1/3rd of the settlements? One third of 610,000 is $203,130. This lawyer is getting paid twice that amount.

  6. #6 |  Marty | 

    I had high hopes that this case would result in some serious public outrage. Hell, even the ‘we gotta protect the kids’ crowd stayed silent. I guess the ‘we gotta protect the kids’ crowd is on the same team as the school wardens…

  7. #7 |  Dave Krueger | 

    …a decent settlement to one student, a small settlement to another, and a small fortune to their lawyer.

    So you’re wondering why the lawyer didn’t get it all, right? He must have screwed something up for the plaintiffs to actually get some cash. Aren’t most plaintiffs normally paid off in discount coupons?

  8. #8 |  ClubMedSux | 

    Granted, I’m a lawyer, but I don’t see this as grounds for lawyer-bashing in general. Without a lawyer these folks wouldn’t have been able to hold the school accountable. I would argue there are two issues here… The first is our class action laws and the second is the judge. Now the two are intertwined but basically any class action settlement has to be approved by the judge, and that includes approving the attorneys’ cut. So if the attorney’s cut is outrageous, keep in mind the judge approved it. Ultimately, class action law has developed more to punish the wrongdoer than to benefit the harmed… it’s set up for situations where the damages per person are so small that no individual would bother to sue and the wrongdoer would otherwise get off Scot free. I have problems with that in general, but when applied to cases like this–where the individuals really deserve significant compensation–class action lawsuits are really going to dick them over. So you can go ahead and bash the lawyers (I really don’t care; there’s a reason I only keep in touch with about four of my law school friends) but the problem is more systemic than that.

  9. #9 |  Carl Drega | 

    “Aren’t most plaintiffs normally paid off in discount coupons?” With some recurring monthly fee usually!

  10. #10 |  Fin Fang Foom | 

    Eh, so the lawyer shouldn’t get paid what his clients’ agreed to pay him?

    Nando: that’s only if the lawyer is working on contingency. The standard model is billable hours.

  11. #11 |  Sky | 

    “Instead, a municipal insurer (which will ultimately affect taxpayers) will pay a decent settlement to one student, a small settlement to another, and a small fortune to their lawyer.”

    *tongue in cheek sarcasim* Isn’t that how justice is supposed to work?

  12. #12 |  JS | 

    Justify it with all the legal mumbo jumbo you want but the fact remains that a guy who wasn’t involved got paid a fortune by an insurance company that wasn’t involved. How about at least a pretense of a fair solution-how about the school officials who are responsible get fired and the school apologize and that’s it? Oh and they get to keep the laptops.

  13. #13 |  ClubMedSux | 

    Justify it with all the legal mumbo jumbo you want but the fact remains that a guy who wasn’t involved got paid a fortune by an insurance company that wasn’t involved.

    Frankly, that has nothing to do with legal mumbo jumbo and everything to with voluntary contracts. The insurance company became involved when the school district voluntarily entered into a contract with the insurance company to insure its liability, and the lawyer got involved when the plaintiffs voluntarily entered into a contract with the lawyer to represent them. If you’re upset at what the lawyer made in the process, blame the plaintiffs for hiring him instead of somebody who works on contingency (or would work cheaper). If you’re upset that nobody got fired then blame the school district for not holding anybody accountable.

  14. #14 |  ChrisD | 

    ClubMedSUx:
    “Without a lawyer these folks wouldn’t have been able to hold the school accountable. I would argue there are two issues here… The first is our class action laws and the second is the judge. ”

    First, I don’t really think they were held accountable. Second, putting judges in charge of the payment for people who are friends, or friends of friends, is not exactly much of a check. Like any professions, these people will run into each other again and again.

    This is similar to the CEO pay situation where it is nominally driven by a free market, but the board of trustees and the CEO whose pay they approve are often drawn from a similar pool of people who will deal with each other in the future. Not illegal, but definitely not optimal for fairly evaluating pay.

  15. #15 |  the innominate one | 

    fwb:
    “How do we fix it? I’d sy we need to teach everyone to understand that judges DO NOT have the final say.

    Here’s what Blackstone had to say:

    For, whenever a question arises between the society at large and any magistrate vested with powers originally delegated by that society, it must be decided by the voice of the society itself: there is not upon earth any other tribunal to resort to.

    Sir William Blackstone, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I, Chp3, pg.205/6″

    that way lies tyranny of the majority and oppression of the human rights of minorities.

    Clubmedsux:

    Was this a class action? Admittedly, I didn’t RTFA, but it didn’t sound like it from Radley’s summary.

    FFF: not saying they shouldn’t pay what was agreed to, rather they agreed to pay too much. However, I don’t know the details, such as how much of that was expenses. In general, my impression is that lawyers are overpaid or at least overpriced.

  16. #16 |  SJE | 

    The CIVIL suit can be settled out of court. What happened to criminal charges? If I did this, any half competent prosecutor would find a way to slap me with a child porn charge.

  17. #17 |  Ron | 

    Like the police, public school officcials and employees are above the law. That is the only way to explain the FBI whitewash in this case. Disgusting.

  18. #18 |  JS | 

    ClubMedSux “If you’re upset at what the lawyer made in the process, blame the plaintiffs for hiring him instead of somebody who works on contingency (or would work cheaper). If you’re upset that nobody got fired then blame the school district for not holding anybody accountable.”

    Actually I’m not that upset. This is nothing compared to some of the injustices in stories Radley reports on.

  19. #19 |  KristenS | 

    For the eleventy billionth time: it is GOOD that taxpayers carry the burden of their officials’ fuckups. Any time a cop, prosecutor, judge, school admin or bureaucrat does something that incurs a fine, it is the taxpayers that SHOULD pay. If an official had to pay out of his or her own pocket, the citizens responsible for electing that person will just forget about it and move on to the next corrupt or unethical jackass. It’s the citizens that need to be hit in the wallet – it’s the only way they’ll wake up and smell the coffee.

  20. #20 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Regular Agitator readers know that union employees providing services to the state have special standing and are (mostly) above the law. This is the fundamental building block for the vast majority of travesties of justice of which Radley reports.

    Just wait until the state union employees start causing damages to their friends and families on purpose for the huge settlements…knowing they won’t be held personally accountable. THAT is the money train.

    As painful as it may be for some, capitalist lawyers are one of the few effective ways to hold government to some definition of “accountable”. Make enough munies pay huge settlements to lawyers for their inept state agents and you eventually get change. The ratio in this story is higher than one would expect. A higher amount to the victims would be great as well as a larger total award. And…I’d still love to see the school agents up on kiddie porn charges that follow them forever.

  21. #21 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    KristenS,
    Is it not also good when an individual is held to some degree of accountability when they screw up? Is this somehow mutually exclusive of paying settlements with tax revenue?

  22. #22 |  John M | 

    It’s hard to tell from this article, but my guess is that the suit was brought under a statute that allows the prevailing party to collect legal fees (you know, the sort of “loser pays” provision that is beloved of tort reformers). The attorney did get more money than his clients, but my impression is that in this case, that is because the money that was allocated to the attorney was money that wouldn’t have been available at all if it weren’t for the attorney fee provisions.

    I don’t know anything about this case other than what I have read in the general media, but as a general matter, it’s important to consider that attorneys who take cases on contingency or in the hope of collecting prevailing party fees are taking a risk. It’s easy to take shots in cases like this, but it’s also important to remember that there are cases where thousands of hours of work amount to nothing (and not necessarily because the case was without legal or factual merit–I don’t have to tell you that courts get it wrong sometimes). Even if lawyers billed $50 an hour, it would be impossible for people of average or lesser means to afford attorneys in complicated matters if it weren’t for contingency fees or other methods. Generally, Plaintiffs’ attorneys get more than they deserve when they win and less than they deserve when they lose. If they are lucky, it averages out.

    Finally, and by any measure, $425,000 is a lot of money, but it’s important to remember that this attorney isn’t going to deposit $425,000 (after taxes, even) in his personal checking account. Almost certainly, multiple other attorneys and paralegals have spent time on the case, he has office overhead, and so on. Again, I don’t mean to plead poverty for him. I’m sure he’s doing fine. But the way journalists report these stories and readers respond to them gives the impression that legal fees are pure profit. They aren’t. I don’t mean to suggest that our civil litigation system doesn’t have problems. It certainly does. But it seems to me that a viable civil justice system would be essential to a small government, less regulated system advocated by those who read and write for this site. And if there is going to be a legal system that allows for private redress, the people who work within it are going to have to be paid.

  23. #23 |  Aresen | 

    SJE | October 12th, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    The CIVIL suit can be settled out of court. What happened to criminal charges? If I did this, any half competent prosecutor would find a way to slap me with a child porn charge.

    Admittedly, YOU would be charged, but one of our Noble Public Servants Who Are Acting In Our Best Interests? Don’t be silly!

  24. #24 |  Matt | 

    Indeed the issue here is not that lawyers make too much money, but that taxpayers are held accountable for the malfeasance of public officials. Unless KristenS is being satirical, she fails to realize the difference between dispersed and concentrated interests: the “citizens” may be hit in the wallet, but the citizen is not – the costs are widely distributed. If $2.67 of your tax money is diverted to fund a settlement versus filling an extra pothole, you just aren’t going to notice, the result being that no one in particular is hit hard by the damages award, so no one in particular has a strong incentive to alter their behavior. That’s the problem with governmental immunities.

  25. #25 |  JS | 

    Why is insurance even allowed to cover criminal liabilities? That’s like buying prison insurance in case you get convicted and the insurance company would then send someone to serve your time for you? Hey wait a minute…..

  26. #26 |  SJE | 

    Kristen: The problem with taxpayers having their voice heard is that the public sector unions are very strong, well funded and organized. If you try to get elected to the school board with a different perspective, the entire union will run against you. Worse, they can make life difficult for your kids.

  27. #27 |  Matt | 

    JS, it looks like this was a civil suit not a criminal case.

  28. #28 |  JS | 

    oh….well I still think I might be on to something with that “prison insurance” idea.

  29. #29 |  A Real Hit Shappening « Oh, My! | 

    [...] This is how it is. [...]

  30. #30 |  Marty | 

    #8 | ClubMedSux

    what’s the incentive for judges to approve of these huge payouts to attorneys? I like my friends, but I won’t gouge the world for them unless there’s a really sweet reward in it for me.

  31. #31 |  Joe | 

    I am a bit surprised the attorney could spend that much on this case. And if it is a contigency agreement, how could it dwarf the size of the client’s settlement? Something does not seem right.

  32. #32 |  qwints | 

    The article is very vague about the status of the case. It seems to imply that this settles 2 lawsuits brought by 2 students who were represented by the same lawyer. It is unclear whether or not there are other lawsuits pending. I would be quite surprised if this foreclosed the school district’s liability for spying on other students.

  33. #33 |  bobzbob | 

    I have to imagine that this report is in error or there is something else not being reported here.

    That said, big payouts for lawyers are few and far between. In my state a major study showed that the odds are so stacked against a medical malpractice case that it is difficult to find a lawyer even if you have a legitimate claim. A significant case might require 2 years of work for the lawyer but only a 1 in 5 chance for a significant payout. That means the lawyers put in on average 10 years of work between paydays. Most lawyers are reluctant to take cases as a result, even if there are real and significant injuries.

    The result is that in most cases where there was real injury the doctor and hospital get off scot free with no liability case even being brought. Its no wonder their are so many errors.

  34. #34 |  bobzbob | 

    “but that taxpayers are held accountable for the malfeasance of public official”

    If the taxpayers elect incompetent public officials then the taxpayers should have the liability for their errors. Pure and simple. The last thing you want to do is isolate the taxpayer from liability for their decisions in the voting booth.

    For a market to function the liability must accrue to those who take the risks, the same applies to democracy.

  35. #35 |  Fin Fang Foom | 

    TIO: Lawyers are probably overpriced (that, in my opinion, is probably the ABA’s fault), but I doubt this guy is. The school district hired Ballard Spahr, which is pretty big guns. I expect that the legal fees for the school district were $610,000. Ballard Spahr appears to have had five attorneys on this, and three attorneys are in the signature block of the plaintiffs’ complaint.

  36. #36 |  pyo1 | 

    Phili laptop spying school spends over $1.5M to settle one of 1,800 cases!

    “A major impetus behind settling this matter now is the recent agreement by our insurance carrier, Graphic Arts, to cover more than $1.2M of the fees and costs associated with this litigation to date. The proposed settlement costs include $175,000 to be placed in a trust for Blake Robbins, $10,000 for Jalil Hassan and $425,000 for plaintiff’s counsel. This settlement is not under seal because as a public entity, we have a responsibility to report all terms of the agreement.”

    Back in February investigators began to look into WebcamGate after Harriton High School student Blake Robbins and his parents filed a lawsuit accusing officials of remotely taking video and photos through Robbins’ school-issued MacBook. As many as 1,800 Lower Merion School District students from Lower Merion and Harriton High Schools were given the MacBook notebooks as part of a school program.

    http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/breaking/Lower-Merion-Webcam-Settlement-104746984.html?dr
    ——————————————————————————–

    Phili lawyers get $1.2 Million

    Kid’s lawters get $425K

    Kid gets $175K in a trust

  37. #37 |  TDR | 

    FU.BARED.

  38. #38 |  SusanK | 

    Wait a minute. The plaintiff’s lawyer was awarded $425k, presumably out of $1.2 million in “legal and settlement costs”. If the lawyer took $425, it would be reasonable to assume he took 1/3, which would mean settlement totalled $1.2. There may be additional plaintiffs the reporter didn’t know about or the reporter didn’t understand what the award really was. The article is not helpful.

  39. #39 |  James j b | 

    Hey here’s a thought – why don’t you go to law school and take these cases for free. Otherwise, comrade, it is the parties who should have bargained for a better deal.

  40. #40 |  SJE | 

    This was a wealthy area with powerful parents. They were obviously pissed and hired big guns to make a point. I expect that they will get the heads of some people as tribute.

  41. #41 |  the innominate one | 

    James j b:

    You are so right, anyone who thinks the lawyers inappropriately benefited far out of proportion to the actual plaintiffs/ victims must be a commie.

  42. #42 |  Steamed McQueen | 

    So what else is new? It’s just like the class- action suits brought against drug manufacturers. The cases drag on for years, and at the end of it the attorneys who drummed up the suit in the first place get virtually all of the money and the members of the class end up with a coupon for something they neither need, want or can use.

  43. #43 |  John M | 

    Yes, Steamed McQueen, a $175,000 payment into a trust account is entirely indistinguishable from a worthless coupon. Come on.

  44. #44 |  Cynical in CA | 

    Calling a cop OR a lawyer should always be the last resort before going for the gun.

  45. #45 |  Matt | 

    “Here’s what Blackstone had to say:”

    “For, whenever a question arises between the society at large and any magistrate vested with powers originally delegated by that society, it must be decided by the voice of the society itself: there is not upon earth any other tribunal to resort to.”

    i.e., jury nullification.

  46. #46 |  James j b | 

    41. So maybe you, or someone in washington, radley or someone not a party to the contract should set the fee. Oh no that isn’t communism at all. Riiiiight.

  47. #47 |  bobzbob | 

    Limits to lawyer compensation has the effect of creating barriers to access to the legal system. Just look at the british system where contingency payments are not allowed – those who aren’t wealthy have essentially no access to the courts and therefore little protection of their rights.

    Limiting access to the legal system has the same corrosive effect on the free market that government bailouts do: it limits the ability to hold people responsible for mistakes or fraud – and therefore reduces the incentive not to do those things.

    Yes sometimes it results in the lawyers making millions while plaintiffs get coupons, but the point is to provide the corrective force to bad decisions that the market needs to keep functioning well.

  48. #48 |  the innominate one | 

    Someone seems to be ignorant of the definition of communism. Hint: it’s not a synonym for things you dislike or disagree with.

  49. #49 |  Frank Hummel | 

    Yep Radley, shouldn’t have quit law school…

  50. #50 |  Davis | 

    And if it is a contigency agreement, how could it dwarf the size of the client’s settlement?

    This case involved a civil rights action (under 42 USC § 1983), in which case 42 USC § 1988 applies. § 1988 allows a “prevailing party” to collect attorney’s fees (regardless of any contingency arrangement) in a narrow class of lawsuits. The plaintiffs here won a preliminary injunction against the district over the summer, which triggers the “prevailing party” rule; back in August they sought (interim) attorney’s fees in accordance with § 1988. The court awarded the plaintiffs’ attorneys roughly $425,000 in fees at that time.

    This is presumably the same $425,000 included in this settlement — but the district owed the attorneys that amount regardless of what the plaintiffs were willing to settle for, as that judgment predated the settlement.

  51. #51 |  Rick H. | 

    Simple Justice points out some data that gives more context to this whole clusterfuck. The attorneys for the school district will be charging taxpayers close to a million for a very aggressive defense in a case where they were clearly on the asshole side. This makes the students’ lawyer’s bill seem like a pretty thrifty deal. Where’s the outrage?
    http://blog.simplejustice.us/2010/10/13/behind-the-legal-bill.aspx

  52. #52 |  Nick T | 

    As the guy who often defends lawyers on here, I think this case looks pretty bad, and I won’t try to defend it altogether. But I will say that lawyers should be incentivized to pursue class actions and other serious cases by the contingency system which gives the lawyer a portion of the final settlement, and ties his or her interest very closely to that of the client. (Without this there would liekly be fraud of lawyers telling a gullible client that they had a marvelous case, billing a ton of hours and then getting the case tossed because it actually sucked.)

    I agree with some commenters who said that a JD isn’t some magical symbol of knowledge, but a lawyer who can really litigate and negotiate complex torts claims is worth a lot of money.

    The “attorneys fees” really make this final outcome look lopsided and the fact that stupid bureacrats are completely covered from an personal loss is an outrage, but, as always, our civil system makes a lot more sense once you unpack it, and the recourse of civil litigation should play a major role in libertarian philosophy, in my mind.

  53. #53 |  James J.B. | 

    47 – Bozobo is dead on right. Make the cases hourly, with a large retainer no one (except a few) can pay for justice. To avoid that issue, % fee cases, or contingency fees evolved – so that the lawyer and client each have something in the case. The lawyer risks his time and the client benefits by not fronting a very large retainer. Some of you here want the government (or yourselves) to rewrite the agreement so that it is more “reasonable” – whatever that means.

    as to 48 – You are right. I made a mistake. Just because you are a tyrant busybody doesn’t mean you are a communist. My mistake. Sorry.

    CEO pay (as said above) – if somebody gets on here and says they make too much or are not worth it – it is the market, right? Or, it is a contract, and the shareholders should get involved, not the government, or the rest of us, right?

    Minimum wage – if we asked most people here, minimum wage is horrible – the government intruding in a private contractual right between employer and employee.

    Yet somehow, those rules go out the window when the contract is between a lawyer and client – then the public, the legislature, Radley, etc. should all get a say as to how “reasonable” is the fee.

    Maybe we could publically set everyone’s wage. We could use a central authority to be fair. Every lawyer, other professions and jobs eventually too, would be paid a set amount – if they made too much – it is forfeited -for the common good, of course. Right 47, you with me, because that isn’t communisim at all.

    Game, set, match.

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