A new lawsuit claims Bilzin Sumberg principal Hal J. Webb defrauded the widow of former partner Steven Lee Cantor, a prominent Miami tax attorney who died by suicide in 2016.
Before he moved to Bilzin, Webb was a partner in The Cantor Group, a former Miami-based law firm offering business law and estate and tax planning services to wealthy international clients. But his former partner, Cantor, jumped off their office tower at 2601 S. Bayshore Drive, according to court pleadings. The Cantor Group’s law practice was later sold to Bilzin, where Webb now heads the Private Wealth Services Group, according to a web link redirecting users to the Bilzin website.
The lawsuit, filed late Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, portrays Webb as a scheming attorney looking to take advantage of his partner’s fragile mental state to avoid returning a $212,500 year-end draw the firm mistakenly paid him in 2015. He’s also accused of cheating Cantor’s widow, Sharon Dresser, out of a $2 million key man or business life insurance policy.
“This story is as scandalous and salacious as any soap opera, except that Ms. Dresser became a widow at 53 and was left penniless by a scheming former law partner who her husband had trusted as his friend,” said Dresser’s attorney Robert Zarco, founding partner at Zarco Einhorn Salkowski & Brito in Miami. “This is suicide by lawyer.”
Webb said little Tuesday in response to the allegations, but a short response sent to the Daily Business Review seems to refute the image presented of him in the complaint.
“With Steve’s passing, I lost a dear friend,” he wrote in an email. “My heart goes out to Sharon as she continues her grieving process.”
It is unclear what prompted Webb’s departure but the lawsuit and Dresser’s attorney suggest an unstable work environment. They point to Cantor’s emotional and financial distress, his long-standing battle with depression and previous suicide attempts. They say Webb knew about his ex-partner’s mental illness, and capitalized on it.
Webb declined comment on the specific allegations, as did his new firm, which Zarco suggests could be pulled into the litigation as Dresser’s team continues to examine its purchase of The Cantor Group.
Zarco said Cantor’s passing was one of a series of tragedies Dresser suffered in 2016, when her uncle’s death followed weeks after her husband’s, and her mental health became so fragile, her mother forced her into emergency hospitalization under Florida’s Baker Act. But the suit alleges that during that time, Webb pressured the widow to sign a settlement agreement that allowed him to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars of the law firm’s capital, and retain millions in insurance proceeds to which he was no longer entitled. The agreement was not part of the court record and was not available by press time.
The dispute hinges in large part on insurance policies the former law partners purchased to indemnify the firm if a principal died. Each partner was the other’s beneficiary. But the suit claims Webb, who planned to leave the firm, prompted a change to the shareholders’ agreement in 2016 that transferred ownership of each policy back to original owner. It also claims that when the firm prematurely paid year-end draws to the one-time partners, Cantor reimbursed the company for the overpayment, but Webb did not. It alleges Web’s withholding the funds put the firm in financial duress, and put pressure on Cantor to allow Webb to leave without penalty.
Dresser’s lawyers say Webb then transferred that pressure to the widow.
“Webb knew that money did not belong to him,” said Zarco, who has asked the court to set aside the settlement between Webb and Dresser, who he said was “‘in a whirlwind of mental and emotional distress.”
“She was bullied into signing that agreement. “She is a real estate broker and was put in a position to wind down the law firm.”
Dresser’s 13-count complaint on behalf of the firm names Prudential Insurance Co. of America and its affiliates, Pruco Life Insurance Co. and Prudential Financial Inc. as co-defendants with Webb. It accuses Webb of breach of fiduciary duty, asset misappropriation, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, estoppel, conversion, rescission, reformation and violation of the Florida civil theft statute and Business Corporation Act. Against Prudential Financial, Pruco and Prudential Insurance it levels charges of reformation, negligence and wrongful distribution of policy proceeds.