Steven Cantor, Prominent Tax Lawyer who committed suicide by leaping off an office tower and who left his widow Sharon Dresser mentally and emotionally distressed, must be turning over in his grave. One month after the suicide in late 2016, the widow found herself pressured to sign $2 million in life insurance policies over to Cantor’s undeserving former law partner Hal J. Webb. Cantor’s Law Firm has now sued the partner for civil theft and the insurance companies for negligence, among other claims, to get it all back. In the suit filed on behalf of the Firm, Cantor’s widow, Sharon Dresser, claims attorney Hal J. Webb schemed to remove her and her husband’s law firm as Keyman policy beneficiaries following Steven Cantor’s death.
The 13-count complaint, filed in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, accuses attorney Hal J. Webb of breach of fiduciary duty, asset misappropriation, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, estoppel, violation of the Florida civil theft statute and business corporation act, conversion, rescission, and reformation; and Prudential Financial, Inc., Pruco Life Insurance Company, and Prudential Insurance Company of America for reformation, negligence, and wrongful distribution of policy proceeds.
“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 Robert Zarco, Ms. Dresser’s attorney and founding partner with the law firm, Zarco Einhorn Salkowski & Brito, P.A. “This is suicide by lawyer.” When you connect the dots, it becomes clear that Mr. Webb devised a scheme to enrich himself from the death of his long-time partner, and to the detriment, and emotional and financial distress of others, according to the complaint.
Cantor & Webb, P.A., hung its shingle in January, 2004, as a partnership between attorneys, majority shareholder Steven L. Cantor and minority owner Hal J. Webb. The two later decided to purchase $2 million in Keyman insurance policies on each other in order to facilitate business continuity and compensate the firm for financial losses that would arise from the death or extended incapacity of the other. Webb’s keyman insurance policy on the life of Cantor was issued by Pruco Life Insurance Company. Each was intended to be the other’s beneficiary, while they remained partners.
By 2016 and realizing that, pursuant to the Shareholder’s Agreement, he would be financially penalized if he chose to leave the firm, Webb proposed to change the shareholder agreement to allow him to leave the firm with no penalty or responsibility. On March 13, 2016, he sent an email to Cantor seeking to have “a departing shareholder who owns any life insurance policies insuring the life of any other shareholder transfer at settlement the ownership of such policies back to the other remaining shareholder.” Cantor agreed to this new language.
Meanwhile, the firm was in increasing financial distress. In December of 2015, the firm mistakenly over-distributed in year-end draws to Cantor and Webb. Upon learning of the over-distributions, both agreed to return their respective draws from the year-end distributions to the firm and use the money as working capital for the firm, the suit alleges. Cantor in April 2016 issued a personal check to the firm in the amount of $287,500, with the memo stating, “SLC Portion – Return of Working Capital.”
Webb’s corresponding share of the 2015 year-end draw amounted to $212,500. However, according to the complaint, instead of reimbursing the firm, Webb schemed to prematurely leave the firm without paying his share. The suit alleges Webb’s refusal to pay his share was a means to create leverage to financially pressure Cantor and extort changes in the shareholder’s agreement to facilitate his planned departure without penalty.
As expected, Webb’s refusal to reimburse the firm for his overdraw put additional and severe financial pressure on Cantor. Sensing Cantor’s emotional and financial distress, his long-standing battle with depression, and previous suicide attempts, on October 5, 2016, Webb sent an email to the firm Chief Operating Officer Grace Lopez noting that “Cantor might not be in the right state of mind,” according to the complaint.
Webb knew that should Cantor die in the near future, Webb stood to financially benefit from his death. Webb purposely delayed and avoided transferring the Keyman Policy to The Cantor Group “with this morbid aspiration in mind,” the suit alleges.
On October 11, 2016, Cantor committed suicide by jumping from his high-rise office building. Dresser, became a 53 years-old widow and emotionally disturbed from the graphic scene she witnessed.
Her problems, however, were only beginning. Though the paperwork had been started to transfer the Keyman policies back to the Firm, as of the date of Cantor’s death, Webb delayed on his agreement to sign the transfer and no additional documentation was ever provided by Webb to Prudential to complete the transfer. Prudential never followed up on the policy transfer it knew was required. Unbeknownst to the widow or the Cantor Group, within a week of Cantor’s death, Webb immediately secured and sent to Prudential a copy of Cantor’s death certificate. He requested a pay out of the insurance proceeds from the Keyman Policy. Prudential failed to conduct any due diligence with respect to the proper owner and beneficiary of the Keyman Policy, despite having received a request from Webb to change the ownership and beneficiary arrangement on the Keyman Policy only four months prior. Instead, Prudential promptly but negligently, improperly paid the proceeds of the Keyman Policy to Webb.
Immediately following Cantor’s death, Webb resumed his discussions pertaining to a settlement with Dresser, Cantor’s widow and personal representative of his estate. At the same time, Webb and his new law firm, Bilzin Sumberg, began discussions with Dresser regarding purchasing the assets of The Cantor Group. Webb’s superior knowledge created a strong bargaining position. Given little time or access to documents, Dresser and her attorney Brian Goodkind, with the law firm of Goodkind & Florio, P.A., could not effectively refute Webb’s fraudulent claims at negotiation as to the compensation due to him and as to his right to receive the all of the Keyman life insurance policies. The complaint asserts that Bilzin bought the Cantor Firm’s assets at way below without cause and previously discussed price.
Little over a week later, Dresser was Baker Acted. Soon thereafter, Dresser’s uncle died and she later received an anonymous letter purportedly sent by “friends of” her husband, stating that hidden aspects about Cantor’s personal life-style was the reason for him having committed suicide.
On November 26, 2016, six weeks after her husband’s death and under Attorney Brian Goodkind’s watch, Dresser signed the settlement agreement with Hal J. Webb, P.A. and Webb individually for the transfer of his shares in the firm and other businesses owned jointly with Cantor, and releasing Webb from all claims, including any claim to the death benefit or proceeds of the $2 million Keyman Policy, and any claim relating to the Shareholder’s Agreement. Though she repeatedly expressed to her lawyer dissatisfaction with the terms of settlement, Dresser’s attorney Goodkind demanded she sign the agreement, or he would withdraw as her counsel and would no longer represent her. Having no other choice, Dresser signed the agreement.
Dresser, on behalf of herself and The Cantor Group, received nothing from an agreement whose provisions were, notes the complaint, “unconscionable, ridiculously unfair and prejudicial to Dresser and The Cantor Group, and all of which substantially benefit and enrich Webb,” said Robert M. Einhorn, Co-Counsel in the case.
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