Hollywood Lawyer Faces Trial Over Escrow Funds
A Hollywood lawyer who's being sued by his brother over real estate losses now faces trial for alleged civil theft of a client's escrow funds.
Broward Circuit Judge Dale Ross had ruled in favor of the lawyer, Bruce Smoler of Smoler & Associates, by dismissing with prejudice all claims against him and his former law firm. Werner Heldenmuth claimed in his lawsuit that Smoler and longtime client Paul Groll kept some of the escrow money from a 2006 home investment and used it for unauthorized purposes.
On Wednesday the Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed part of Ross' ruling, leaving intact his dismissal of a conversion count but reinstating a civil theft count. At stake are $27,694 from the escrow, triple damages and attorney fees.
Heldenmuth managed gas stations for their owner, Groll, and had a small stake in the business, according to Heldenmuth's lawyer. The conversion claim stems from the allegation that Groll and Heldenmuth invested together in a $500,000 house in the Golden Isles section of Hallandale Beach, but the title was put in Groll's name alone.
That claim is gone.
The court found the civil theft count is actionable "based on the allegation that Groll and Smoler used some of the escrow funds for their own use," Judge Burton Connor wrote for a unanimous panel.
Heldenmuth "hasn't seen penny one," said Louis Arslanian, a Plantation solo practitioner who represents him. "The most important thing to me is that my client gave that law firm more than $500,000, and some of that money was left over, and it should have come back to him."
In trial, Arslanian must prove Groll used some of the $27,694 to buy another house, and Smoler diverted the rest to his former firm, Smoler, Lerman & Whitebrook. The former firm and Groll are co-defendants.
Smoler said he's "falsely implicated." The Florida Bar has considered and dismissed a parallel complaint, according to a letter from Bar counsel Alan Anthony Pascal to Heldenmuth dated Oct. 25, 2011.
Smoler said the $6,290 he got was his fee for the purchase of the Hallandale house, and the rest was reimbursement to Groll for money he fronted to pay property expenses.