Federal commission suit now a class action; NAR, Realogy vow to appeal
Days after oral arguments, a judge Friday granted class certification in 1 of 2 federal
commission suits that could rock the real estate industry and impact how agents are
compensated nationwide.


NAR Gets a Beatdown


Federal commission suit now a class action; NAR, Realogy vow to appeal
Days after oral arguments, a judge Friday granted class certification in 1 of 2 federal
commission suits that could rock the real estate industry and impact how agents are
compensated nationwide

Problems You Might Overlook When Buying
https://www.shadowfirepress.com/the-economy/real-estate/problems-you-might-overlook-when-buying/



In a major blow to the National Association of Realtors and major real estate
franchisors
, hundreds of thousands of homesellers can ask to be reimbursed for more
than $1 billion in commissions they paid to buyer agents in the past eight years as a
result of a federal court ruling on Friday.


The National Association of Realtors and real estate holding company Realogy on
Monday both signaled plans to appeal the ruling.


Just days after hearing oral arguments, Judge Stephen R. Bough of the U.S. District
Court in Western Missouri granted class certification in one of two federal commissions
lawsuits that could rock the real estate industry and impact how agents are
compensated nationwide.


In 2019, homeseller plaintiffs Joshua Sitzer and Amy Winger filed a lawsuit against
NAR, Realogy, RE/MAX, Keller Williams, and HomeServices of America and its
subsidiaries BHH Affiliates and HSF Affiliates alleging the sharing of commissions
between listing and buyer brokers violates the Sherman Antitrust Act by inflating seller
costs.

Other plaintiffs, including Scott and Ronda Burnett, later joined the case.
The Sitzer/Burnett suit, like a bigger federal case in Illinois brought by homeseller
Christopher Moehrl, seeks to have homebuyers pay their broker directly, rather than
having listing brokers pay buyer brokers from what the seller pays the listing broker.


A week ago, the court held oral arguments on the plaintiffs’ motion seeking to have the
Sitzer/Burnett suit certified as a class action and Bough rendered his decision Friday.

“Plaintiffs argue that class certification is the superior method because each member
has little incentive to control the litigation because the identical claims would result in
uniform damages calculation, each class members’ damages will be small compared
with the relatively high costs of bringing litigation, separate proceedings would produce
duplicative efforts and risk inconsistent verdicts, and class action is the superior method
of adjudication because of the size of the case and issues involved,” Bough wrote in his
April 22 order.


“[T] he Court agrees with Plaintiffs that a class action is the superior method for fairly
and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.”


The order means that the Sitzer/Burnett suit now represents sellers who paid a broker
commission in connection with the sale of residential real estate in Missouri listed on
one of four MLSs — MARIS, Heartland MLS, Southern Missouri MLS, and the Columbia
Board of Realtors MLS — from April 29, 2014 to the present.

NAR’s Response


In an emailed statement, NAR spokesperson Mantill Williams told Inman the 1.5-million
member trade group will look to a higher court to reverse the ruling.
“We are disappointed in the decision and plan to appeal,” Williams said.


Referring to multiple listing services, he said,”The pro-competitive, pro-consumer local
broker marketplaces serve the best interests of buyers and sellers. Local broker
marketplaces ensure equity, transparency, and market-driven pricing options for the
benefit of home buyers and sellers. These marketplaces reduce transaction costs by
ensuring, among other things, that a buyer broker and their client understand how much
the listing broker will pay the buyer broker for procuring a buyer for the listed property.


“Local broker marketplaces also level the playing field among brokerages, allowing
small brokerages to compete with large ones, and provide for unprecedented
competition among brokers, including different service and pricing models.”


In an unscheduled public filing Monday, Realogy informed its shareholders that it too
planned to appeal the judge’s order, but stressed the uncertainty of the case’s outcome.
“The Company intends to promptly petition the United States Court of Appeals for the
Eighth Circuit to pursue an interlocutory appeal of the decision on class certification, but
there is no assurance such appeal will be granted or result in a stay of the proceedings,”
the company told investors.


“The Company disputes the plaintiffs’ allegations against it in the antitrust litigation,
believes that it has meritorious defenses, and will vigorously defend these actions.
Litigation is inherently unpredictable and subject to substantial uncertainties and
unfavorable resolutions could occur. Adverse developments or outcomes in current or
future litigation, in particular pending antitrust litigation, may materially harm our
business and financial condition.”


In an emailed statement, Keller Williams spokesperson Darryl Frost told Inman the
company was aware of the ruling, but declined to say whether the company would
appeal.


“The court did not decide the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims, which we categorically
deny,” he said. “The case is far from over, and we will continue to vigorously defend
ourselves in court.”


RE/MAX, HomeServices of America and its subsidiaries BHH Affiliates and HSF
Affiliates declined to comment.
The NAR rules they’re fighting over According to the judge’s order, the plaintiffs allege that the enforcement of certain NAR rules results in price-fixing that artificially inflates residential real estate broker commissions homesellers pay because sellers would not pay buyer brokers without
those rules.


One of those rules is a NAR policy, sometimes known as the buyer broker commission
rule, that requires listing brokers to offer a blanket, unilateral offer of compensation to
buyer brokers in order to submit a listing to a Realtor-affiliated multiple listing service.
The rule prohibits MLSs from publishing listings that don’t include an offer of compensation that is either a percentage of the list price or a definite dollar amount and can’t be a general invitation to discuss terms and conditions of possible cooperation.


According to Bough, this rule is “the cornerstone of Plaintiffs’ alleged price-fixing
conspiracy” and adds, “Plaintiffs contend this Challenged Rule requires every seller to
make a non-negotiable offer of buyer broker compensation.”


The second rule is Standard of Practice 16-15 in NAR’s Code of Ethics, which states
that “In cooperative transactions Realtors shall compensate cooperating Realtors” —
another rule the plaintiffs contend requires sellers to offer compensation to the buyer
broker.


The third rule is the code’s Standard of Practice 16-16, which states: “Realtors, acting
as subagents or buyer/tenant representatives or brokers, shall not use the terms of an
offer to purchase/lease to attempt to modify the listing broker’s offer of compensation to
subagents or buyer/tenant representatives or brokers nor make the submission of an
executed offer to purchase/lease contingent on the listing broker’s agreement to modify
the offer of compensation.” The plaintiffs allege this rule hinders consumers’ ability to
negotiate buyer broker compensation.


The fourth rule is the code’s Standard of Practice 3-2, which says: “Any change in
compensation offered for cooperative services must be communicated to the other
Realtor prior to the time that Realtor submits an offer to purchase/lease the property.
After a Realtor has submitted an offer to purchase or lease property, the listing broker
may not attempt to unilaterally modify the offered compensation with respect to that
cooperative transaction.” The plaintiffs allege this rule inflates commissions “by
eliminating opportunities” for consumers to be able to negotiate the buyer broker
commission.


According to the plaintiffs, the real estate franchisor defendants require each of their
franchisees, subsidiaries, brokers, and agents to abide by the four rules.
“For example, Plaintiffs point to various Policies and Procedures Manuals and
Franchise Disclosure Documents of the Corporate Defendants which require
compliance with the NAR Code of Ethics and either require or strongly encourage NAR
and local MLS membership,” Bough wrote.


“Plaintiffs argue enforcement of the Challenged Rules is important to the Corporate
Defendants because most of their profits are derived from broker commission rates. For
example, approximately ‘80% of Realogy’s revenue’ in 2017 came from commissions.
Plaintiffs also allege Corporate Defendants provide sales scripts to their brokers and
agents with canned responses to prevent sellers from deviating from the standard offer
of buyer broker compensation.”


The plaintiffs have specifically called out Keller Williams’ training scripts for allegedly
encouraging steering and discouraging sellers from reducing buyer broker
commissions. At oral arguments last week, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers also revealed
that the plaintiffs are alleging that KW co-founder Gary Keller heads the alleged
conspiracy.


Why the judge granted class certification


In order for a case to qualify for class-action status, it must satisfy four elements under
the law: 1. The class is so numerous that it would be impossible to bring them all before
the court, 2. There are questions of law or fact common to the class, 3. The claims or
defenses of the named plaintiffs are typical of the claims or defenses of the class as a
whole, and 4. The named plaintiffs will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the
unnamed class members.


According to Bough, the defendants did not dispute that the plaintiffs met the
numerosity requirement, given that “hundreds of thousands of class members
geographically dispersed throughout the state of Missouri and portions of Kansas and
Illinois” would be included.


Bough also agreed with the plaintiffs that there are many questions of law or fact
common to the class, including whether the alleged conspiracy was implemented in the
areas in which the subject MLSs operate; whether the alleged conspiracy violates the
Sherman Antitrust Act; the duration, scope, extent, and effect of the alleged conspiracy;
and whether class members are entitled to damages.


He also agreed with the plaintiffs that their claims are typical of all proposed class
members because they were all subject to the rules at issue, each class member sold a
home through one of the real estate franchisor defendants and listed that home on a
subject MLS, each class member paid a buyer broker, and the plaintiffs’ and class
members’ claims are based on the same legal theories.


“Each class member seeks damages based on the same theory of harm: Defendants’
conspiracy to implement and enforce the Challenged Rules caused home sellers to pay
a buyer broker commission, or at least a fixed, inflated commission, that they would not
have otherwise paid as a condition of listing their market on a Subject MLS,” Bough
wrote.


The judge also did not buy the defendants’ contention, made during oral arguments,
that the plaintiffs are not adequate class representatives because some proposed class
members would have actually benefited from the rules at issue if they paid less to a
buyer broker as sellers than was paid for them when they themselves bought a home.
Bough pointed to the testimony of Craig T. Schulman, an economics professor at Texas
A&M University and expert for the plaintiffs, who said that in a world without the rules at
issue, buyer brokers would be either eliminated or rare.


“Accordingly, in Plaintiffs’ alleged but-for world, all class members would benefit from
removal of the Challenged Rules even if they did not have to compensate their own
buyer broker,” Bough wrote.


“This is because, absent the Challenged Rules, (1) class members would not have used
a buyer broker, (2) class members would pay a lesser, more competitive buyer broker
commission rate – and thus broker rates would still be free to buyers – or (3) the cost of
buyer broker fees would significantly decrease because buyers would be incentivized to
negotiate their fee.


“A conflict therefore does not exist among the class members. Each class member has
the same interest in establishing the existence of the conspiracy, and the class
members were allegedly injured by Defendants in the same manner and seek
substantially identical relief – reimbursement of the overcharged buyer broker
commission.”


Moreover, Bough disagreed with the defendants’ contention that the plaintiffs should
discount from damages claims the benefits class members got when they themselves
were buyers.
“[T]his offset argument fails,” he said. “Under [a previous case], a plaintiff ‘may recover

the full amount of the overcharge, even if he is otherwise benefitted, because the
antitrust injury occurs and is complete when the defendant sells at the illegally high
price.’”


Furthermore, he added, the idea that some class members are “uninjured plaintiffs”
misstates the plaintiffs’ theory of the case.


“Dr. Schulman opines that the competitive rate for sellers to pay buyer broker
commissions is zero because no class member would have paid a buyer broker but for
the Challenged Rules and, therefore, every class member paid more than that amount by virtue of their inclusion the class,” Bough said.


While the defendants argued that commissions came down to individual broker
decisions, Bough noted that Schulman’s report indicated that commission rates
remained uniformly high throughout the class period, regardless of market conditions.
“[B]uyer broker commission rates experienced very little variation, with yearly averages
ranging from 2.974% to 2.985%, regardless of how long a house remained on the
market,” Bough wrote.


“The Court also finds that the near uniformity of commission rates is common evidence
which demonstrates that a seller’s decision to offer buyer broker compensation is not
predominated by individual circumstances,” he added.
At oral arguments, an expert for the defendants pointed to data from Washington-based


Northwest MLS, which eliminated the buyer broker commission rule in 2019, to stress
that in a market where the rule has been absent, 99.2 percent of listings continue to
offer a buyer broker commission (flat from 99.3 percent before the rule was eliminated).
But Bough said that data did not defeat the plaintiffs’ bid for class certification.
Citing Schulman, Bough said that if the rules at issue were eliminated, “The real estate
market would take considerable time to change the way people think about how the market works and for the information to disseminate,” similar to travel agencies, stock brokerages, cable television, and hard-wired telephones.


“In each industry, the market adapted to disruption slowly, over the course of several
years, and not enough time has passed to see a significant market adjustment in the
Northwest MLS,” Bough said.
The classes that are now certified
The judge’s ruling certified three classes:

  1. The “Subject MLS Class,” asserting Count I (Violation of Section 1 of the
    Sherman Act), defined as: “All persons who, from April 29, 2015 through the
    present, used a listing broker affiliated with Home Services of America, Inc.,
    Keller Williams Realty, Inc., Realogy Holdings Corp., RE/MAX, LLC, HSF
    Affiliates, LLC, or BHH Affiliates, LLC, in the sale of a home listed on the
    Heartland MLS, Columbia Board of Realtors, Mid America Regional Information
    System, or the Southern Missouri Regional MLS, and who paid a commission to
    the buyer’s broker in connection with the sale of the home;
  2. The “Missouri Antitrust Law-Subject MLS Class,” asserting Count III (Violation of
    Missouri Antitrust Law), defined as: “All persons who, from April 29, 2015 through
    the present, used a listing broker affiliated with Home Services of America, Inc.,
    Keller Williams Realty, Inc., Realogy Holdings Corp., RE/MAX, LLC, HSF
    Affiliates, LLC, or BHH Affiliates, LLC, in the sale of a home in Missouri listed on
    the Heartland MLS, Columbia Board of Realtors, Mid America Regional
    Information System, or the Southern Missouri Regional MLS, and who paid a
    commission to the buyer’s broker in connection with the sale of the home;” and,
  3. The “MMPA Class,” asserting Count II (Violation of the Missouri Merchandizing
    Practices Act), defined as: “All persons who, from April 29, 2014 through the
    present, used a listing broker affiliated with Home Services of America, Inc.,
    Keller Williams Realty, Inc., Realogy Holdings Corp., RE/MAX, LLC, HSF
    Affiliates, LLC, or BHH Affiliates, LLC, in the sale of a residential home in
    Missouri listed on the Heartland MLS, Columbia Board of Realtors, Mid America
    Regional Information System, or the Southern Missouri Regional MLS, and who
    paid a commission to the buyer’s broker in connection with the sale of the home.”