Articles Posted in Administrative Brokerage Commission Fees (ABC)

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “CFPB” announced another enforcement action today against JRHBW Realty, Inc. d/b/a RealtySouth and TitleSouth, LLC (both HomeServices of America companies) for violating Section 8 Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act , 12 U.S.C. §2607, and its implementing regulation, 12 C.F.R. Part 1024 (formerly codified at 24 C.F.R. Part 3500)(collectively, RESPA).

Administrative Proceeding File No. 2014-CFPB-0005 “In the Matter of JRHBW Realty, Inc., doing business as RealtySouth; TitleSouth LLC found that RealtySouth used illegal Affiliated Business Disclosure Statements and inserted language in the RealtySouth purchase agreements which mandated the use of TitleSouth both of which violate RESPA.

RealtySouth is a real estate brokerage company operating in the state of Alabama who also owns another company, TitleSouth LLC, which provides title closing services in Alabama. The CFPB made note in the consent order that the President of TitleSouth also is the General Counsel of RealtySouth.

RealtySouth and TitleSouth were order to pay a fine of $500,000 to the CFPB and faced additional requirements as identified below. It should be noted that this isn’t RealtySouth’s first experience with RESPA as it was involved in the infamous RESPA class action case: Vicki V. Busby versus JRHBW Realty, Inc. d/b/a Realty South involving administrative brokerage fees.
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The Heather Q. Bolinger, et al v. First Multiple Listing Service, Inc., et al (Case 2:10-cv-00211-RWS) which is being litigated in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia Gainesville Division survived the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss the case on January 18, 2012.

The First Multiple Listing Service Inc. lawsuit contends the federal Real Estate Settlement Practices Act (“RESPA”) requires full disclosure of all fees and charges in real estate closings involving a federal mortgage loan. RESPA also prohibits unearned fees or kickbacks designed to encourage the referral of business by settlement service providers, such as First Multiple Listing Service (“FMLS”) and its member real estate brokers. One of the principal purposes of these RESPA provisions is to lower the cost of real estate closings to consumers by eliminating secret, disguised, and inflated charges.

The Bolinger et al. class action lawsuit alleges that:

1. Members of FMLS, which include virtually every residential real estate broker and agent in North Georgia, are required to list with FMLS all properties for sale and to pay undisclosed, unearned transaction fees to FMLS after closing and all services are rendered. Consumers either pay these fees directly or through inflated commissions.

2. Real Estate Brokers receive a kickback of all or substantially all of those fees from FMLS, and share in transaction fees paid on other closings. The suit further contends that these unearned hidden settlement fees and kickbacks are funded by real estate commissions paid by consumers. The hidden transaction settlement fee is $1.20 per thousand dollars of the selling price (i.e., .0012% of the sales price), and is doubled if the listing and selling agents work for different real estate brokers.

For example, the sale of a house for $200,000 with different listing and selling real estate agents would result in an undisclosed hidden transaction settlement fee of $480. In most transactions, the hidden settlement fee is not disclosed to the buyer or seller, either in the voluminous documents executed at closing or otherwise, and the kickbacks are never disclosed.

3. In addition to violating RESPA, these practices violate the Sherman Act, which is the core federal antitrust law. Notably, the “MLS Antitrust Compliance Policy” of the National Association of REALTORS® expressly prohibits basing MLS fees on a percentage of the sales price rather than the value of the services rendered [download NAR policy here]. Yet investigation for the lawsuit found not only that, as alleged, FMLS charges a per-transaction fee based on the sales price, and pays a kickback to brokers for utilizing its services, but that FMLS may be the only MLS in the country to do so. Further, the fees associated with FMLS are alleged to be higher than those charged by MLS’s elsewhere in Georgia and around the country.

Taylor English Duma LLP, a law firm with offices in Atlanta and Savannah, Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison & Norwood, LLP, a Georgia law firm with offices in Atlanta and Columbus, and the New Orleans based Sterbcow Law Group LLC have filed a lawsuit on behalf of buyers and sellers of residential real estate in metro Atlanta and North Georgia against First Multiple Listing Service, Inc. (“FMLS”), its member real estate brokers, the agents who handled the transactions of the named plaintiffs, and three boards of REALTORS®, alleging a longstanding practice of FMLS and its members in charging buyers and sellers unearned hidden transaction fees in connection with residential real estate closings in violation of federal and state law. FMLS is a multiple listing service (“MLS”) that provides an electronic database for listing residential real estate for sale. It is the largest MLS in metro Atlanta and North Georgia.

For more information please visit the FMLS CLASS ACTION WEBSITE.
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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which will oversee the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) now has a decision maker to help set up the CFPB. President Obama announced today the appointment of Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren to implement policies and procedures to protect consumers from financial products. Ms. Warren who is widely known as the person who developed the idea for the CFPB will also be responsible for helping select a director to head up the CFPB.

Warren is considered a strong consumer advocate and her ideology has some in the financial services industry concerned. The concern reached a fevered pitch over the last two months with Republicans and the financial services industry pledged to hold up her confirmation in the Senate. Obama’s move of not appointed her to the CFBP but rather giving Warren supervisory authority of the CFPB without going through a senate confirmation process stunned her critics.

It remains to be seen how Warren will tackle the enforcement of RESPA in the near future but I suspect that we will see a huge increase in both funding and manpower in the RESPA enforcement arena.

The Obama Administration is pushing new legislation which would create a financial services regulatory commission. The commission would be called “The Financial Product Safety Commission” and it would regulate all mortgages, credit cards, and mutual funds. The Washington Post’s Zachary A. Goldfarb, Binyamin Appelbaum and David Cho wrote an article on May 20, 2009.

The Senate version of this bill under Section 10: Enforcement has some very strong criminal and civil money penalties that could further strengthen consumer protections against businesses. The current senate & house versions of the bill could add considerable consumer protections against loan servicing companies which under Section 6 of RESPA offer consumers very little protection from some mortgage servicing companies abusive practices. This is definitely one of those bills to keep an eye on as the ramifications could be huge for businesses and consumers.
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According to Kenneth R. Harney in his Washington Post article, Lawsuit Takes Aim at Junk Fees Administrative Brokerage Commission (ABC) fees have been charged by real estate brokerages across the United States and a RESPA class action lawsuit seeks to do away with this practice. Although HUD’s RESPA division has not given guidance yet on whether they believe this practice is illegal or legal the general rule of thumb is that if a real estate brokerage does charge an ABC fee then they better document the services that were performed to demonstrate the fee they charged was legitimately earned.

If a brokerage just charges a $400.00 ABC fee on the borrower and admits they didn’t perform any services to justify that amount then they could find themselves in deep trouble. The rule of thumb on ABC fees is that if one is charged by a real estate brokerage then the brokerage better account for what services were performed. An example of this would be the real estate brokerage charges an ABC to the borrower and the fee goes towards something like storage of documents and electronic scanning. There are several other examples of how to charge an ABC legitimately but if you don’t do any of these functions then you could be held to be violating Section 8(b) under RESPA–the dangerous unearned fee provision.