U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama’s Southern Division handed down a decision on April 20, 2009 in the Vicki V. Busby v. JRHBW Realty, Inc. d/b/a RealtySouth case. The case centered on Section 8(b) of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) and whether Administrative Brokerage Commissions (ABC Fees) are illegal.

United States District Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins ruled the ABC Fees that RealtySouth charged consumers in a residential real estate transaction involving a federally related mortgage was nothing more than an unearned fee because the ABC fee would not be linked to a bona-fide settlement service that RealtySouth performed in the transaction.

The Birmingham News “Homebuyers were unfairly charged fee, federal court in Birmingham rules” by Russell Hubbard broke the story.

Section 8(b) of RESPA clearly states that no fee may be charged for the rendering of a real estate settlement service other than for settlement services actually performed.

RealtySouth charged a $149.00 Administrative Brokerage Fee since 2003 on over 30,000 real estate transactions in the state of Alabama. The defense was dealt a significant blow when two RealtySouth executives testified in their depositions that the ABC fees they charged did not go any particular settlement service but rather was implemented to increase revenues for the brokerage only. They further testified that the consumers did not get any benefit from the ABC fee. The testimony from the RealtySouth executives damaged RealtySouth to point where the defense didn’t have any real hope of winning in this case.

If RealtySouth had charged the consumers a fee that was based on some benefit (i.e. technology closing platform to store all their documents) and labeled attached an appropriate label to that bona-fide fee then I believe the verdict would have been different. The wholesale blanket of charging ABC fees “where no service has been provided to the consumer” should be curtailed by any real estate brokerage or in some cases real estate agents themselves from charging such a fee.

The bottom line is that real estate brokerages need to make sure if they charge consumers an additional fee separate and apart from the real estate commission that the fee is reasonable, verified, service is provided, and most importantly the fee provides some benefit to the consumer.

The damages against RealtySouth could exceed $13.5 million dollars (treble damages on $149.00 with potentially 30,000 borrowers) plus the plaintiffs attorneys fees and costs in the civil action. If HUD’s RESPA division sanctions RealtySouth as well the price tag could go up even further because Section 8 under RESPA also has criminal penalties.

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