Saturday, July 13, 2013

Realtors see increase in fair housing complaints

ORLANDO, Fla. – July 12, 2013 – The Florida Realtors Legal Hotline has received an increase in calls relating to lawsuits alleging fair housing discrimination. Florida Realtors’ Vice President and General Counsel Margy Grant says that Realtors must remain vigilant to ensure they’re complying with U.S. fair housing laws.

Thanks to Internet listings, it’s easy to read real estate ads anywhere in the world. That has led to a larger pool of fair housing “testers” to scan all U.S. media for real estate ads that violate the Fair Housing Act.

While most real estate agents understand that ads cannot discriminate against the seven classes protected by The Fair Housing Act – race, color, sex, national origin, religion, handicap and familial status – the “testers” have made it even more important to consider how an ad is worded. A broker owner and a listing agent can be considered at fault for discrimination, even if it’s inadvertent.

“Most of the plaintiffs are fair housing organizations designed to help enforce the law,” says Grant. “To combat violations, they file lawsuits against all offending parties.”

Once a lawsuit has been filed, a broker’s errors and omissions insurance (E&O) usually gets involved. At that point, many insurers prefer to settle the case rather than pursue it, usually because the Realtor has violated the fair housing laws.

“A common violation is an ad that says ‘no kids,’” says Grant. “We have seen cases where a agent has been discriminating for years and just never got caught.”

While the “testers” tactics may seem odd, a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court – Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363 (1982) – rejected arguments by the real estate community and affirmed that the “testers” have a right to file a complaint as an “aggrieved person.”

Realtors have some protection under the Communications Decency Act for ads that appear on their website authored by someone else, such as a home listing uploaded through an Internet Data Exchange (IDX) program. However, that protection does not apply to any ad written by an agent or advertised by a broker.

“Overall, the real estate industry is very good at understanding and following the nation’s fair housing laws, but that’s part of the problem,” says Grant. “We sometimes don’t focus on it as much as we should. Overt discrimination is extremely rare, but agents and brokers should make sure that their ads don’t subtly steer a protected class away from a rental or listing.”

For more information on fair housing issues related to IDX and potential liability, National Association of Realtors® (NAR) General Counsel Laurie Janik has posted a podcast on NAR’s website (password required).

© 2013 Florida Realtors®

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