How to File a Complaint
Please note: If a real estate licensee is not a member REALTOR®, you can only file a complaint with the South Carolina Government which licenses all real estate licensees. SC Government Licensing Agency is known as LLR South Carolina Real Estate Commission. To see how to file a complaint with SCREC, click here.
If a real estate licensee is a member REALTOR®, you may file both the license law complaint as described above and an ethics complaint as described below.
Boards and associations of REALTORS® are responsible for enforcing the REALTOR® Code of Ethics. The Code imposes duties above and in addition to those imposed by law or regulation which apply only to real estate professionals who choose to become REALTORS®.
Many difficulties between real estate professionals (whether REALTORS® or not) result from misunderstanding, miscommunication, or lack of adequate communication. If you have a problem with a real estate professional, you may want to speak with him/her or with a principal broker or the Broker-in-Charge in the firm. Open, constructive discussion often resolves questions or differences, eliminating the need for further action.
If, after discussing matters with your real estate professional or a principal broker in that firm, you are still not satisfied, you may want to contact the local board/association of REALTORS®. Many boards and associations have informal dispute resolving processes available to consumers (e.g., ombudsmen, mediation, etc.).
If, after taking these steps, you still feel you have a grievance, you may want to consider filing an ethics complaint. You will want to keep in mind that:
- Only REALTORS® and REALTOR-ASSOCIATE®s are subject to the Code of Ethics of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.
- If the real estate professional (or the broker of record for his/her firm) you are dealing with is not a REALTOR®, your only recourse may be to file a complaint with the South Carolina Real Estate Commission.
- Boards and associations of REALTORS® determine whether the Code of Ethics has been violated, not whether the law or real estate regulations have been broken. Those decisions can only be made by the licensing authorities or the courts.
- Boards of REALTORS® can discipline REALTORS® for violating the Code of Ethics. Typical forms of discipline include attendance at courses and seminars designed to increase REALTORS®’ understanding of the ethical duties or other responsibilities of real estate professionals. REALTORS® may also be reprimanded, fined, or their membership can be suspended or terminated for serious or repeated violations. Boards and associations of REALTORS® cannot require REALTORS® to pay money to parties filing ethics complaints; can-not award “punitive damages” for violations of the Code of Ethics; and cannot suspend or revoke a real estate professional’s license.
- The primary emphasis of discipline for ethical lapses is educational, to create a heightened awareness of and appreciation for the duties the Code imposes. At the same time, more severe forms of discipline, including fines and suspension and termination of membership may be imposed for serious or repeated violations.
- For issues regarding money or specific actions, you should consult your attorney asap to determine possible legal remedies. SC Bar Lawyer Referral Service 1-800-868-2284.
Filing an Ethics Complaint
The local board/association of REALTORS® can provide you with information on the procedures for filing an ethics complaint. Here are some general principles to keep in mind.
- Ethics complaints must be filed with the local board/association of REALTORS® within one hundred eighty (180) days from the time a complainant knew (or reasonably should have known) that potentially unethical conduct took place (unless the board/association’s informal dispute resolution processes are invoked in which case the filing deadline will momentarily be suspended).
- The REALTORS® Code of Ethics consists of seventeen (17) Articles. The duties imposed by many of the Articles are explained and illustrated through accompanying Standards of Practice or case interpretations.
- Your complaint should include a narrative description of the circumstances that lead you to believe the Code of Ethics may have been violated.
- Your complaint must cite one or more of the Articles of the Code of Ethics which may have been violated. Hearing Panels decide whether the Articles expressly cited in complaints were violated. The Hearing Panels do not decide whether the descriptive Standards of Practice or informational case interpretations were violated.
- The local board or associations of REALTORS®’ Grievance Committee may provide technical assistance in preparing a complaint in proper form and with proper content.
Before the Hearing
- Your complaint will be reviewed by the local board or association’s Grievance Committee. Their job is to review complaints to determine if the allegations made, if taken as true, might support a violation of the Article(s) cited in the complaint.
- If the Grievance Committee dismisses your complaint, it does not mean they do not believe you. Rather, it means that they do not feel that your allegations would support a Hearing Panel’s conclusion that the Article(s) cited in your complaint had been violated. You may want to review your complaint to see if you cited an Article appropriate to your allegations.
- If the Grievance Committee forwards your complaint for hearing, that does not mean they have decided the Code of Ethics has been violated. Rather, it means they feel that if what you allege in your complaint is found to have occurred by the Hearing Panel, that panel may have reason to find that a violation of the Code of Ethics occurred.
- If your complaint is dismissed as not requiring a hearing, you can appeal that dismissal to the Board of Directors of the local board or association of REALTORS®.
Preparing for the Hearing
- Familiarize yourself with the hearing procedures that will be followed. In particular you will want to know about challenging potential panel members, your right to counsel, calling witnesses, notice requirements, and the burdens and standards of proof that apply.
- Complainants have the ultimate responsibility (“burden”) of proving that the Code of Ethics has been violated. The standard of proof that must be met is “clear, strong and convincing,” defined as “…that measure or degree of proof which will produce a firm belief or conviction as to the allegations sought to be established.” Consistent with American jurisprudence, respondents are considered innocent unless proven to have violated the Code of Ethics.
- Be sure that your witnesses and counsel will be available on the day of the hearing. Continuances are a privilege-not a right. The right to confront witnesses and the accuser are part of the due process required in all hearings.
- Be sure you have all the documents and other evidence you need to present your case. The standard for presenting evidence is relevance.
- Organize your presentation in advance. Know what you are going to say and be prepared to demonstrate what happened and how you believe the Code of Ethics was violated.
At the Hearing
- Appreciate that panel members are unpaid volunteers giving their time as an act of public service. Their objective is to be fair, unbiased, and impartial; to determine, based on the evidence and testimony presented to them, what actually occurred; and then to determine whether the facts as they find them support a finding that the Article(s) charged have been violated.
- Hearing Panels cannot conclude that an Article of the Code has been violated unless that Article(s) is specifically cited in the complaint.
- Keep your presentation concise, factual, and to the point. Your task is to demonstrate what happened (or what should have happened but did not), and how the facts support a violation of the Article(s) charged in the complaint.
- Hearing Panels base their decisions on the evidence and testimony presented during the hearing. If you have information relevant to the issue(s) under consideration, be sure to bring it up during your presentation.
- Recognize that different people can witness the same event and have differing recollections about what they saw. The fact that a respondent or their witness recalls things differently does not mean they are not telling the truth as they recall events. It is up to the Hearing Panel, in the findings of fact that will be part of their decision, to determine what actually happened.
- The Hearing Panel will pay careful attention to what you say and how you say it. An implausible account does not become more believable through repetition or through volume.
- You are involved in an adversarial process that is, to some degree, unavoidably confrontational. Many violations of the Code of Ethics result from misunderstanding or lack of awareness of ethical duties by otherwise well-meaning, responsible real estate professionals. An ethics complaint has potential to be viewed as an attack on a respondent’s integrity and professionalism. For the enforcement process to function properly, it is imperative for all parties, witnesses, and panel members to maintain appropriate decorum.
After the Hearing
- When you receive the Hearing Panel’s decision, review it carefully.
- Findings of fact are the conclusions of impartial panel members based on their reasoned assessment of all of the evidence and testimony presented during the hearing. Findings of fact are not appealable.
- If you believe the hearing process was seriously flawed to the extent you were denied a full and fair hearing with due process, there are appellate procedures that can be invoked. The fact that a Hearing Panel found no violation is not appealable.
- Refer to the procedures used by the local board or association of REALTORS® for detailed information on the bases and time limits for appealing decisions or requesting a rehearing. Rehearings are generally granted only when newly discovered evidence comes to light
(a) which could not reasonably have been discovered and produced at the original hearing and
(b) which might have had a bearing on the Hearing Panel’s decision.
- Appeals brought by ethics respondents must be based on
(a) a perceived misapplication or misinterpretation of one or more Articles of the Code of Ethics,
(b) a procedural deficiency or failure of due process, or
(c) the nature or gravity of the discipline proposed by the Hearing Panel. Appeals brought by ethics complainants are limited to procedural deficiencies or failure of due process that may have prevented a full and fair hearing.
Many ethics complaints result from misunderstanding or a failure in communication. Before filing an ethics complaint, make reasonable efforts to communicate with your real estate professional or a principal broker in the firm. If these efforts are not fruitful, the local board/association of REALTORS® can give you the procedures and forms necessary to file an ethics complaint. If you are not sure of your REALTORS®’ local board/association, you may contact the South Carolina Association of REALTORS® at 1-800-233-6381
To learn more about filing a complaint, click here to be transferred to the SCR File a Complaint page.
For money or specific action goals, contact the principal broker and attempt a compromise solution. If that fails, then perhaps contact the local board or association for their mediator list. Mediators can be hired to help the parties reach a compromise to avoid litigation. If compromise and assisted mediator compromise both fail, your attorney may advise you on legal remedies such as expensive, lengthy, and worrisome litigation.