Titled excerpts below from the NAR COEAM (Code of Ethics and Arbitration Manual):
Thoughts on how to file a "solid" ethics complaint:
…educating the Professional Standards Committee members as to the role of the grievance committee as outlined in Section 18, for example. It might also be helpful if potential complainants are given Appendix X to Part Four, Before You File and Ethics Complaint, would be helpful. And, of course, a professional standards administrator that reinforces the information contained in that appendix might be helpful. It could also be mentioned if little information is provided and the complaint is dismissed, additional information cannot be submitted with the appeal.
Appendix X to Part Four
Before You File an Ethics Complaint
Boards and Associations of REALTORS® are responsible for enforcing the REALTORS® Code of Ethics. The Code of Ethics 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 them or with a principal broker 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 or Association of REALTORS®. In addition to processing formal ethics complaints against its REALTOR® members, many boards and associations offer informal dispute resolving processes (e.g., ombudsman, mediation, etc.). Often parties are more satisfied with informal dispute resolution processes, as they are quicker, less costly, and often help repair damaged relationships. (Revised 11/15)
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 their broker) you are dealing with is not a REALTOR®, your only recourse may be the state real estate licensing authority or the courts.
• 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. Additional examples of authorized discipline are a letter of reprimand and appropriate fines. For serious or repeated violations, a REALTOR®’s membership can be suspended or terminated. Boards and Associations of REALTORS® cannot require REALTORS® to pay money to parties filing ethics complaints; cannot award “punitive damages” for violations of the Code of Ethics; and cannot suspend or revoke a real estate professional’s license. (Revised 11/15)
• 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.
Filing an Ethics Complaint
The local Board or 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 or 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 or within one hundred eighty (180) days after the conclusion of the transaction or event, whichever is later (unless the Board’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 seventeen (17) Articles of the Code of Ethics which may have been violated. Hearing Panels decide whether the Articles expressly cited in complaints were violated—not whether Standards of Practice or 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, 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.
• Be sure you have all the documents and other evidence you need to present your case.
• 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, 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. (Revised 11/14)
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 or Association of REALTORS® can share options for dispute resolution, including the procedures and forms necessary to file an ethics complaint. (Revised 11/15)
Part Three—The Grievance Committee in
Section 17. Authority
The Grievance Committee is established in Part Two, Section 15 and Part Eight, Section 38 of this Manual, which provide in part:
There will be a standing committee, known as the Grievance Committee, of at least __________ Board Members in good standing, of whom at least a majority shall be REALTORS®. The members of the committee shall be appointed by the President, subject to confirmation by the Board of Directors, for staggered three (3) year terms. The committee shall annually select its own Chairperson and Vice Chairperson (or, alternatively, the President shall annually designate the Chairperson and Vice Chairperson of the committee).
Section 18. Function
The function of the Grievance Committee is clearly distinguishable from the function of the Professional Standards Committee. The Professional Standards Committee makes decisions on matters involving ethics or arbitration. (Revised 05/15)
The Grievance Committee receives ethics complaints and arbitration requests to determine if, taken as true on their face, a hearing is to be warranted. The Grievance Committee makes only such preliminary evaluation as is necessary to make these decisions. While the Grievance Committee has meetings, it does not hold hearings, does not decide whether members have violated the Code of Ethics, and does not dismiss ethics complaints because of lack of evidence. Complainants are not required to prove their case upon submission of their ethics complaint or arbitration request. The Grievance Committee does not mediate or arbitrate business disputes. The Grievance Committee will hold regularly-scheduled meetings and/or review complaints not later than forty-five (45) days after receipt of the complaint. (Revised 05/15)
In evaluating ethics complaints, the Grievance Committee may require a written response from the respondent(s) only if the committee is in need of additional information pertaining to the questions in Section 19, Grievance Committee’s Review of an Ethics Complaint, and the complainant cannot provide such information. In such instances the respondent(s) should be provided with a copy of the ethics complaint and advised that failure to respond may be the basis for a charge of having violated Article 14 of the Code of Ethics. (See Form #E-4, Grievance Committee Request for Information [Ethics Complaint] and Form #E-5, Response to Grievance Committee Request for Information, Part Six of this Manual). In evaluating arbitration requests, the Grievance Committee may request a written response to the arbitration request from the respondent(s) only if the committee is in need of additional information pertaining to the questions in Section 42, Grievance Committee’s Review and Analysis of a Request for Arbitration, and the complainant cannot provide such information. (See Form #A-5, Grievance Committee Request for Information [Arbitration Request] and Form #A-6, Response to Grievance Committee Request for Information, Part Thirteen of this Manual.) If no response is filed within the time allotted, the Grievance Committee shall make its determination as to whether an arbitration hearing should be scheduled based upon the information set forth in the arbitration request. (Revised 11/15)
When Grievance Committees refer ethics complaints and arbitration requests for hearing, hearing panel chairs can determine if questions about
(1) whether ethics complaints and arbitration requests are timely filed,
(2) whether arbitrable issues exist,
(3) whether arbitration requests are too legally complex to be fairly arbitrated, and
(4) other administrative issues
will be addressed through a pre-hearing meeting of the hearing panel or at the outset of the hearing prior to testimony relating to the ethics complaint or arbitration request commencing. If these matters rise during a hearing, the hearing panel will address them at that time.
Dismissals of ethics complaints and arbitration requests by hearing panels can be appealed to the Board of Directors on the same bases as dismissals by the Grievance Committee.
Where such issues are considered at a pre-hearing meeting of the hearing panel, the chair will determine whether the parties may be present, and the extent to which their participation will be permitted. (Revised 05/14)
Section 19. Grievance Committee’s Review of an Ethics Complaint
A. Initial action upon receipt of an ethics complaint
Upon receipt of an ethics complaint from the Professional Standards Administrator, the Chairperson of the Grievance Committee shall review the complaint. Any evidence and documentation attached will be considered only to the extent necessary to determine whether a complaint will be referred for hearing. The Chairperson may assign one or more members of the Grievance Committee to review the complaint and to make any necessary evaluation. The member(s) may, if necessary, gather additional information on the matters complained of from the complainant if additional information is necessary to determine whether a complaint will be referred for hearing. The complaint shall be provided to the assigned members by the Professional Standards Administrator upon instruction from the Chairperson. (Amended 11/15)
The reviewer(s), if appointed, shall complete the assignment promptly and prepare a report and recommendation for the Grievance Committee. After reviewing the report, the Chairperson shall schedule a meeting of the Grievance Committee and may instruct the Professional Standards Administrator to provide members of the Grievance Committee with copies of the case file including the reviewer’s report, if any. At the option of the Board, such file may be sent to the Grievance Committee members prior to the meeting or may be distributed at the meeting. (Amended 4/94)
B. Consideration of an ethics complaint by the Grievance Committee
In reviewing an ethics complaint, the Grievance Committee shall consider the following:
(1) Is the ethics complaint acceptable in form as received by the Committee? If not in proper form, the Chairperson may request that the Professional Standards Administrator contact the complainant to advise that the complaint must be submitted in proper form. (Revised 11/15)
NOTE: If deemed appropriate by the Chairperson, a member of the Grievance Committee may be assigned to contact the complainant and to provide procedural assistance to amend the complaint or resubmit a new complaint in proper form and with proper content. The Grievance Committee member providing such assistance shall ensure that only procedural assistance is provided to the complainant, and that the complainant understands that the member is not representing the complainant or advocating on behalf of the complainant. (Revised 11/15)
(2) Are all necessary parties named in the complaint?
(3) Was the complaint filed within one hundred eighty (180) days of the time that the alleged offense and facts relating to it could have been known by the complainant in the exercise of reasonable diligence or within one hundred eighty (180) days after the conclusion of the transaction or event, whichever is later? (Revised 5/11)
(4) Is the respondent named in the complaint a member of the Board, and was the respondent a member of any Board at the time of the alleged offense?
(5) Is criminal or civil litigation or any government agency investigation or other action pending related to the same facts and circumstances giving rise to the complaint alleging unethical conduct?
(a) If criminal or civil litigation is pending related to the same facts and circumstances giving rise to the complaint alleging unethical conduct, the Grievance Committee shall instruct the Professional Standards Administrator to have Board legal counsel review the complaint filed and advise if any hearing should proceed (presuming the matter would otherwise warrant a hearing), with counsel considering the following:
(1) similarity of factors giving rise to pending litigation or regulatory or administrative proceeding and the ethics complaint
(2) degree to which resolution of the pending litigation or regulatory or administrative proceeding could make consideration of the ethics complaint unnecessary
(3) degree to which pending litigation or regulatory or administrative proceeding would delay prompt disposition of the ethics complaint
(4) the nature of the alleged violation and the extent to which it could impact on cooperation with other Board Members
(5) the assurance of Board legal counsel that consideration of an ethics complaint would not deprive the respondent of due process (Revised 11/18)
(6) Is there any reason to conclude that the Board would be unable to provide an impartial Hearing Panel?
(7) Are the specific Articles cited in the complaint appropriate in light of the facts provided? Should additional Articles be cited? Should certain Standards of Practice be cited in support of the Articles charged? Are any inappropriate Articles cited?
(8) If the facts alleged in the complaint were taken as true on their face, is it possible that a violation of the Code of Ethics occurred? Complainants are not required to prove their case when initially filing an ethics complaint. A complaint may not be dismissed for lack of evidence if the allegation(s), taken as true on their face, could constitute a violation of the Code of Ethics and the complaint is in an otherwise acceptable form. (Revised 11/15)
If all relevant questions have been answered to the satisfaction of the Grievance Committee, and the allegations, if taken as true, could constitute a violation of the Code of Ethics, the Grievance Committee shall refer the complaint to the Professional Standards Committee for a hearing by an ethics Hearing Panel. (Revised 11/15)
C. Appeal from the decision of the Grievance Committee related to an ethics complaint
If the Grievance Committee dismisses the complaint, the notice of dismissal shall specify the reason(s) for dismissing and the complainant may appeal the dismissal to the Board of Directors within twenty (20) days from transmittal of the dismissal notice using Form #E-22, Appeal of Grievance Committee (or Hearing Panel) Dismissal of Ethics Complaint. The complaint and any attachments to the complaint cannot be revised, modified, or supplemented. The complainant may, however, explain in writing why the complainant disagrees with the Grievance Committee’s conclusion that the complaint should be dismissed. If the Grievance Committee deletes an Article or Articles from an ethics complaint, the complainant may also appeal to the Board of Directors using Form #E-22, Appeal of Grievance Committee (or Hearing Panel) Dismissal of Ethics Complaint. The Directors (or a panel of Directors or the Executive Committee) shall consider only the information and documents considered by the Grievance Committee, together with the complainant’s rationale for challenging the dismissal, and render its decision, which shall be final. The parties are not present at the meeting at which the appeal is considered. Appeals of dismissals shall be heard at the Directors’ next regularly scheduled meeting or a special meeting designated for that purpose, but no later than ten (10) days after the date of receipt of the appeal. The Directors’ decision shall be transmitted to the parties within five (5) days from the date of the decision. (Revised 11/15)
D. Criminal or civil litigation or regulatory/administrative proceedings coming to light after an ethics complaint has been referred to an ethics Hearing Panel
If after review of an ethics complaint by the Grievance Committee and referral of the complaint for hearing, it is subsequently discovered that criminal or civil litigation or regulatory or administrative proceedings related to the same transaction or event are pending, the Hearing Panel Chair, in consultation with association legal counsel, will determine whether the hearing will proceed or, alternatively, whether the complaint will be held in abeyance pending resolution of the litigation or regulatory or administrative proceedings. (Revised 11/18)
Posted by: Byron King on 04/21/22 (This information is only accurate as of 04/21/22. You must contact SCR for updates and changes to this information after 04/21/22 as laws and regulations may change over time. SCR 803-772-5206 or email info at screaltors.org or email byron at screaltors.org)
This information is not legal advice. This information is intended only to provide general information and may not be relied upon as specific legal guidance. Legal counsel should always be consulted before acting in reliance on this information.