A Tampa, Fla., real estate professional has been dismissed from a complaint filed by a fair housing tester in November 2012, says National Association of REALTORS® General Counsel Laurie Janik. His case generated attention online and off this week after he posted an account of the resulting legal and financial complications on real estate social media site ActiveRain.
“What started out as blog post that I thought would get maybe 20 replies ended up blowing up and going viral,” says Jeff Launiere, the practitioner originally named as the defendant in the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, the plaintiff — an independent real estate tester — found language on a listing on realtor.com® that she believed violated the Federal Fair Housing Act, Janik says. Specifically, the property description mentioned that it was for “adults only… no children under 16,” yet it was not in a designated 55-plus community.
The tester then did some additional research on the Internet, which led to her finding Launiere’s Web site. The listing allegedly in violation of the Federal Fair Housing Act was not Launiere’s but rather another practitioner in the same brokerage, and it showed up on his site because of the IDX feed from his MLS. The tester believed that the presence of that property ad on his site meant he was the listing agent, and named him in her suit.
“This whole situation is really indicative of how confusing things can be on a Web site,” says Nobu Hata, director of digital engagement at the National Association of REALTORS®. He adds that situations like these are not particularly common. “Most fair housing testers are well trained in MLS issues. The ones I’ve met will call and do due diligence. But a few may be new or misinformed.”
Matt Cohen, chief technologist for real estate technology consultancy Clareity, agrees with Hata’s assessment. “Everything we do has some level of risk in it,” he explains. “He happened to catch the attention of someone who caused him problems. Obviously, he didn’t craft the ad.
“This is a very rare situation. Many MLS organizations provide extensive compliance checking for listings with regard to fair housing. Some don’t, but many do. REALTORS® are also generally good for watching out for each other and notifying MLS staff when these problems arise. When these issues happen, they’re often handled before anyone external to the MLS can take notice.”
But after his ordeal, Launiere is not so sure this is a rare occurrence. He says he received approximately 1,500 e-mails on Monday alone because of his online post, many of them coming from local and state association staff who described similar lawsuits filed against them and their members.
“I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “I think because everyone’s settling out of court, no one really understands the extent of what’s going on with this.”
He expressed gratitude for the support shown to him by fellow REALTORS® during this difficult time. “I could not believe how many REALTORS® and brokers and associations reached out,” says Launiere, who says one group even collected money for a legal defense fund. “It really lifted me.”
He added that the experience has encouraged him to get more aware of and involved in his association’s approach to technology issues. And on that, he and Cohen agree.
“The one thing [Launiere] could have done is worked with the association and MLS faster,” Cohen says. “You have a valuable trade association to help you in situations like this when you’ve acted within the rules.”
Brian Summerfield, REALTOR® Magazine. Reprinted from REALTOR® Magazine Online, March, 2013, with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.