Beyond the $450 Million Settlement: What Real Estate Professionals Need to Know


The real estate industry continues its rapid evolution, and the intersection of technology and legal challenges has created a tumultuous landscape for agents and brokers. On March 14, 2024, a significant milestone occurred when the National Association of Realtors (NAR) settled a landmark lawsuit for over $450 million. Additionally, the NAR agreed to change commission rules that previously required the seller to pay both the selling broker and the buyer’s broker. This settlement not only reflects the shifting dynamics within the industry but also sets the stage for a deeper examination of the challenges faced by real estate professionals, particularly in the context of class actions and antitrust litigation. 

The Turning Point: NAR’s Settlement and Commission Rule Revisions

The settlement reached by the NAR marks a watershed moment in the industry’s trajectory. With so much at stake, the NAR’s decision underscores the mounting pressure faced by real estate associations and brokerage firms amid allegations of anticompetitive behavior. Additionally, the agreement to revise commission rules signals a recognition of the need for greater transparency and fairness in the real estate transaction process, the changes in the industry brought by technology driven sales, and the rapidly increasing price of real estate. 

The Verdict: Sitzer/Burnett v. Nar, et al.  

The repercussions of the Sitzer/Burnett v. Nar, et al. verdict, delivered on October 31, 2023, resonate even more profoundly. This Missouri court’s decision awarded $1.78 billion in damages, sending shockwaves through the industry, challenging longstanding practices, and prompting a reevaluation of commission structures. Central to the lawsuit were allegations of collusion and the practice of artificially inflating commissions. The NAR defended higher commission rates as essential for granting access to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), a crucial resource typically unavailable to those outside of Real Estate Associations (both local and national) and major online platforms such as Redfin and Zillow. On the other side of the argument, sellers contended that the traditional method of splitting commissions between the sellers’ and buyers’ agents prevents buyers from directly compensating their agents, given that the commission is sourced from the selling agent’s fees. The traditional commission split also laid the entire economic burden on the seller to pay for both parties’ agents. The plaintiffs argued the traditional approach distorts the market, suggesting that in a truly competitive landscape, it would be the buyer, not the seller, who covers their own agent’s commission. The NAR maintained that commission rates were always open to negotiation, a stance now further emphasized and clarified by the recent changes to commission rules. 

Antitrust Allegations and Their Impact  

Central to these legal battles are allegations of antitrust violations, with plaintiffs alleging concerted efforts to maintain high commission rates to the detriment of consumers. The traditional commission model, long dominated by percentages as high as 6% of the sales price, faces scrutiny for its potential to stifle competition and inflate costs. As real estate costs increase, sellers carry a larger burden of the increased commission payments. The NAR’s settlement and subsequent legal battles underscore the need for a reimagining of industry norms to foster greater market efficiency and consumer empowerment. Plaintiffs in many other jurisdictions raced to file copycat claims, increasing volatility. 

Insurance Coverage Dilemma  

Amidst these legal challenges, the question of insurance coverage looms large. Traditional Real Estate Errors & Omissions (E&O) policies will not cover antitrust claims as there are no errors or omissions actually alleged in the complaints. This leaves real estate professionals exposed to significant financial risks. Directors & Officers Liability (D&O) policies may offer some coverage, but insurers are reluctant to concede this for fear of pre-adjusting claims that may not be covered by case specifics. 

Risk Management Strategies In light of these challenges, proactive risk management becomes imperative for real estate agents and brokers. Here are some strategies to navigate the storm: 

  1. Review Membership Access: Foster inclusivity within realtor associations to promote transparency and competition. 
  2. Separate Commission Negotiations: Promote separate negotiations for buyer and seller commissions to enhance fairness and market efficiency. 
  3. Open Multiple Listing Access: Expand access to Multiple Listing Services to foster competition and accommodate disruptive technology companies. 
  4. Review D&O Policies: Evaluate D&O policies to ensure adequate coverage for antitrust claims, considering specific endorsements if necessary. 
  5. Antitrust Compliance: Educate management and staff on antitrust regulations and conduct regular compliance reviews to mitigate legal risks. 
  6. Tailored Coverage: Seek tailored insurance solutions that address the unique needs of real estate agencies and associations, including coverage for franchise operations. 
  7. Structured Commissions: Explore commission structures that align with market dynamics, considering factors such as rising home prices. 
  8. Documentation: Emphasize the importance of thorough documentation in all transactions to provide a strong defense against legal challenges. 

The real estate industry stands at a crossroads, navigating the convergence of technological innovation and legal scrutiny. The NAR’s legal battles and landmark settlement underscore the urgency for industry professionals to adapt to evolving market realities and regulatory landscapes. By embracing transparency, fostering market competition, and prioritizing compliance and risk management, real estate agents and brokers can navigate these turbulent times, ensuring resilience and continued success in an increasingly complex industry. In this dynamic environment, staying informed and proactive is key to weathering the crisis and safeguarding the future of real estate brokerage.

For more information on Liberty’s Executive Liability offerings, please reach out to Bill Holden, SVP (Executive Liability Practice Leader), The Liberty Company Insurance Brokers.   

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