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Local realtor association sues member for internet comments

Chicago Association of Realtors sues one of its own members for over $50,000, alleging her comments online constitute defamation.

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scales of justice

scales of justice

Realtor association suing member for $50,000

The Chicago Association of Realtors (CAR) today sent out an email news release commenting on their newly filed defamation suit against Andrea Geller in the Cook County Circuit Court. The $50K+ lawsuit is based on comments posted on a Chicago Agent Magazine article regarding the recent impeachment of the Association’s President.

Geller is a former Board Member and currently volunteers on the CAR Finance Committee, and has not yet been served with the lawsuit, but upon advice of her lawyer cannot publicly comment on the active litigation.

Reactions online have been mixed, with support for both sides pouring in, but with the court documents not yet available, it is difficult to discern all of the facts, but the idea of any Association suing a member is disturbing some, while others point out that it is important for Associations to stand up to some of the abuses they endure on social networks.

CAR reacts “with a heavy heart”

REALTOR® Zeke Morris, president of C.A.R. and Operating Principal and Managing Broker, Keller Williams Realty writes in an email statement, “It is with a heavy heart that the C.A.R. Board of Directors and I have authorized this action against one of our own members — but that member left us with no choice. The ongoing false statements about fictitious financial issues are intolerable and inexcusable, particularly in light of the fact that the Association urged Ms. Geller over the course of several weeks to identify specific concerns so they could be investigated.”

Morris continued, “Rather than act responsibly, she continued with the defamatory posts, through and including this past weekend. We were forced to take action to protect the Association’s well-earned respect and reputation.”

“With freedom of speech comes responsibility,” Morris noted, “and it is wrong to use the ease of the Internet to cast repeated, unsupported and false aspersions on our staff, volunteers and on our Association. The Board has great confidence in its CEO, its Chief Operations and Financial Officer, and the rest of its financial staff, along with its Finance Committee.”

Morris said, “The Association’s budgeting process is thorough, open, and comprehensive, with members involved in myriad committees to shape the offerings of the Association – from education to events, programs and beyond. The Association’s finances are annually audited by independent certified public accountants. We have been, and will continue to be, good and responsible stewards of our members’ dues.”

Association protecting itself or turning against a member?

“That stewardship requires C.A.R. to protect the Association and its staff and members from the damage that can come from defamation,” writes Joe Zekas of YoChicago.com. “CAR’s approach to Ms Geller doesn’t strike me as the most professional way to deal with a dissident member. Following soon after CAR’s removal of its president, who had also questioned CAR’s finances, this heavy-handed tactic could easily leave the public wondering.”

Austin broker, Eric Bramlett, who is no stranger to Board controversy himself added that, “It would be nice to know exactly which of Andrea’s statements CAR finds defamatory. Is it her request for transparency in CAR’s accounting? Her suggestion that high level CAR employees undergo background checks prior to employment? Her suggestion that CAR undergo a forensic audit? Though I’m not an attorney, these hardly seem actionable. I look forward to an explanation from CAR as to why they’re suing one of their own.”

“Perhaps the entire system really does need to be evaluated by a third party”

A common sentiment online was that regardless of this lawsuit or the outcome, the role of the Association is unclear, with some standing strongly against a suit of this nature, while others note that it is easy to conceive that if any group feels defamed, it should stand up.

Amanda Lopez, Founder of Style House Realty in Baltimore opines, “Someone isn’t telling the truth and it will be a battle of the dollar as to who can last the longest to find out the real truth. Something like this wouldn’t go to trial for years and unless [Coldwell Banker] is going to shell out for their agent, who has donated her own time to serve on a committee, chances are that CAR will win merely for the resources they seem to have to stick it out.”

Lopez adds, “It is a shame when people who work for free to protect a trade associations reputation they believe so strongly in, only to be tossed aside when they open their mouths. There seems to be a lot of power struggle between the paid staff on every local board and the revolving door of members volunteering their time to be the “idea creators.” Perhaps the entire system really does need to be evaluated by a third party to deem it as a necessary and well run entity.”

“CAR may not like people talking about this online, but slapping a lawsuit on someone that has already gotten social media legs, is not the way to handle PR in 2012,” Lopez concludes.

What message does this lawsuit send?

Some are calling it intimidation, others are calling it a necessary protection, but Marc Davison, Founding Partner at 1000watt Consulting said, “I cannot think of a single crime worth the punishment of a public lawsuit issued by an association toward its member. What kind of message does that send the public about our industry when it goes after one of its own in public view?”

Davison added, “Granted, I do not have the facts but I cannot imagine what a Realtor could possibly do to incur this public intimidation and humiliation. I know Andrea. She has always been upfront, articulate and a champion for change in real estate. I respect that and I respect her. CAR should back down and deal with whatever this is in private. Like adults.”

Calls for a new alternative to the Association

As is a common response when members disagree with an Association’s behavior, individuals call for an alternative association, as “Joe,” an anonymous commenter on the Chicago Agent Mag story writes, “What exactly is the qualifications for being the CEO of an association. what experience could Ginger Downs possibly have that would be worth $327,000 per year. What is she doing that a $100,000 salary couldnt accomplish.”

Joe continues, “This whole thing is absolutely ridiculous the entire leadership needs to go and now. All the realtors need to get a spine and start a petition to remove the leadership. Otherwise the best way to defeat them is to simply start a new association.”

This will not likely be the lone voice with this suggestion, but as in many instances in the past, this will not be the likely outcome related to this lawsuit.

Show me the money: CAR’s finances

Although an alternative Association will not likely emerge as a result, a common theme has emerged regarding CAR’s books, and the finances of other Associations are likely to go under the microscope.

Jeff Brown, Founder of Brown & Brown Investment Properties tells AGBeat, “Regardless of the emotions on both sides, the question beggin’ to be asked is: Why aren’t all the books of CAR, detailing the journey of every single dime, made public and accounted for? That one act would, if perceived as credible by members and the public, paint the most accurate financial picture possible. Why hasn’t this been done? Why all the tap dancing? Why the bullying?”

Brown adds, “I’ve seen this at every level of the Realtor experience since I was first licensed so long ago. CAR has forced everyone to posture and theorize due to the accounting remaining behind their curtain. So far, this drama has been relegated to ‘he says, she says’, which rarely gets to the truth of reality.”

“As far as the lawsuit goes,” Brown notes, “I suspect there can be only a couple outcomes. If CAR has nothing to fear, their books will easily and quickly demonstrate their innocence of any wrong doing, or even the appearance of it. On the other hand, if a judge forces CAR to turn over a truly complete record of their books, a highly experienced forensic accountant might uncover some unflattering numbers. If the latter is the case, and nobody knows that except the board members, it says something about their judgment that they’d invite such a detailed examination of their behavior.”

Brown concludes, “I seriously doubt this gets to trial. One way or another, history tells me there won’t be a truly unbiased accounting. Everyone will go their separate ways, and none of us will ever know what really happened — or never happened. In other words, when the smoke clears, we’ll probably know about as much as we do now.”

Adding fuel to the fire… “bat-shit crazy”

In an ironic twist, even commenters on the Chicago Agent Magazine website are now calling each others’ comments defamatory. John Q Reason comments, “Perhaps the association is taking legal action because there is factual evidence that Andrea Geller (who most of the industry knows is bat-shit crazy) is making blatantly false statements. Just a theory, but then I am no detective.”

John Q Commercial comments on the same blog, “I know i’m not an attorney, but calling someone ‘bat shit crazy’ sounds like defamation to me. Just a theory.”

“Why would they put someone who is bat shit crazy in charge of the money?”

An industry leader that chose to remain anonymous told AG, “My opinion is this: I don’t know her, she may be bat shit crazy in fact, however, the burden of proof is in fact on the board to prove that she knowingly made false statements. So they may be false but they also have to prove that she knew them to be false and repeatedly made them after a cease and deists letter was received.”

“I also don’t know all the facts first hand,” our source notes, “but seems like to me if they are suing her for money, they may just be proving her point about being a financial train wreck and this may be just an attempt at a money grab. Either way, she doesn’t look bat shit crazy, and if she was bat shit crazy, why would they put someone who is bat shit crazy in charge of the money? That too me seems like proof enough that the board may not make the best decisions.”

“Even if you win, you lose”

Frank Llosa, Esq., Broker of Frankly Real Estate, is well known for his no-holds-barred approach to his commentary on the real estate industry. Llosa tells AG, “I am very interested in hearing the outcome, because I tend to write controversial blogs and comments and I wouldn’t want to curb online discussions. I hope she has the ability to defend herself. The problem with our system is that even if you win, you lose because of the costs and lost productivity.”

The American Genius is news, insights, tools, and inspiration for business owners and professionals. AG condenses information on technology, business, social media, startups, economics and more, so you don’t have to.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. davetipton

    September 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Well, I’am safe from any law suits from my association, the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors (GTAR).  I don’t think they even know what the internet is. Totally behind the curve,  
    technologically speaking.
     

    • Roland Estrada

      September 7, 2012 at 7:00 pm

       @davetipton It’s not just your association in Tampa. Our MLS and associations in Orange County CA know there is an internet. They just don’t believe everyone should be able to access it – i.e. cross-browser compatibility, iPads, iPhones etc. We’ve been waiting years and are still waiting. Sometime this year we’re told, which is what we heard last year.  

  2. Roland Estrada

    September 7, 2012 at 7:01 pm

    Is it just  me, or does nobody comment on AG any longer. 

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Corporate-franchise relationships: How has COVID affected them?

(BUSINESS NEWS) Being a part of a franchise has made sense for a long time for both the corporation and the franchisee, but the long stretch of COVID is adding complications.

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A franchise cup on a wooden table.

Americans love a franchise. We love knowing that every Dunkin Donuts iced coffee will taste the same as it did 3 states away – and every McDonald’s snack wrap will meet our expectations.

Franchises rose in popularity after World War II, and the corporate-franchise relationship since has generally been a happy one – that is, until COVID-19.

What’s their relationship?

Franchises are easier to start than a small business from scratch. You receive a business playbook and brand loyalty from corporate – if the business at large is doing well, chances are your franchise will mirror that. No need for independent advertising!

From the franchises, corporate gets an upfront fee and ongoing royalties. (For a McDonalds franchise, that’s $45k and 4% of monthly gross sales, respectively.)

Basically, it’s win-win. Both parties are happy.

Pandemic strain

The pandemic has shrunk margins across most industries, and the chain hotels, restaurants and services have been hit hard. As a result, corporate is adding more costs for franchisees, such as big cleaning bills and promotional discounts to bring back some revenue during COVID.

However, with corporate still taking the same amount from the franchises every month, these newly instated policies threaten to drive some stores into the ground – and franchisees are fighting back.

“I get that franchising isn’t a democracy,” said a Subway franchisee, who objected to the unprofitable “2-Subs-for-$10” promotion that corporate was pushing for. “But at the same time, it’s not a dictatorship.”

What I see here is corporate greed at work; they need to keep their margins up in a sinking economy, so they’re looking to the pockets of their franchisees to make up for that lost dough.

The pandemic has not been easy on any business (with the exception, of course, of Amazon, Facebook, and Tesla, which is a whole other story). However, that’s the draw of being connected to corporate – you are tied to something bigger than your individual store, and will thus stay afloat as long as they do. It’s a big reason why many opt for starting a franchise as opposed to starting their own, independent small business.

I’m glad to see individuals fighting back against corporate policies that don’t benefit them. They held up their side of the bargain – let’s see if corporate can continue to hold up theirs.

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What to do if you think you have been wrongfully terminated

(BUSINESS NEWS) Being fired hurts, but especially if you were wrongfully terminated. Here is what you can do if you need to take action.

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Stressed man staring at computer after being wrongfully terminated.

While there are plenty of ways an employer can legally fire an employee, there’s also a long list of unethical and illegal methods. If you suspect you’ve been wrongfully terminated from your job, it’s imperative that you fight back.

Common Signs of Wrongful Termination

Research shows that around 150,000 people are unjustly fired every year in the United States. That’s more than 410 people per day – roughly 17 people per hour. Here are some common signs that you’re a victim:

  • Violation of written rules or promises. The vast majority of employment is known as “at-will” employment. This means you may be fired at any time for any reason (so long as the reason is not illegal). However, if there’s a written statement or contract that implies job security, then you’re probably not an at-will employee. Review all of your employment documents to see what sort of language exists around the topic of termination.
  • Discrimination. It doesn’t matter if you’re an at-will employee or not, employers can never fire someone based on discrimination. It’s illegal – point blank, period. If you suspect you’ve been fired because of your color, race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, disability, age, religion, or pregnancy, discrimination could be to blame.
  • Breach of good faith. Employers are known to breach good faith when they do things like mislead employees regarding their chances for promotions; fabricate reasons for firing; transfer or fire an employee to prevent the collection of sales commissions; and other similar situations.

Every situation is different, but these three signs are clear indicators that you have a potential wrongful termination claim. How you proceed will determine what happens next.

How to Respond to a Wrongful Termination

Emotions tend to run high when you’re fired from a job. Whether you loved the job or not, it’s totally normal to run a little hot under the collar upon being wrongfully terminated. But how you handle the first several hours and days will determine a lot about how this situation unfolds. Now is not the time to fly off the handle and say or do something you’ll regret. Instead, take a diplomatic response that includes steps like:

1. Gather Evidence

Wrongful termination cases are usually more complicated than they first appear on the surface. It’s important that you focus on gathering as much evidence as you possibly can. Any information or documentation you collect will increase your chances for a successful outcome. This may include emails, screenshots, written contracts and documentation, voicemails, text messages, and/or statements from coworkers.

On a related note, remember that your former employer will be doing the same thing (if a claim is brought). Be on your best behavior and don’t let your emotions get the best of you. Avoid venting to coworkers or firing off short, snappy emails to your former boss. As the saying goes, anything you say or do can and will be used against you.

2. Hire an Attorney

Don’t try to handle your wrongful termination case on your own. Hire an experienced lawyer who specializes in situations like yours. This will give you a much better chance of obtaining a successful outcome.

3. Get Legal Funding

If you’re like most victims of wrongful termination, you find yourself with no immediate source of income. This can make it difficult to pay your bills and stay financially solvent in the short term. An employment lawsuit loan could help bridge the gap.

As Upfit Legal Funding explains, “Wrongful termination lawsuit loans provide the necessary financial assistance they need to reach a settlement. This funding helps cover basic living costs until the plaintiff is able to get assistance from their settlement.”

The best thing about these loans is that you only have to repay them if there’s a successful outcome. In other words, if the claim gets thrown out or denied, you owe nothing.

4. File the Proper Paperwork

Work closely with your attorney to make sure that your complaints and claims are filed with the appropriate regulatory agencies (and that you meet the required deadlines). Depending on the type of claim, there are different groups that oversee the complaint and can help you move in the proper direction.

Adding it All Up

Getting fired is serious business. And while there are plenty of legal reasons for being terminated from a job, it’s worth exploring what’s actually going on behind the scenes. If it’s found that your employer stepped out of line, you’ll be compensated in an appropriate manner. This won’t typically help you get your job back, but it can provide some financial rectification.

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Everyone should have an interview escape plan

(BUSINESS NEWS) A job interview should be a place to ask about qualifications but sometimes things can go south – here’s how to escape when they do.

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interview from hell

“So, why did you move from Utah to Austin?” the interviewer asked over the phone.

The question felt a little out of place in the job interview, but I gave my standard answer about wanting a fresh scene. I’d just graduated college and was looking to break into the Austin market. But the interviewer wasn’t done.

“But why Austin?” he insisted, “There can’t be that many Mormons here.”

My stomach curled. This was a job interview – I’d expected to discuss my qualifications for the position and express my interest in the company. Instead, I began to answer more and more invasive questions about my personal life and religion. The whole ordeal left me very uncomfortable, but because I was young and desperate, I put up with it. In fact, I even went back for a second interview!

At the time, I thought I had to put up with that sort of treatment. Only recently have I realized that the interview was extremely unprofessional and it wasn’t something I should have felt obligated to endure.

And I’m not the only one with a bad interview story. Slate ran an article sharing others’ terrible experiences, which ranged from having their purse inspected to being trapped in a 45-minute presentation! No doubt, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mistreatment by potential employers.

So, why do we put up with it?

Well, sometimes people just don’t know better. Maybe, like I was, they’re young or inexperienced. In these cases, these sorts of situations seem like they could just be the norm. There’s also the obvious power dynamic: you might need a job, but the potential employers probably don’t need you.

While there might be times you have to grit your teeth and bear it, it’s also worth remembering that a bad interview scenario often means bad working conditions later on down the line. After all, if your employers don’t respect you during the interview stage, it’s likely the disrespect will continue when you’re hired.

Once you’ve identified an interview is bad news, though, how do you walk out? Politely. As tempting as it is to make a scene, you probably don’t want to go burning bridges. Instead, excuse yourself by thanking your interviewers, wishing them well, and asserting that you have realized the business wouldn’t be a good fit.

Your time, as well as your comfort, are important! If your gut is telling you something is wrong, it probably is. It isn’t easy, but if a job interview is crossing the line, you’re well within your rights to leave. Better to cut your losses early.

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