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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.

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.”

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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.”

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“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?”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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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