Boards and associations of REALTORS® are responsible for receiving and resolving ethics complaints, usually as a function of local, regional and state grievance committees and professional standards committees.
Many “complaints” do not expressly allege violations of specific Articles of the Code of Ethics, and many do not detail conduct related to the Code. Some “complaints” are actually relatively easy transactional, technical, or procedural questions.
It is the belief of the National Association’s Professional Standards Committee that many ethics complaints can be averted with enhanced communications and initial problem-solving at the local level. This is accomplished by what we call ombudsman procedures.
The ombudsman’s role is primarily one of communication and conciliation, not adjudication. Ombudsmen do not determine whether ethics violations have occurred, rather they anticipate, identify, and resolve misunderstandings and disagreements before matters ripen into disputes and possible charges of unethical conduct.
We have appointed and trained select volunteers to serve as ombudsman. These individuals are well established as real estate experts with a commitment to the REALTOR® Code of Ethics, who understand the role communication plays in making any real estate transaction work.
At a minimum, our ombudsmen are thoroughly familiar with the Code of Ethics, state real estate regulations and current real estate practice. They also serve on either the Grievance or Professional Standards committee, and are certified by the National Association of REALTORS® as mediators. Ombudsmen may be REALTORS®, staff members, or others acting on behalf of the local board/association.
Boards and associations have considerable latitude in determining how and when to use ombudsmen. For example, ombudsmen can field and respond to a wide variety of inquires and complaints, including general questions about real estate practice, transaction details, ethical practice, and enforcement issues. Ombudsmen can also receive and respond to questions and complaints about members; contact members to inform them that a client or customer has raised a question or issue; and contact members to obtain information necessary to provide an informed response.
In cases where an ombudsman believes that a failure of communication is the basis for a question or complaint, the ombudsman can arrange a meeting of the parties involved and facilitate a mutually acceptable resolution.
Written ethics complaints in the appropriate form can be initially referred to an ombudsman who will attempt to resolve the matter. (The exception is complaints alleging violations of the public trust, as defined in Article IV, Section 2 of the NAR Bylaws, which may not be referred to an ombudsman.)
If an ombudsman concludes that a potential violation of the public trust may have occurred, the ombudsman process shall be immediately terminated, and the parties shall be advised of their right to pursue a formal ethics complaint, or other options.
Persons filing complaints, or inquiring about the process for filing ethics complaints, will be advised that ombudsman services are available to attempt to informally resolve their complaint. Such persons will also be advised that they may decline ombudsman services and can have their complaint considered at a formal ethics hearing.
If a matter is resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all parties through the efforts of an ombudsman, any formal ethics complaint brought initially will be dismissed.
Failure or refusal of a member to comply with the terms of a mutually agreed-upon resolution shall entitle the complaining party to resubmit the original complaint or, where a formal complaint in the appropriate form had not been filed, to file an ethics complaint. The time at which the matter was originally brought to the board or association will be considered the filing date.
Ombudsmen cannot refer concerns regarding the conduct of any party utilizing their services to the Grievance Committee, state real estate licensing authority, or any other regulatory body. The prohibition is intended to ensure impartiality and avoid the possible appearance of bias. Ombudsmen are, however, authorized to refer concerns that the public trust may have been violated to the Grievance Committee.
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