A Florida Realtor is suing the Sarasota Association of Realtors for allegedly forcing local real estate agents to buy memberships in the association as a condition of purchasing lockbox keys and multiple listing service data.

The suit, filed Wednesday in federal district court in Tampa, Fla., seeks $5 million and class-action status, amounting to $4,500 for each member of the class, and names 14 association directors as defendants. Lois M. Hekker, broker with Buyer’s Agents International Realty in Sarasota, is the plaintiff in the suit.

A representative from the Sarasota Association was not available to comment on the suit Wednesday afternoon.

The complaint cites the 1991 federal appeals court decision in Thompson vs. Metropolitan Multi-List in Florida, which held that a Realtor association that had monopoly power over its MLS could not force real estate agents to purchase memberships in the trade association as a condition of gaining access to the MLS. The complaint alleges that the Sarasota Association and other Realtor associations in Florida evade the Thompson decision by tying lockboxes and historical MLS data to purchases of membership.

The suit seeks an injunction ordering the Sarasota Association to sell lockboxes and historical MLS data without requiring MLS users to purchase trade association memberships.

“In order to practice her profession as a real estate broker, plaintiff needed to buy lockbox services and MLS comparable data from the Sarasota Association, which forced her to purchase trade association services she did not want,” the complaint states.

Agents purchasing the local trade association services also must purchase state and national association services, totaling about $424 per agent in 2004, the complaint states.

Sarasota Association members rent electronic lockbox keys from the association, which purchases them from GE, according to the complaint. Lockboxes are attached to the front door of a for-sale home and contain a key so agents can show the home to prospective buyers. “Licensees who purchase lockbox services have lockbox keys that open all lockboxes in the area covered by the MLS,” the complaint states.

The 21-page complaint cites other states where courts have declared it illegal to tie the sale of trade association services to the sale of the MLS, including California, New Jersey and Colorado.

San Francisco-based attorney David Barry of Barry & Associates represents the plaintiff. Barry has filed more lawsuits against Realtor associations than any other attorney in the country. He has racked up a number of losses with the exception of one case in San Diego that accused the Sandicor MLS of illegal price fixing. Barry has attempted repeatedly but unsuccessfully to obtain class-action certification in the Sandicor lawsuit.

Barry filed two similar lawsuits this year against the Northern Kentucky Association of Realtors and the Spokane Association of Realtors in Washington, alleging antitrust violations through Realtor association and MLS membership ties-ins. Both suits are pending and neither has reached trial.

The plaintiff in the Kentucky suit is Sherry Edwards, broker of Florence, Ky.-based Buyer’s Corner Realty. Edwards seeks return of association membership dues from the past four years.

Real estate brokers Mathew Prencipe and William Koshman of Prencipe Realty and Robert Cooke of R.H. Cooke & Associates are the plaintiffs in the Spokane suit, which seeks up to $8.7 million in damages and an injunction ordering the association to sell MLS memberships to agents whether or not they join the Realtor association.


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