Kelly Guerrero, based in San Antonio, Texas, filed a state lawsuit against Coldwell Banker Real Estate — the Realogy Holdings Corp. subsidiary in charge of Coldwell Banker franchised brokerages — on Nov. 21, 2018. At the request of New Jersey-based Coldwell Banker, the case was moved to federal court this week, on Jan. 2.
The case is a reminder of the gender imbalance in the real estate industry: female heavy at the bottom, among agents, and male heavy at the top, among managers and executives.
The lawsuit alleges Coldwell Banker fired Guerrero from her position as the company’s only female senior district director in retaliation for a complaint she made regarding severance packages offered to her male counterparts but not to her, and defamed her by telling its corporate staff and more than 250 franchised brokerages she had been fired for “ethics violations.”
The suit seeks a jury trial and monetary relief of between $200,000 and $1 million for compensatory, economic and punitive damages; legal costs and injury to reputation.
“Kelly Guerrero has been materially damaged as a direct and proximate result of the defaming statements and representations made by … Coldwell Banker Real Estate,” wrote Guerrero’s attorneys in the suit.
“Specifically, the Plaintiff’s profession has been damaged, as she has been recklessly and maliciously accused of ‘ethics violations’ that unambiguously involve charges of dishonesty and fraud.”
In an emailed statement to Inman, Coldwell Banker Real Estate said, “The Company followed appropriate procedures regarding Kelly Guerrero’s employment and her claims are without merit.”
Coldwell Banker declined to comment further, citing pending litigation. Guerrero affiliated with Coldwell Banker D’Ann Harper Realty as a licensed real estate agent in February 2018, after her termination.
A complaint over differential treatment
According to Guerrero’s attorneys, Guerrero worked for Coldwell Banker between 1997 and 2002 and left her position as vice president of concierge services amicably after she was unable to agree to a mandatory job transfer to New Jersey.
After a five-year stint in the mortgage industry, Guerrero returned to work for Coldwell Banker in December 2008 as an executive business consultant overseeing the company’s franchisees.
In April 2015, Guerrero became a senior district director supervising a team of five business consultants who worked with Coldwell Banker franchisees in the Southwestern United States.
In June 2016, as part of a corporate restructuring, “several similarly situated male employees” were given severance packages, but when Guerrero asked about a possible severance package, she was “invited” to resign and told she would not be getting a package, according to the suit.
Guerrero did not resign, but did make an oral complaint internally regarding what she believed to be differential treatment between her and her male counterparts and asking for a resolution, her attorney Daniel Salas of Kennard Law told Inman in a phone interview.
A dead broker-owner and an inappropriate offer
In November 2017, one of Guerrero’s subordinates, a business consultant named Tami Goss, informed Guerrero that the owner of one of her franchisees had passed away. Goss told Guerrero that the owner’s daughter intended to sell his assets and that Goss’ fiance was interested in buying the franchise.
“Knowing that such a transaction would be a conflict of interest due to Ms. Goss’ access to confidential information, Ms. Guerrero instructed Ms. Goss to not get involved. In addition, Ms. Guerrero also sent the same directive to Ms. Goss via text message. In response, Ms. Goss acknowledged Ms. Guerrero’s directive and agreed not to proceed with the transaction,” the suit said.
“Afterward, the franchisee’s daughter contacted Ms. Guerrero to ask that Ms. Goss not have any further contact with her deceased father’s company; to which Ms. Guerrero acquiesced, communicating this directive to Ms. Goss.”
No other coworker was present when Guerrero spoke to Goss about the deceased owner’s brokerage, according to Salas. On Dec. 19, 2017, Angie McDonald, Coldwell Banker’s vice president of human resources, informed Guerrero she was being fired for allegedly allowing Goss to make an offer on the brokerage.
“In fact, Ms. Guerrero had explicitly forbidden Ms. Goss from engaging in such activity and had text messages that proved her innocence. When Ms. Guerrero rightfully protested the allegations, she was informed, ‘This is not debatable, and the outcome is final,'” the suit said.
“Once the call was completed, Ms. Guerrero located the text messages and notified Ms. McDonald that she had messages that proved she had directed Ms. Goss not to proceed with her original intentions and her agreement not to do so. Despite this evidence, Ms. McDonald informed Ms. Guerrero that it was too late and a decision had been made.”
Within 20 minutes, her district and its 20 ambassadors had been reassigned to other senior district managers, all of them men, according to the suit. The suit alleged that at least one of Guerrero’s male counterparts, a senior district director named Bob Christian, was paid a higher salary than Guerrero, despite her having 13 more years of experience with Coldwell Banker and supervising more consultants.
The next day, Guerrero found out that the entire broker network — more than 250 franchised companies — had been told in an email that she had been terminated for “ethics violations” and corporate staff of more than 20 employees had been told the same in a meeting, according to Salas.
“These are the things that after my client made a complaint they’re trying to throw in to muddy the water,” Salas said.
“Their position is that my client did nothing to stop [Goss’ offer], which was basically a lie. We have text messages to convey this. Our client made known that she had this evidence … but they didn’t want to see it,” he added.
To retaliate against Guerrero for making a complaint alleging gender discrimination is illegal, according to Salas. “It’s in the interest of all to weed out this kind of discrimination, so the law gives protected status to people who make these types of complaints,” he said.
When asked how many senior district directors there were at Coldwell Banker, how many were offered severance packages, and whether Coldwell Banker had talked to Goss before firing Guerrero, Salas said he didn’t know and that that information would come out in discovery as the case proceeds.
Asked whether Guerrero being paid less than her male counterparts was part of her gender discrimination claim, Salas said, “That’s one of the elements of it, yes. I believe it was just this one [Bob Christian] that she had knowledge of. But the discovery process we’re hoping that it reveals more than what we know.”
Coldwell Banker responds
Coldwell Banker filed an answer to Guerrero’s suit in December denying all of Guerrero’s allegations.
The real estate company defended its statements regarding Guerrero by saying that they “were made in a good faith belief of their truth, based upon all relevant facts and circumstances known by Defendant at the time” and “were not made with actual malice or reckless disregard for Plaintiff’s rights.”
Coldwell Banker also said that “any alleged defamatory statements were true or substantially true” and that any actions the company took concerning Guerrero “were done for legitimate, non-retaliatory, and non-discriminatory reasons.”
Moreover, Coldwell Banker said it was “not liable for any alleged discrimination or retaliation because Defendant has measures in place to prevent and/or correct discrimination and retaliation, such measure which Plaintiff unreasonably failed to utilize.”
And lastly, Coldwell Banker asked that if Guerrero was awarded compensation for damages, it should be reduced or eliminated “due to the after-acquired evidence doctrine.” According to Cornell Law School, that doctrine refers to facts an employer learns after firing an employee for which the employer would have fired the employee anyway.
Regarding the company’s answer, Salas said in an email, “Realogy will need to prove up each defense with evidence as the litigation process moves forward.”