The National Association of Realtors held a professional standards forum online Wednesday morning, offering tips on how to hold virtual hearings for standards enforcement.
The forum was one of 42 sessions the 1.4 million-member trade group is streaming as part of its midyear conference, the first-ever Virtual Realtors Legislative Meetings, which will run until the NAR board of directors meeting on May 15.
The corollary to the forum, the Professional Standards Committee meeting, is one of 82 sessions NAR is not streaming and occurred just before the forum. The committee’s role is to interpret NAR’s Code of Ethics and Professional Standards, suggest amendments to it and recommend enforcement actions, according to the trade group. Associations hold ethics or arbitration hearings as part of their efforts to enforce the standards.
When shelter-in-place orders went out, some Realtor associations decided to figure out how to continue to hold professional standards enforcement hearings, both for the sake of due process and timeliness. Panelist Anne Kealing, associate legal counsel for Minnesota Realtors, noted that the state association covers professionals standards across the state and in 2019 had a total of 119 case filings and held 56 hearings, just over one per week on average.
If the association paused hearings “the backlog of cases would be very tough to catch-up on,” especially not knowing when the pandemic would end, she told forum attendees.
Her first hearing via Zoom was on March 18. While the process was cumbersome at first, it is now automated, she said.
Kealing and fellow panelist Tonya Deskins, vice president of member services at the West and SouthEast Realtors of the Valley in Arizona, described a similar process for their virtual hearings.
They make sure all parties and panelists feel comfortable with their equipment and with Zoom and offer each a test run, including testing out the chat function. The parties are informed that the hearing must be confidential and away from other people. The parties must swear that they are alone in the room and that what is discussed will be kept confidential. They use the “waiting room” feature in Zoom to hold people that don’t need to speak to each other and the “breakout room” feature to move parties, such as agents consulting with brokers, into “rooms” where they can talk privately.
They have everyone appear on video who can and they record the hearing, but only the audio portion, which Zoom allows. The parties are unmuted so that they can object at any time. Kealing has found that “gallery view works best” during the hearing.
Deskins, whose association has held about eight virtual hearings since last month, said one challenge was how to submit evidence during the hearing. The solution they came up with was to have the party email the evidence to her to share it with the panel chair. If the chair allows it, then Deskins emails it to the other parties.
Both Deskins and Kealing found the virtual hearings to be a positive change. Deskins said the hearings have been “efficient and productive” and remarked that they seem to be easier on the parties, who are more comfortable being in their own space without having to sit next to someone who may feel animosity toward them.
“The parties have been very receptive. Only one hearing has been cancelled because one witness was uncomfortable with the technology,” she said.
Kealing noted that the virtual hearings were a nice change in the sense that people often talk over each other during in-person hearings, which is less common over Zoom. She feels that the parties get the same level of due process and the members have mostly had good reactions to it.
“[They] don’t want to come into the hearing room,” she said. “A lot of times they just want to get it over with.”
An added bonus is that associations often pay for mileage for their volunteer panelists and sometimes feed them as well, so virtual hearings save money, Kealing and Deskins added.
At the beginning of the forum, Debbie Shields, the forum’s chair, showed the only action item the Professional Standards Committee voted on, which are revisions to standards having to do with amending complaints prior to and during hearings.
Shields said the committee unanimously approved the revisions and they will go forward to the NAR board of directors. There was no discussion of the revisions or the rationale behind them during the forum.