This story was updated Friday afternoon with additional comment from the National Association of Realtors.
Days charged after a new lawsuit The National Association of Realtors and sexual and racial harassment president Kenny Parcell, the trade organization, revealed it was previously aware of and investigated the claims — and reiterated its denials — even as industry members demanded accountability Friday.
In a statement to Inman on Friday, NAR spokesman Mantill Williams said his organization “prides itself on being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all of our employees” and that it is investigating the allegations of misconduct. Significantly, the statement also reveals that NAR “had previously thoroughly investigated the claims in this lawsuit by engaging an independent outside law firm to conduct an investigation and advise on legal outcomes.”
“Based on the findings of this independent third-party investigation, we reject the claims made in this lawsuit and will vigorously defend against them,” the statement concluded.
The comments are in response to a lawsuit filed by Janelle Brevard, who previously served as NAR’s chief storyteller. The lawsuit’s complaint states that while working for NAR, Brevard became involved in a relationship with Parcell that included “sexually explicit conversations, as well as Parcell’s request for sexual favors.”
Brevard later told Parcell that she wanted to end the relationship, the complaint states, and had discussed the situation with lawyers. The complaint says three other women have spoken with attorneys about Parcell’s alleged sexual harassment. The other three women are white, as is Parcell, while Brevard is black.
NAR later fired Brevard in what the complaint describes as retaliation. The other women were not fired, and Parcell was promoted from her role as NAR president-elect to the position of president.
“The defendant discriminated against the plaintiff based on her race,” the complaint concludes.
NAR said in a statement earlier Wednesday that it denied the allegations in the lawsuit.
But Friday’s commentary provides a critical update by revealing publicly for the first time that an independent investigation into the claims has already taken place. NAR declined to say specifically when that investigation took place and did not provide details on any findings the investigation produced.
Although Brevard’s lawsuit repeatedly names Parcell, only NAR is named as the actual defendant. The case is still in the early stages; Brevard’s attorneys have requested a jury trial, though no trial dates have been set.
Although many questions about the situation remain unanswered, the allegations themselves have rocked the industry, with a number of agents demanding action and suggesting their faith in NAR is shaken.
“In this case, it’s particularly disgusting that NAR is not just a company or trade organization, it’s supposed to be a bastion of ethical compliance for all companies, leaders and representatives in our industry,” says Melissa V. Stone. An eXp Realty agent in Arkansas told Inman, adding that she now wants accountability.
“When I demand accountability, I know I’m not alone.”
Vincent Arcuri of LPT Realty was also concerned about the case.
“This is despicable and making a scapegoat of the person who broke up the affair?” he said to Inman. “I believe her 100 percent because this practice has been going on since the beginning of modern times.”
Arcuri went on to say that he was “rapidly losing confidence in those in charge” and finally asked, “Where is the integrity?
Bernice Ross, a real estate coach and contributor to Inman, offered a similar view, arguing that “permitting this kind of behavior is not only morally wrong, it’s illegal.”
“The NAR president should be the role model that sets the tone for the organization’s behavior,” Ross continued. “His conduct should exemplify the highest standards of professional conduct.”
Other industry professionals took a more wait-and-see approach when it came to specific allegations, but were adamant that the case pointed to a larger, deeper problem.
“I suppose I don’t know the truth in this case, but regardless, should we really be surprised that it came out?” Pam Blair, broker and owner of YogaBug Real Estate in Oregon, told Inman. “We live in an age where organizations, systems and old ways of being are being challenged and redefined. Our industry is no different.”
Blair went on to say that she found the allegations in the lawsuit to be “horrific”, although she also hoped that a “strong light” would continue to shine on the subject. The problem, she says, is that harassment is “systemic” in real estate – with Blair adding that she herself has been the victim of sexual harassment several times in her career.
“This behavior harms the individual on every level of their being,” Blair continued, adding that such cases make “a mockery of the Code of Ethics upon which the NAR is founded.”
Sarah Zdeb, managing director and broker-in-charge of JPAR Carolina Living in North Carolina, also called for more attention to the issue.
“My first reaction is that it hardly surprises me,” Zdeb told Inman. “And that’s really sad. Because there is so much going on not just in our industry, but for women in the workplace in general. It’s about time we have more and more attention to help these men understand. We will not tolerate it.”
Zdeb went on to say that as more women speak up, the tolerance for inappropriate behavior decreases.
“You better watch out,” she added.
Additionally, in Blair’s case, she called on industry leaders to serve as positive examples and role models.
“For real progress to be made, the toxic and archaic code of silence around this issue needs to be broken,” she said. “We need strong, ethical, diverse leadership to promote and continually improve policies on any type of discrimination to improve our industry and attract the best and brightest moving forward.”
Jeff Rising, broker-owner of RE/MAX Main Street Realty in Michigan, similarly emphasized that he does not know all the details of the case and wants to “reserve any judgment until” the situation is in court. However, he noted that the complaint mentions several women who have made allegations of harassment, adding that in many cases “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
“It’s just kind of shocking to see this kind of behavior from NAR leadership at the highest level,” he said.
Rising also suggested that such situations could take a toll on the wider industry. The problem, he argued, is that one of the main selling points for real estate agents is that they must adhere to a code of ethics that goes beyond state rules for agents in general. In other words, one of the reasons consumers trust and hire real estate agents is expressly because they are assumed to be ethical people. But the scandals in NAR’s leadership potentially undermine the sense of trust that real estate agencies try to build with their clients.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Rising added.
In addition to the jury trial, Brevard and her attorneys sought, among other things, monetary damages and reinstatement. Her lawsuit ultimately alleges six counts of alleged sexual and racial harassment.
But some industry experts who spoke to Inman also suggested the case would result in a change in NAR leadership. Between them, Stone described the allegations as a pattern of unethical behavior and said she would like to see Parcell leave his position as NAR president.
“I hope he gets fired, new policies are enacted and NAR is transformed,” Stone said, “into a place where truth and justice are standard operating procedure.”
Update: This post was updated with additional comment from NAR after publication.