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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Fredrik’s Fiduciary Duty – Million Dollar Listing New York

Fredrik Eklund: Photo

Spoiler Alert: The below is a legal analysis of Fredrik Eklund's role in the April 2, 2014 Season 3, Episode 1 of Million Dollar Listing New York.

The premier of this season of Million Dollar Listing New York, The City Will Eat You Alive, places Douglas Elliman's Fredrik Eklund, in an ethical quandary and he comes out looking as professional as ever while making the deal for his client and getting a commission along the way.

In the episode, "Fredrik lands his dream listing, only to find out that the seller may be his worst nightmare". The Seller is a micromanager; sound familiar? He knows what he wants, $9.5M, and he makes it clear that he doesn't want to be bothered for anything less. However, Fredrik got an offer of $8M.

What should he do?

As a Licensed Real Estate Salesperson in the State of New York, an agent can have one of five types of agency with differing corresponding Fiduciary Duties dependent on the applicable agency type, to wit:

  1. Seller's Agent
  2. Buyer's Agent
  3. Dual Agent
  4. Dual Agent with Designated Sales Agent
  5. Broker's Agent

An agency relationship means the duties of a licensed individual in representing the interests of its principal in this context. Here, Fredrik was clearly a Seller's Agent, as his interests were aligned with the Seller; he was trying to get the Seller the most possible money in the transaction. In fact, the Agency Disclosure Form in the State of New York, states as to a Seller's Agent, the following: "A seller's agent does this by securing a buyer for the seller's home at a price and on terms acceptable to the seller". Conversely in the situation displayed in the episode, where Fredrik was receiving the $8M offer at the restaurant, Fredrik was meeting with a Buyer's Agent who had previously viewed the property at a Broker's Open House. The Buyer's Agent was clearly aligned with the Buyer's interests, offering a significantly lower number than the Ask. In fact, the Agency Disclosure Form in the State of New York, states as to a Buyer's Agent, the following: "The buyer's agent does this by negotiating the purchase of a home at a price and on terms acceptable to the buyer". As a result, in the episode, the Buyer's Agent owed his Fiduciary Duties to the Buyer and Fredrik, the Seller's Agent, owed his Fiduciary Duties to the Seller.

To clarify, a Buyer's Agent and a Seller's Agent cannot work at the same brokerage company by operation of New York State Law. Instead, where two agents at the same company work an In-House Deal, representing the interests of different parties to the transaction, that type of agency is called a Dual Agent with Designated Sales Agent in New York State. However, where an agent represents the interest of the Seller and a different agent represents the interest of the Buyer there are two possible types of agency that can apply, with the dispositive factor as to the appropriate agency being whether the opposing agents work at the same brokerage company. If the agents work at the same brokerage company, the agency is called a Dual Agent with Designated Sales Agent. If the agents work at different brokerage companies, one agent would be the Seller's Agent and one agent would be the Buyer's Agent, which is the situation Fredrik was engaged in during this episode.

In a Dual Agent with Designated Sales Agent situation the agents have compromised Fiduciary Duties because they both report to the same supervisor. In fact, the New York State Agency Disclosure Form states, as to this conflict, the following: "The designated sales agent must explain that like the dual agent under whose supervision they function, they cannot provide undivided loyalty". Yet, Fredrik was a Seller's Agent, and as such, had the following Fiduciary Duties to his client, the Seller, including: (1) Confidentiality; (2) Obedience; (3) Loyalty; (4) Accountability; (5) Disclosure; and (6) Reasonable Care.

Which Fiduciary Duties were at play in the scenario faced by Fredrik when he received an $8M offer while his client didn't want to hear about anything below $9.5M?

Fredrik had two competing Fiduciary Duties in this scenario, one to be obedient to his Client's instructions and one to give full disclosure to his Client. So, on the one hand Fredrik had to listen to his client's direction to not bother him absent a full Ask offer, but on the other hand, Fredrik lacked the authority to reject the $8M offer without his Client's authority, which first required him to fully disclose the offer to his Client.

So what happened?

Fredrik chose right and advised his client of the offer in the face of knowing all the while that he was going to be lambasted for making the call. To know that Fredrik's decision was correct an agent only needs to do a Cost / Benefit Analysis of the choices. The worst case scenario in telling your client that they received an offer below the Ask is that they are unhappy and give you grief about wasting their time. However, the worst case scenario in not disclosing an offer to your Client is that the Client claims that you breached your Fiduciary Duties and makes a complaint to the Department of State charging you with a License Law Violation. In fact, the Department of State has previously suspended a real estate agent's license for a period of six months for failing to transmit an offer and also failing to provide an agency disclosure form in a matter called Lemcke v. Department of State. So, it seems like a rather simple choice for a real estate agent faced with this predicament.

In Million Dollar Listing the choice was not only the safest, but the best for the agent and the Client as well. You see, by making the call and engaging his principal, the Seller, Fredrik initiated a dialogue that resulted in a deal at $8.8M. A win for the Seller, Buyer and the agents involved.