In compliance with NAR’s Statements of Professional Standards Policy, every local and state association of REALTORS® is required to offer Ombudsman Services to members, clients, and consumers. GHAR receives and resolves Ethics Complaints which are carried out by a Grievance and a Professional Standards Committee. However, many complaints do not allege a violation of the Code of Ethics. Many Ethics complaints could be averted with enhanced communications and problem solving at a local level capacity with Ombudsman Services. Some complaints are transactional, technical or procedural.
Definition and Role of Ombudsman
An Ombudsman is a trained individual appointed to receive and resolve disputes through constructive communication. The simplest definition is informal mediation resolved via telephone. The Ombudsman does not determine whether or not a violation of the Code of Ethics has occurred, but would assist in resolving miscommunications or disputes before they could escalate into a complaint. An Ombudsman is not an adjudicator, and would not make decisions, but would help parties find resolutions. The Ombudsman may facilitate a teleconference or a meeting of the parties, if they feel it is deemed necessary to resolve the dispute.
The Ombudsman Panel will be made up of 4 members of the GHAR Professional Standards Committee. Ombudsmen will be appointed for a one year term. Appointed Ombudsmen will be familiar with the Code of Ethics, PA state real estate regulations, and are experienced real estate licensees. Ombudsmen will be members of good standing with GHAR. Ombudsmen should have a minimum of 10 years of real estate experience, with a minimum of 5 years of combined service on either GHAR’s Grievance and/or Professional Standards Committees. Appointed Ombudsmen will be required to attend PAR’s annual Professional Standards training.
Initial contact with the association for Ombudsman Services would be made through the GHAR Professional Standards Administrator either via telephone, e-mail, or online request. Additionally, offering of Ombudsman Services shall be made by the Professional Standards Administrator, who will act as staff liaison and will determine whether a complaint can be diverted to an Ombudsman before a complaint is filed. Complainant will be advised that they may decline Ombudsman Services, and have their complaint forwarded onto a Grievance Committee for review as a possible violation of the Code of Ethics, if deemed necessary. Professional Standards Administrator would assign an Ombudsman from the 5 person appointed panel. The Professional Standards Administrator will ascertain that the assigned Ombudsman does not have any conflicts with either party or any company involved, and has no social, economic or familial connections with either party. Once an Ombudsman is assigned, the Professional Standards Administrator will e-mail both parties’ information to the Ombudsman which would include: their names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, broker, firm names, and each party’s role in the transaction.
Types of Complaints that CAN be assigned to an Ombudsman
Questions about real estate practices, transaction details, ethical practices, enforcement issues, nonmonetary or small monetary cases, uncomplicated and communication based complaints, questions and complaints about members, cases that may be solved by providing basic education or knowledge.
Types of Complaints that CANNOT be handled by an Ombudsman
Alleged violations of the law, fair housing violations, discrimination complaints, complaints or cases already referred to a legal counselor, those currently in the judicial process, or possible violations of public trust.
Benefits of Ombudsman Services
Consumer can receive non-judgmental real estate related information in a timely manner, at no cost.
What an Ombudsman CANNOT do
An Ombudsman cannot make a final binding decision, give legal advice, determine who is right or wrong, disclose confidential communications, or make any written records of discussions or arguments. Ombudsmen cannot be called in as a witness in either a Professional Standards Hearing, or court case. Ombudsmen cannot refer concerns they have regarding conduct of any party to the Pennsylvania State Real Estate Commission (PA SREC) or any other regulatory body. However, they may refer possible violations of the Code of Ethics onto the GHAR Professional Standards Administrator, to refer to the Grievance Committee.
Ombudsman Duties to Complainant
The assigned Ombudsman will act as liaison between the Complainant and the Respondent. The assigned Ombudsman must contact the Complainant within 48 hours of being assigned the complaint. The assigned Ombudsman must make a minimum of three attempts to contact the parties. All inquiries, whether written or oral, shall be confidential, and may not be disclosed. An Ombudsman must destroy any notes or logs taken during the Ombudsman Services. Any documents, statements, work memoranda, or other items disclosed during Ombudsman Services will remain confidential and may not be disclosed by subpoena, deposition or other judicial proceedings.
Resolution of Dispute by Ombudsman Services
If a complaint, which was initially received as an Ethics Complaint, is resolved by the appointed Ombudsman, GHAR will dismiss the initial complaint. No further action is necessary.
Disputes not resolved by Ombudsman Services
If at the conclusion of Ombudsman Services, a mutually agreed upon resolution is not met, the Ombudsman will notify the Professional Standards Administrator, who will advise the Complainant of the next possible steps in the complaint process. In cases where a formal Ethics Complaint has not been filed, the Complainant will be notified of their right to file an Ethics Complaint. If Ombudsman Services were offered as a result of a filed Ethics Complaint, the Ethics Complaint process will resume where it left off. The 180 day filing deadline for the complaint shall be suspended during the Ombudsman Services until the Ombudsman Services have been completed. Time shall resume from the date in which the matter was originally filed with GHAR, prior to the start of the Ombudsman Services. Other resolution options to be offered by the GHAR Professional Standards Administrator could include: obtaining legal advice, filing a formal complaint with the PA SREC, filing a Request and Agreement to Arbitrate, filing an Ethics Complaint or requesting Mediation Services. Professional Standards Committee Members who served as Ombudsmen in complaints which are not resolved through Ombudsman Services, would be precluded from serving in any formal hearing processes available through the Association such as Ethics or Arbitration Hearing Panels.