Lawsuits shine light on kickbacks, sham agreements in real estate services

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 27, 2013

Do you remember signing page after page of legal documents at the settlement when you bought your house? All those fees you had to approve?

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

If you’re like me, you had a nagging feeling that somehow, in some way, you were paying more than you should have been.

We’re entirely right to worry. A wave of lawsuits and government investigations is shining a light on suspicious dealings among some of the folks who sell us houses, mortgages, title insurance and other real estate services.

Regulators and private lawyers have uncovered kickbacks and sham agreements that drove up fees paid by customers and discouraged free competition.

Many of the unsavory practices now being exposed took hold during the real estate boom before the 2008 financial crisis. Today, as the home-buying market heats up again, consumers need to be alert to the dangers.

In a new case in Maryland, a civil suit claims that a prominent Howard County real estate agent received hundreds of thousands of dollars of illicit payments over a period of 13 years to send settlement business to a local title firm.

The class-action suit alleges that the undisclosed kickbacks violated a federal law designed to protect home buyers against inflated fees. It claims at least 3,000 customers were harmed and asks $11.2 million in damages.

The agent, Creig Northrop of Clarksville, denies wrongdoing and will vigorously fight the complaint, his lawyer said. Northrop is affiliated with the large Long & Foster brokerage, and boasts on his Web site that his group has been listed as the No. 1 real estate team in both Maryland and the country.

In another recent case, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced April 4 that four major national mortgage insurers agreed to pay $15.4 million in penalties to settle a complaint that they had made improper payments to mortgage lenders in exchange for business.

“These types of kickbacks were a common practice in the years leading up to the financial crisis,” the bureau said.

In a suit in Anne Arundel County last year, a jury awarded $97,000 in damages after finding that a mortgage broker and title company had set up a sham partnership to steer business to the latter. (The case is on appeal.)

That case was one of more than a dozen brought by Frederick lawyer Phillip Robinson. He predicted more are on the way.

“The fallout of the heyday of the 2000s is this kind of stuff is now being uncovered. These kinds of situations and relationships infected many transactions. I think we’ll be hearing more about this for the next few years,” Robinson said.

The suit against Howard County agent Northrop was filed in federal court last month. Some intriguing details are already public, because the complaint is based partly on depositions and documents in an earlier claim against him in state court.

Northrop received $6,000 to $12,000 a month from Lakeview Title under a 2008 marketing agreement between the two, according to court papers in the earlier case.

The agreement provided that Northrop would “designate Lakeview as its exclusive preferred settlement and title company,” and would not “designate or endorse any entity” other than Lakeview for such business.

The new lawsuit alleges that the marketing deal was a clear violation of a U.S. law, known as RESPA, which prohibits a firm from receiving compensation in exchange for referrals for real estate settlement services.

Before 2008, the lawsuit claims, Lakeview also made illicit payments to Northrop in exchange for referrals. It alleges that Lakeview did so via a sham employment agreement with Northrop’s wife, Carla Northrop.

Lakeview didn’t get all of Northrop’s business, but it got a lot. From 2005 to 2009, Lakeview handled between 49 percent and 61 percent of settlements when Northrop was representing the home buyer, according to Northrop’s lawyer.

(Much of the earlier lawsuit, in state court, was defeated on technical grounds. A judge ruled that the complaint didn’t qualify as a class action and that the statute of limitations had expired. The plaintiffs plan to appeal.)

Lawyers for the Northrops, Long & Foster and Lakeview said that both Carla Northrop’s job and the marketing agreement were legitimate. They said all the payments were for permissible marketing services and not for referrals, as the lawsuit claims.

In any case, Northrop’s customers were not necessarily informed about the ties with Lakeview. The defendants’ lawyers said it “would not be typical or customary to disclose those relationships to people buying the houses.”

In general, lack of disclosure is a problem, according to industry specialists. Before signing all those documents, a buyer should know about any side agreement between the realtor and settlement company, or bank and mortgage broker.

“Get independent advice from people who have no financial stake in the transaction,” counsels Robinson. “The whole notion of one-stop shopping, that’s ridiculous. There is no upside for any homeowner to do one-stop shopping for the most important investment of their life.”

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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