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Minnesota Commerce Department fines title insurance company, real estate agent for kickback scheme

3/20/2017 12:51:44 PM

For Immediate Release:

SAINT PAUL – Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman announced that his department has fined an Elk River title insurance company and a Maple Grove real estate agent for a kickback scheme in which the agent steered nearly all of his clients to the company in exchange for valuable perks for himself.

The enforcement actions are part of a continuing investigation of potential violations of anti-kickback laws in Minnesota’s real estate industry. The Commerce Department recently took similar action against TitleSmart, a Maplewood-based title insurance company that hosted wine-and-dine boat cruises with real estate agents and mortgage lenders to get their clients’ referral business.

“This is about protecting consumers and ensuring a fair marketplace,” said Rothman, whose agency regulates the state’s real estate and insurance sectors. “Buying or selling a home is a complicated process and a big financial decision. These transactions shouldn’t be tainted by conflicts of interest that can increase costs for consumers. When a company offers perks and prizes to get referrals from real estate agents, consumers can’t trust that their best interests are being served.”

On behalf of their clients, real estate agents often recommend title insurance and closing services for residential real estate transactions. However, it is the client who ultimately pays for these services as part of the transaction.

Under the terms of the enforcement orders, the Commerce Department has imposed a $45,000 civil penalty against Liberty Title, Inc., and a $5,000 civil penalty against real estate agent Brandon Doyle.

The Commerce Department alleges that Liberty Title and Doyle violated the federal Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), which prohibits giving or receiving any “thing of value” in exchange for referrals of home settlement-related business.

According to the Commerce Department investigation:

Liberty Title provided Doyle with numerous free meals, hotel accommodations in San Francisco and other perks between July 2014 and June 2015.

In the three-year period from 2013 through 2015, Doyle represented buyers and sellers in a total of 69 transactions. None of the 20 transactions in 2013 closed at Liberty Title, while eight of the 26 transactions in 2014 closed at the company. In 2015, by contrast, virtually all of the transactions (20 of 23) closed at Liberty Title.

Under the anti-kickback law, a violation may be established by a pattern of conduct and does not require evidence of a written or oral agreement between the participants.

Tips for Consumers

Rothman offers the following tips to Minnesota homebuyers about choosing a specific title and settlement services company:

  • The consumer has the right to shop around and choose their own title and settlement services company in a real estate transaction. 
  • Make sure the company and the closing agent are licensed in Minnesota. /commerce/consumers/tips-tools/license-lookup.jspUse the Commerce Department’s online License Lookup.
  • If an agent recommends a specific company, ask why that company is being recommended. Does the agent have any business or marketing arrangements with the company? Will the agent receive any referral fees or other compensation (such as meals, free advertising, sports tickets or prizes) from the company?

Commerce is here to help

If you have a question about title insurance or a related real estate issue, contact the Commerce Department’s Consumer Services Center by email at consumer.protection@state.mn.us or by phone at 651-539-1600 or 800-657-3602 (Greater Minnesota).

Media Contact:
Ross Corson
Director of Communications
Minnesota Department of Commerce
P: 651-539-1463 | C: 651-368-5050 | ross.corson@state.mn.us

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