This story was updated Friday afternoon with additional comment from the National Association of Realtors.
Days after a new lawsuit accused the National Association of Realtors and President Kenny Parcell of sexual and racial harassment, the trade organization revealed it previously knew about and investigated the claims — and reiterated that it rejects them — even as industry members demanded accountability on Friday.
In a statement to Inman on Friday, NAR spokesperson Mantill Williams said his organization “prides itself on being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our employees,” and that it investigates claims of misconduct. Significantly, the statement also reveals that NAR “previously, thoroughly investigated the claims in this lawsuit by hiring an independent, outside law firm to conduct the investigation and advise on lawful outcomes.”
“Based on the findings of that independent, third party investigation, we reject the claims filed in this lawsuit and we will vigorously defend against them,” the statement concluded.
The comments are a response to a lawsuit from Janelle Brevard, who previously served as NAR’s chief storyteller. The suit’s complaint states that while working for NAR Brevard became involved in a relationship with Parcell that involved “sexually explicit conversations as well as Parcell’s request for sexual favors.”
Brevard later told Parcell she wanted to break off the relationship, the complaint states, and spoke to attorneys about the situation. The complaint says that three other women also spoke to attorneys about Parcell’s alleged sexual harassment. Those other three women are white, as is Parcell, while Brevard is Black.
NAR later fired Brevard, which the complaint describes as retaliation. The other women were not fired, and Parcell was elevated from his role as NAR’s president-elect to the position of president.
“Defendant discriminated against plaintiff based on her race,” the complaint concludes.
NAR previously said in a statement on Wednesday that it rejected the claims in the suit.
But Friday’s comment provides a critical update by publicly revealing for the first time that an independent investigation into the claims has already taken place. NAR declined to say specifically when that investigation occurred, and did not provide details about any findings the investigation produced.
Though Brevard’s suit repeatedly mentions Parcell by name, only NAR is listed as an actual defendant. The case is still in its earliest stages; Brevard’s attorneys have asked for a jury trial though no court dates are set.
Though many questions about the situation remain unanswered, the allegations alone rattled the industry, with a number of agents demanding action and indicating that their faith in NAR is shaken.
“What’s especially sickening in this case, is that NAR is not just a company or a trade organization, it is purportedly the bastion of ethical compliance for all of the companies, leaders, and agents in our field,” Melissa V. Stone, an eXp Realty agent in Arkansas, told Inman, adding that now she wants accountability.
“When I demand accountability, I know I’m not alone.”
Vincent Arcuri of LPT Realty was also alarmed by the case.
“This is despicable and to make the person who broke off the affair a scapegoat?” he told Inman. “I believe her 100 percent as this practice has been going on since the beginning of modern times.”
Arcuri went on to say that he is “fast losing confidence in those in charge,” ultimately asking “where is the integrity?”
Bernice Ross, a real estate coach and Inman contributor, offered a similar perspective, arguing that “allowing such behaviors to persist is not only morally wrong, but it’s also illegal.”
“The president of NAR should be a role model who sets the tone for the organization’s behavior,” Ross continued. “His behavior should exemplify the highest standards of professional conduct.”
Other industry professionals took more of a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the specific allegations, but were adamant that the case highlights a bigger, deeper problem.
“I do not assume to know the truth in this case, but regardless should we really be surprised that it has come up?” Pam Blair, broker-owner of YogaBug Real Estate in Oregon, told Inman. “We live in an age where organizations, systems, old ways of being are being questioned and redefined. Our industry is no different.”
Blair went on to argue that she finds the allegations in the lawsuit “horrific,” though she also hopes that a “strong light” continues to shine on the topic. The problem, she said, is that harassment is “systemic” in real estate — with Blair adding that she herself has been the victim of sexual harassment multiple times during her career.
“This behavior is damaging to an individual on every level of their being,” Blair continued, going on to say that such cases represent a “mockery of the Code of Ethics that NAR” is founded on.
Sarah Zdeb, managing director and broker-in-charge at JPAR Carolina Living in North Carolina, also called for more attention on the issue.
“My initial reaction is, I’m almost not surprised,” Zdeb told Inman. “And that’s really sad. Because we have so much of this going on, not just in our industry, but for women in the workplace in general. It’s time that we actually have more and more attention so that it will help these men understand. We’re not going to tolerate it.”
Zdeb went on to say that as more women speak up, tolerance for misbehavior is shrinking.
“You better watch out,” she added.
In Blair’s case, she additionally called on industry leaders to serve as positive examples and role models.
“The toxic and archaic code of silence around this issue needs to be broken for any real progress to take place,” she said. “We need strong, ethical, diverse leadership to enforce and continually improve policies around any type of discrimination to make our industry better and to attract the best and brightest moving forward.”
Jeff Rising, the broker-owner of RE/MAX Main Street Realty in Michigan, similarly stressed that he doesn’t know all the details of the case and wants to “reserve any judgement until” the situation is litigated. But he noted that the complaint mentions multiple women who have raised harassment allegations, adding that in many cases “where there’s smoke there’s fire.”
“It’s just kind of shocking to see this kind of behavior coming from NAR leadership at the very highest level,” he said.
Rising also suggested that such situations could take a toll on the broader industry. The issue, he argued, is that one of Realtors’ main selling points is that they’re required to abide by a code of ethics that goes above and beyond state level rules for agents generally. In other words, one of the reasons for consumers to trust and hire Realtors is explicitly because they’re supposed to be ethical people. But scandals in NAR leadership potentially undermine the sense of trust Realtors are trying to build with their clients.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Rising added.
In addition to a jury trial, Brevard and her lawyers have also asked for monetary damages and for her to be reinstated at her job, among other things. Her suit ultimately alleges six counts of alleged sexual and racial harassment.
But some of the industry professionals who spoke to Inman also suggested the case should result in a leadership change at NAR. Among them, Stone described the allegations as a pattern of unethical behavior and said she’d like to see Parcell leave his position as NAR’s president.
“My hope is that he will be fired, new policies will be enacted, and NAR transforms itself,” Stone said, “to a place where truth and justice are the standard operating procedure.”
Update: This post was updated after publication with additional comment from NAR.