Meeting in the Virtual Middle

Enforce professional standards through virtual hearings and mediation.

Tonya Deskins is assistant AE and vice president of West and SouthEast REALTORS® of the Valley, Ariz. You can reach her at tdeskins@weserv.realtor.

The National Association of REALTORS®’ Core Standards require that every association maintain a viable professional standards process to enforce the Code of Ethics and provide arbitration and mediation as member services. The standards further require associations to provide mediation services to members as required by Article IV of the NAR bylaws.

The West and SouthEast REALTORS® of the Valley in Chandler, Ariz., provides this service through its Professional Standards team, which handles more than 100 cases per year. When Arizona put restrictions in place for several months to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus, we had to adapt quickly to continue processing cases. Allowing a backlog to build up would have been disastrous for the association.

Professional Standards determined that we should hold all Grievance Committee meetings, hearings, and mediations virtually if it could help continue to process the caseload. Our team transitioned scheduled hearings to a virtual environment and began scheduling new complaints for the same treatment.

We let the parties involved in each complaint know that due to health concerns, hearings would be held virtually. The parties have been receptive; we held 18 hearings and mediations successfully on Zoom from March through mid-July.

Prepping the Participants

Leading up to hearings, our team spends additional time working with the parties and panel members to determine if they have sufficient remote video capabilities and are comfortable using their equipment with Zoom. We can hold practice sessions to be certain the parties can participate, and we ask them to use a private location in their homes to ensure confidentiality.

During the hearing, the panel chair asks each party to swear that they are alone in the room. The panel chair also tells each party to raise their hand if the presentation’s audio is interrupted. I mute the panelists during complainant and respondent presentations but leave the parties unmuted, so they are free to object or make statements at any time.

Panel chairs have been diligent about making sure the parties get the opportunity to speak to their counsel and/or brokers privately as the hearing continues, using Zoom’s waiting room and breakout room features.

If the parties want to submit evidence during the hearing, they send it to the administrator in advance. I email the information to the panel chair or move the panel and the parties to the waiting room to share the documents with the panel chair via screen share. The chair determines whether the evidence will be allowed, at which point I can share it with the rest of the participants.

The waiting room is also a good place to hold people who don’t need to speak to one another. As the panel participates in the prehearing meeting, I can watch the parties enter the waiting room. Once everyone is ready to go, we allow the parties, counsel, and witnesses into the hearing. Once sworn in, witnesses are moved back to the waiting room until they are needed.

Breakout rooms allow us to move the parties into virtual rooms where they can confer privately with their counsel or broker. These rooms are also useful in mediations when a mediator wants to speak to each party individually. Prior to mediation, we caution parties that they must block out the time necessary for mediation and try not to be distracted while waiting for their turn to speak to the mediator.

Virtual executive sessions have proved to be efficient and productive. The panel is able to discuss the case in detail as they deliberate and come to a decision. We then use the screen share function with the panel, and they log the findings. Panel members can sign the decision and confidentiality agreements through e-sign.

Virtual hearings seem to be favorable for the parties involved. They are less nervous in their own spaces and are often better able to explain their positions without the animosity that can develop when the other party is sitting in the same room. Virtual hearings are also more efficient for the panelists and less expensive to administer.

While the pandemic continues to cause upheavals, it has produced one innovation. The West and SouthEast REALTORS® of the Valley has enjoyed the flexibility of holding virtual hearings for our membership and satisfying a Core Standard for members.

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