Summary of Oregon’s 2021 Real Estate Arbitration Disputes

Introduction. As most Oregon Realtors® know, the OREF Sale Agreement provides that, subject to certain exclusions, all disputes that cannot be otherwise amicably resolved must be first mediated. If that isn’t successful, recourse is through mandatory arbitration. The filing of legal actions in court is not permitted except in cases seeking “provisional process” e.g., for injunctions, restraining orders, and similar matters requesting immediate and extraordinary relief.

The Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors® (“PMAR”) has its own mandatory mediation process, where disputes involving transactions handled by one or more PMAR Realtors® must first be filed. If mediation is unsuccessful, the only other venue for resolution is through Arbitration Service of Portland, Inc (“ASP”). ASP administers all other non-PMAR mediations for disputes arising under the Sale Agreement.

In some of these seller-buyer disputes, one or both Realtors® may be named because a claimant feels their broker, or the other broker, or both brokers, engaged or participated in activity that caused them damage.

The Sale Agreement’s mediation/arbitration dispute resolution process involving Realtors® is not available to resolve claims for violation of the NAR Code of Ethics. Those are handled at the local Realtor® association level. Similarly, claims against brokers for violation of Oregon’s licensing laws and rules (ORS Chapter 696 and OAR 863) must be filed through the Oregon Real Estate Agency

The 2021 ASP Statistics. Annually, ASP provides PMAR with its arbitration statistics to assist in helping the industry better understand the type of property disputes that end up in arbitration. What follow is a summary of those disputes and Realtor® tips to avoid them.

Seller Misrepresentation Claims. Caveat: This discussion relates only to the topics, not the outcomes. Having several of these claims end up in arbitration does not mean they all resulted in awards for the buyer against the seller.

Unquestionably, over the years, this has been the largest source of claims ending up in arbitration. Moreover, they often include the seller’s broker. This joinder of parties, i.e., naming the seller and their listing agent as co-respondents, should not be a surprise. Oftentimes, it is the listing agent to whom the seller confides, and (unfortunately) the listing agent wittingly or unwittingly, acquires information that provides the basis for a buyer’s claim against that broker.

For example, in completing the Sellers Property Disclosure Statement (“Disclosure Form” or “Form”), sellers turn to their agent to better understand how to answer particular questions: Below are some examples of Disclosure Form questions[1] – coupled with a typical inquiry the seller might have of their broker before finalizing the Form:

  •  Are there problems with settling, soil, standing water or drainage on the property or in the immediate area? “I had some problems last year, but they all got resolved. Do I need to answer “Yes”?
  • Are there any pending or proposed special assessments? “There have been some recent owner complaints to the HOA about ceiling leaks in their units – but not mine. Contractors are looking at things right now. So far, there have been no assessments proposed, nor assessments made. How should I answer?”
  • Are there any encroachments, boundary agreements, boundary disputes, or boundary changes? “My neighbor told me he thought my fence was on his land, but he never asked me to move it. We have no dispute. Do I need to answer ‘Yes’”?
  • Are there any moisture problems, areas of water penetration, mildew or moisture conditions (especially in the basement)? There are some leaks in the basement during the winter months, but they all go away when the rains stop. Do I have to answer “Yes” even though they are not really a ‘problem’ and are just temporary?”

The “Situational Ethics” Problem. Each of the above property disclosure questions might be answered differently if asked of a seller versus asking the prospective buyer. The seller who does not disclose (or “under-discloses”) may believe they are answering appropriately by strictly interpreting the scope of the question subjectively. E.g., “Yes there was a problem, but it was repaired”; “No, there is no ‘dispute’“; “No, it has not been a problem.”

But how would the seller respond to the following: “If you were a buyer wouldn’t you want to know these things – i.e., letting the buyer decide whether the issue is important in their purchasing decision?”

The minute the listing agent becomes involved in salving the seller’s conscious for not disclosing an issue because the framing of the question didn’t strictly require it, the agent has, figuratively speaking, left their “fingerprints” on the Disclosure Form, which provides a basis for including them in the claim.

The Take-Away. Buyer claims of nondisclosure against sellers and their brokers are primarily – but not exclusively – the result of information the seller could have disclosed but elected not to.

To be fair, however, some fault can be placed on the spectacularly poor and inconsistent drafting of the Disclosure Form – keeping in mind that the text is a product of legislative drafting, not OREF drafting. Time does not permit examples, but there are many.[2]

Also, sometimes seller nondisclosure claims can be traced back to other, less culpable, factors: E.g., (a) Information that was beyond the scope of the Form’s questions; (b) The seller made a good faith error;[3] (c) The buyer already knew or should have known of the defective condition; or (d) Any number of other reasons unrelated to an effort to intentionally conceal information from the buyer.

For listing agents and their sellers, there is One Rule: “If in doubt, disclose.” There is no such thing as saying too much. Or to put a finer point on it, sellers should make the same level of disclosure in answering the form as they would want if they were buyers reading the form. This approach is also known as The Golden Rule. “Disclose, Disclose, Disclose.” Let the buyer decide what is important to them.

Specific Performance Claims. The second largest category in ASP claims relate to buyers asking the arbitrator to require the seller to complete the transaction. This is called “specific performance” which is really the name of the remedy sought for the seller’s breach of contract in refusing to close the transaction.

Since money damages are not really sufficient to fully compensate a prospective buyer, specific performance is the preferred remedy – especially in times of limited inventory when a suitable replacement property is not available. These claims do not normally include the listing broker.

In many specific performance cases, though not all, the reason a seller declines to close the transaction is because they believe they underpriced the property, and/or have a back-up buyer for a better price. Occasionally, sellers decline to sell because they cannot find a replacement home and refuse to close under the misguided belief they can unwind their first transaction.[4]

If the Sale Agreement is clear on its face, the buyer has complied with its terms, and is ready, willing and able to perform, there is a potential claim for specific performance against the seller.

Earnest Money Disputes. The third largest area of contested cases involve earnest money disputes. These situations arise because either the seller or buyer believe the other side breached the pre-closing terms of the Sale Agreement. Examples include the failure to timely deposit (or provide proof of ) funds; the failure to timely secure financing; and untimely rejection of the property inspection report. There are many others.

Although these claims do not normally include a party’s broker, there are things agents can do to reduce such disputes: (a) Know all deadlines; (b) Discuss them with the buyer and seller; and (c) Make sure both agents agree on the same deadline dates.

Why Are There No Seller vs. Buyer Damage Claims In Arbitration? The answer is found in the OREF Sale Agreement – and almost all other contracts for the sale of real property. The earnest money deposited by buyer into escrow is expressly intended to serve as the seller’s agreed-upon “damages” in the event buyer fails to perform. This pre-agreed sum is known as “liquidated damages” i.e., it is stipulated to be the amount the parties have agreed upon in advance, as representing seller’s damages caused by buyer’s default.

This can be a two-edged sword. If the buyer breaches early in the transaction, the earnest money deposit may far exceed seller’s actual damages (assuming seller can quickly resell the property); but if the buyer breaches late in the transaction and the seller had moved out of the property and relocated elsewhere, their actual damages may far exceed the stipulated damages represented by the deposit. In either case, since the sum has been agreed to in advance, with the proper recitals in the Sale Agreement it is the maximum amount seller may recover for buyer’s nonperformance – nothing more.

ConclusionAre the number of disputes that end up in mediation and arbitration going up, down, or staying the same? That question cannot be answered as it is framed. The reason is that, there should be an inverse relationship between the numbers in mediation and arbitration. That is, the more mediations there are, the fewer arbitrations there should be. To put it another way, mediations, if properly conducted, should have a prophylactic or lessening effect on the number of arbitrations. That has been the case ever since the mandatory mediation clause was instituted in the OREF Sale Agreement circa 1997.[5]

~ Phil

©Copyright 2022 QUERIN LAW, LLC. Phillip C. Querin


[1] There are too many to list here. The failure to include them is not to minimize their importance.

[2] Drafting of legislation is often the product of committees composed of stakeholders. How many iterations the final product went through  – how many drafters reviewed each one – or how many last-minute changes were made with little or no oversight, is unknown. Clearly, the Disclosure Form contains inconsistent and conflated language. [See discussion at:]

[3] To be clear, the statute, ORS 105.464, provides that the seller’s answers are based upon their “actual knowledge of the property at the time of disclosure.” Technically, if that knowledge is the result of a good faith error, it cannot (or should not) form the basis of a claim against seller. The representations in the Form are not warranties.

[4] In these situations, sellers should include a well-drafted contingency making the sale transaction subject to the purchase and closing of the replacement property. However, this requires careful drafting; some buyers may not want to wait for the seller’s purchase to close before allowing the contingency to expire. Sellers should be encouraged to consult with qualified legal counsel before entertaining offers.

[5] The reason is because for over 20 years, the mediation clause in the OREF Sale Agreement has contained a provision that if a party failed or refused to mediate first, they could not recover attorney fees later in arbitration, even if they prevailed. This became a significant incentive for recalcitrant parties to first try to settle their disputes in mediation. It worked.