Fate of Long-Standing Massachusetts Brokerage Model Hangs In Balance
As first reported by David Frank in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the critical question of whether real estate agents are governed by the state’s strict independent contractor law, which would entitle agents to minimum wage, overtime and benefits, is headed to the Appeals Court. According to Hillary Schwab, the attorney to a group of real estate agents who filed suit against Jacob Realty in Boston, “this is the first case in Massachusetts where the concept of employment misclassification and the real estate industry have ever been dealt with in the same opinion.” An unfavorable result at the Appeals Court would essentially turn the Massachusetts real estate brokerage model upside-down, as it has historically operated with agents considered independent contractors and paid on a commission-only basis. If brokerages were required to pay their agents minimum and overtime wages and provide all the statutory benefits afforded to employees, the real estate office as we know it would likely cease to exist.
Jacob Realty Agents Required To Adhere to Dress Code, Mandatory Office Hours
The Appeals Court will consider the case of Monell, et al. v. Boston Pads, LLC, (embedded below) brought by a group of disgruntled real estate agents at Jacob Realty. According to Curbed Boston, Jacob Realty is part of a larger network of Boston rental companies (Jacob Realty, NextGen Realty and Boardwalk Properties) with 150 rental agents, making them one of the largest rental offices in Boston.
As is customary in the industry, Jacob Realty classified the agents as independent contractors, paying them on a commission-only basis and making them responsible for payment of their own taxes and monthly desk fees. At the start of their employment, the agents signed non-disclosure, non-solicitation and non-compete agreements. They had to own day planners, obtain a cellphone with a “617” area code, adhere to a dress code, submit to mandatory office hours and to various disciplinary actions if they did not meet their productivity goals.
Lower Court Rules In Favor of Broker
Superior Court Judge Robert Cosgrove issued a ruling on July 15, 2013 that the agents should be considered independent contractors and not employees under the Massachusetts Real Estate Brokerage Act. But Cosgrove said it was difficult to read the brokerage law and independent contractor law consistently. The real estate statute explicitly provides that an agent may either be an employee or an independent contractor, he noted. In the same sentence, the law reiterates that agents must remain under the auspices of a broker. In contrast, the judge wrote, the independent contractor statute requires salespeople to be free from the control and direction of employers in order to be correctly classified as an independent contractor.
The problem arises when brokerages, such as Jacob Realty, ask its agents to do many of the things traditional employees must adhere to, such as required office hours, dress code, and performance benchmarks. This is especially so where courts have, in the last few years, strictly interpreted the independent contractor and wage laws in other industries. The more requirements imposed on agent, the more likely they should be treated as employees and not independent contractors, the argument goes.
The case now heads up to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, and perhaps even the SJC — where the stakes will be much higher. This case is very hard to handicap because, as I said before, the courts as well as state and federal labor agencies have really been cracking down with the independent contractor law in favor of employees. Rest assured, I’ll be monitoring this case. I expect the MAR and GBREB will file friend of the court briefs and take a further appeal if there’s an unfavorable result. There will surely be lobbying efforts at the Legislature to preserve the historical independent contractor brokerage model.