Confidential information

confidential information
Keeping your information confidential (infographic from larealtors.org)

A real estate agent, who allegedly represented Paul Manafort’s family, recently asserted his fiduciary privilege to avoid appearing in front of a grand jury.  However, as Politico reported, his efforts were thwarted by a judicial opinion, and subsequently reported to the grand jury.  But can confidential information be disclosed?

A fiduciary is generally described as someone who acts as a custodian of their client’s rights and/or assets.  The fiduciary has a responsibility to act with honesty and integrity, as well as act in their client’s best interest and not exert influence or pressure on their client for their own or others interests.

Both the National Association of Realtors and the Annotated Code of Maryland (COMAR) reference directly and indirectly a real estate agent’s fiduciary obligation and handling confidential information.  The NAR Code of Ethics Standard of Practice 11-2 states that a Realtor (when acting as an agent or subagent) has “the obligations of a fiduciary.”  COMAR states about the brokerage relationship (MD BUSINESS OCCUPATIONS AND PROFESSIONS Code Ann. § 17-534):

Except as otherwise provided by this title or another law, keep confidential all personal and financial information received from the client during the course of the brokerage relationship and any other information that the client requests during the brokerage relationship to be kept confidential, unless (i) the client consents in writing to the disclosure of the information; or (ii) ) the information becomes public from a source other than the licensee.

Of course, all jurisdictions are different, having their own laws and customs that govern the actions of real estate agents.  Manafort’s alleged real estate agent claimed a fiduciary privilege under the DC and VA real estate statutes, which is similar to Maryland’s.  However, in a recently unsealed Memorandum Opinion (www.dcd.uscourts.gov/unsealed-opinions-sealed-cases), Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the US District Court for DC believes that real estate agents don’t have an “absolute duty of confidentiality.”  She opined that a real estate agent is not excused from complying with an obligation to respond to a grand jury.  But what about confidential information?

Judge Howell wrote:

The respondents take the position that a court order compelling compliance with federal grand jury subpoena is required to overcome the confidentiality protection afforded to real estate brokerage records under District of Columbia and Virginia law. They rely on identical provisions of District of Columbia and Virginia statutes that require a real estate licensee engaged by a buyer, such as the Clients, to ‘[m]aintain confidentiality of all personal and financial information received from the client during the brokerage relationship and any other information that the client requests during the brokerage relationship be maintained confidential unless otherwise provided by law or the buyer consents in writing to the release of such information.’ D.C. Code § 42-1703(b)(1)(C); Va. Code § 54.1-2132(A)(3) (emphasis added). The government does not dispute that these statutes extend confidential treatment to the subpoenaed information, but argues that ‘the laws do not impose an absolute duty of confidentiality on real estate agents’ or excuse compliance with ‘a legal obligation—enforceable by a federal court—to respond to the grand jury’s request for documents, testimony, or both.’”

A real estate agent’s fiduciary obligation and handling confidential information is not taken lightly.  Thankfully, most real estate agents don’t face a grand jury subpoena.  However, during the course of daily business, a real estate agent does have an obligation (whether by NAR Code of Ethics, their local statute, or both) of keeping their client’s personal and financial information confidential.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Disclaimer. This article is not intended to provide nor should it be relied upon for legal and financial advice. Readers should not rely solely on the information contained herein, as it does not purport to be comprehensive or render specific advice. Readers should consult with an attorney regarding local real estate laws and customs as they vary by state and jurisdiction. Using this article without permission is a violation of copyright laws.