Price-Fixing Case May Reach Supreme Court

FAppraisal Fee Price Fixing Claim Case to Reach the US Supreme CourtThe first case about real estate appraisers to reach the U.S. Supreme Court in almost 60 years may concern the Federal Trade Commission’s price-fixing claims against the Louisiana Real Estate Appraisers Board. Would that be a good thing for appraisers? Well, maybe it’s not the best timing.

Filed in 2017, the FTC’s administrative complaint asserts that the Louisiana appraiser board, “a state agency controlled by licensed real estate appraisers, has unreasonably restrained price competition for real estate appraisal services.” The FTC contends that the board carried out this price-fixing through its regulation of fees paid to appraisers by appraisal management companies and through its enforcement actions – while being controlled by the board’s eight appraiser members, who allegedly had private interests in higher fees.

One of the Louisiana board’s asserted defenses was something called “state-actor immunity.” Under this defense, the Louisiana board argued that the alleged anti-competitive actions of the board and its members were not illegal because they were state government-sanctioned actions and policy decisions. The FTC’s counter to the defense was that the protection did not apply because the Louisiana board was controlled by “market participants” – i.e., private appraisers with an interest in the outcome. When the FTC ruled that the appraiser board could not rely the defense, the board challenged the ruling by suing the FTC in federal court and asking the federal court to overrule the FTC. As covered in my earlier post about the complete history, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ordered that the board’s court case be dismissed and that the FTC’s administrative proceeding go forward.

Now, in a December 9, 2020 filing, the Louisiana appraiser board has indicated that it will seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court. But first, before it files its petition for writ of certiorari, the board has asked the Supreme Court to suspend the FTC’s administrative proceeding, while its appellate effort goes forward (the Court of Appeals denied the same request). The board contends that the Supreme Court will likely accept review, writing in its application that “it is unusually clear in this case that there is ‘a reasonable probability’ that this Court will grant certiorari to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision.” (Read the full application for a stay filed by the Louisiana board here.)

If the Louisiana appraiser board’s petition for writ of certiorari succeeds, this will be first U.S. Supreme Court case specifically about real estate appraisers since 1961 (based on my research). A Supreme Court case would certainly bring heightened attention to the FTC’s underlying action and the FTC’s allegations that an appraiser-controlled professional board engaged in price-fixing for residential appraisal services. The battle may not come at the best time for appraisers. At present, appraisers are facing public, media and government attention regarding allegations that their valuations are discriminatory (whether intentionally, systemically or otherwise) by undervaluing properties owned by racial minorities or located in areas with large minority populations. The new Biden administration is expected to closely consider these issues and to look at possible overhauls. Some critics have proposed increased use of automated valuation methods (AVMs) as a solution. This is likely not the best time for appraisers to also gain further attention for the Federal Trade Commission’s contention that one of their boards has engaged in alleged price-fixing.

Regardless of whether appraisers should want the Louisiana case to gain more attention, it’s probably true that the legal issues at the core of the appeal here are important to other types of professional boards across the country who may similarly be accused of anti-competitive actions. As the attorneys for the Louisiana board state in their application: “the factual context of this case board applies to thousands of state boards across the United States whose membership is comprised of professionals who participate in the regulated industries.”

Peter Christensen
Image credit wikimedia - Hydetim
Peter Christensen

Peter Christensen

Peter Christensen is an attorney, licensed in California and Washington. His legal practice primarily serves the real estate valuation community - Valuation Legal. He's the author of Risk Management for Real Estate Appraisers and Appraisal Firms, published by the Appraisal Institute.

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6 Responses

  1. Retired Appraiser Retired Appraiser says:

    The only price fixing going on in the US has been going on nonstop by AMCs for over 15 years.

  2. Avatar Xpert says:

    Maybe it’s not the best timing? When is it ever? Year after year we’ve been accused of overvaluing, or undervaluing, and recently for discriminating… because didn’t you know we’re all a bunch of racist. I say now is as good of a time as any. Go Louisiana!

  3. Baggins Baggins says:

    This is so huge. What can we do to help? Thank you.

  4. Avatar dale bailey says:

    May we pass this article along to our membership, with recognition to the Author of course?

  5. Sounds like the entire case has been allowed to be refocused on ancillary procedural issues rather than the original fundamental issue.

    Louisiana attempted to comply with the federal requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act which mandated Reasonable & Customary Fees. A process was then put in place to fairly address that narrow issue.

    Certain bottom feeders unhappy about being required to pay fair fees filed a complaint with FTC who then wrongly asserted that states’ enforcement of a federally mandated requirement somehow constituted price-fixing.

    The case has been allowed to be redefined from the original issue which has (apparently ) been long forgotten and somehow is no longer considered to be Germaine.

    SCOTUS hearing this case on a narrowly focused side issue doesn’t answer the question as to whether states are legally able to enforce C&R fees. The whole thing SHOULD have been treated similarly to a minimum wage type issue. Imho.


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Price-Fixing Case May Reach Supreme Court

by Peter Christensen time to read: 3 min