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After three-year court battle, justice for local realtor



By Steve Hoffman, Staff Writer

A Re/Max at Jennersville real estate agent helped a buyer locate a farm that he eventually purchased. He attempted to circumvent paying the commission on the transaction. A lengthy court battle ensued.

Three different courts agreed with Maria Anzaldo and the real estate professionals at Re/Max at Jennersville: the client was wrong.

Wrong. Wrong. And wrong again.

Throughout the lengthy three-year battle, there were moments of not jubilation, but at least justification: victories in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas, the Superior Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Ultimately, all the verdicts were the same: David Szymanski was wrong for not paying the realtor for locating a farm that he eventually purchased.

Anzaldo recalled the events that transpired.

“He was working with one of my agents. He was looking for farmland, and it’s hard to just rely on MLS (Multiple Listing Service) for that.”

Anzaldo explained that while MLS works well for standard home purchases, farms are different: often, realtors rely on their own personal knowledge of large landowners in the area to connect a buyer with a seller.

That was the case in this instance. After looking at a series of properties, Re//Max agent Brenda Baccino knew about a farm in Franklin Township that the buyer might be interested in.

“He looked at the property, but denied having any interest in it,” Anzaldo explained. “But we later found out from his attorney that he was about to settle on the property. We only found out that he was buying it by mistake.”

The purchase price was more than one million dollars for the 43-plus acres of land. Anzaldo estimated that the real estate agent’s commission would have been about $50,000.

It’s a rare occurrence, but occasionally a less-than-honorable buyer will try to elbow a real estate agent out of a transaction that the agent helped establish. The cost of retaining a lawyer makes it difficult for real estate agents to fight the injustice.

But this time, Re/Max was determined to fight to right this particular wrong.

Anzaldo said that during the time when Baccino was working with the buyer, they attempted to formalize the business relationship with a written agreement, but the buyer kept putting it off. Baccino conferred with Anzaldo and then decided that it was worth proceeding without a buyer-broker agreement because she felt that she had established a good rapport with the buyer and felt comfortable continuing to show him properties.

“We really won this case based on a verbal agreement,” Anzaldo explained.

Re/Max at Jennersville and Baccino each had to put up $5,000 to start the legal proceedings. They enlisted Jennifer Abracht, a Kennett Square attorney with the firm Perna & Abracht, LLC to represent them. Abracht was gracious enough to defer some of her fees until the case was resolved – an indication of how strongly the law firm felt about the case.

“We would not have proceeded if the attorney did not strongly believe in the case,” Anzaldo said. “We know in the real estate field that if it’s not in writing, you’re not protected.”

Anzaldo admitted to a feeling of uncertainty heading into that first case in the county’s Court of Common Pleas.

“The first case, we were nervous about. That was nice relief when we won.”

A jury decided at the conclusion of the first trial that an oral contract existed between the parties. The jury awarded the appellees $57,304.36 – the original 5-percent commission, plus attorney’s fees and costs.

Anzaldo explained that, “It was not about money at that point. It was just the fact that we won. It was a great thing to have happened in the real estate world.”

Still, Anzaldo regrets that the case ever had to go to court. After Re/Max found out that the client had settled on the property after denying an interest in it, they tried to peaceably negotiate a compromise.

“We gave him every opportunity. He could have paid us three-percent instead of the five-percent at that point. We really tried working it out.”

An appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania followed in the summer of 2007, but the initial verdict was upheld. A ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was entered on April 29 of this year, ending the court battle.

The moral of the story for anyone buying or selling land: don’t try to deprive the real estate agent out of the commission that they earned. And for the agents at Re/Max, there was a lesson to be learned too: “Since this happened, we had a meeting specifically about this,” Anzaldo said. “We emphasized again to get everything in writing.”

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