Monday, November 30, 2009

Wilkens Square, LLLP v. W.C. Pinkard & Co., Inc. t/a Colliers Pinkard (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed: November 30, 2009
Opinion by Judge Deborah S. Eyler

Proof of dual agency must consist of evidence that the broker represented opposite sides of a transaction when the transaction took place. The mere co-existence of a brokerage agreement and a listing agreement does not constitute a dual agency as a matter of law in Maryland.

Facts: In early 2005, Colliers Pinkard entered into a brokerage agreement with Charles McMann Investments ("CMC") in which Colliers Pinkard would identify potential investment properties for CMC in the Baltimore City/Washington, D.C. area. By August 2005, the relationship between CMC and Colliers Pinkard had not proven successful and CMC and Colliers Pinkard decided that the brokerage agreement would expire on December 31, 2005.

In the meantime, Wilkens Square, LLLP decided to put up for sale an office building it owned at 300 W. Pratt Street in Baltimore City. On November 18, 2005, Wilkens entered into a listing agreement with Colliers Pinkard wherein Colliers Pinkard would serve as Wilkens' broker in the sale of the property.

In December 2005, CMC representatives met with Colliers Pinkard to view properties in the Baltimore area. Wilkens' Pratt Street property was not one of them. Colliers Pinkard suggested that CMC take a look at the Pratt Street property but did not accompany CMC on its visit.

The sale of the Pratt Street property was done by "controlled auction." CMC had shown interest in the Pratt Street property following its visit in December 2005 and as a result Colliers Pinkard added CMC to the list of potential buyers who would receive promotional material and information about the sale. CMC continued to show interest in the property and proceeded with the controlled auction. By February 2006, CMC was one of two remaining bidders on the Pratt Street property. Ultimately, CMC purchased the property on June 14, 2006. Prior to the closing, Colliers Pinkard sent an invoice to Wilkens for its commission under the listing agreement. Wilkens failed to pay Colliers Pinkard's commission.

Colliers Pinkard sued Wilkens for breach of contract seeking payment of its commission. Wilkens filed counterclaims for breach of contract, negligence, intentional concealment of material facts and conspiracy by a fiduciary.

The case in the lower court was tried before a jury which found for Colliers Pinkard on the breach of contract claim and against Wilkens on its counterclaims. The jury awarded Colliers Pinkard $226,321.67 for Wilkens' breach of contract. Wilkens appealed asserting: (1) the trial court erred in not finding, as a matter of law, that Colliers Pinkard was in a dual agency with Wilkens and CMC; (2) the trial court erred by not ruling, as a matter of law, that Colliers Pinkard's relationship with CMC was a material fact that Colliers Pinkard had a duty to disclose; and (3) that the trial court erred by not giving requested jury instructions.

Analysis: A real estate broker stands in a fiduciary relationship to his client. Because of the opposing interests of a buyer and seller in a real estate transaction, a broker cannot represent one without violating his fiduciary duty to the other. Under this theory, Maryland law has long held that a broker cannot profit from a transaction in which he represents opposing parties (a dual agency relationship) without the parties' consent. The court noted that "There are no Maryland dual agency cases that extend the commission forfeiture rule to situations in which a real estate broker . . . has represented two parties to a transaction at different periods of time."

Relying on the holding in Ricker v. Abrams, 263 Md. 509 (1971) that "proof of dual agency must consist of evidence that the broker represented the opposite sides to a transaction when the transaction took place", the court held that Colliers Pinkard was not acting as a dual agent because it did not represent CMC when the sale went forward or when the auction for the sale was held. As a result, the court held that there was no dual agency as a matter of law.

The court dismissed Wilkens' argument that the overlap of the brokerage agreement and the listing agreement from November until December 31, 2005 rendered Colliers Pinkard a dual agent. In its analysis the court explains that the prohibition on dual agency stems from the conflict between the interests of buyer and seller. At the time the contracts overlapped there were no conflicts between Wilkens' and CMC's interests such that Colliers Pinkard would have violated its fiduciary duty.

As to Wilkens' contention that Colliers Pinkard breached its duty to disclose a material fact, the court noted that "the materiality of a fact will depend upon the nature of the transaction and the effect, if any, the fact may have on its outcome." The court held that there was no evidence that Colliers Pinkard's contract with CMC would have been material to Wilkens with respect to the ultimate sale of its property.

Finally, Wilkens argued that the trial court erred in not providing jury instructions on the issue of when disclosure of dual agency must be made. The court dismissed this argument holding that "even if the court had erred by failing to instruct the jury on when disclosure should have been made, the error would not have been prejudicial," because the jury's finding that there was no dual agency rendered as moot the the issue of when disclosure must be made.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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