In the high-stakes world of luxury listings, Ben Bacal has risen to the top. The Rodeo Realty broker established himself by pioneering the over-the-top cinematic listing videos that are now commonplace for high-end properties — while brokering deals for L.A.’s wealthiest.
But the celebrity broker is now standing under a different type of spotlight – one from a Los Angeles judge – over allegedly breaking a 50/50 commission-sharing agreement on four properties, The Real Deal has learned.
And while a lawsuit related to three of the homes in question has been settled, Bacal is looking to shrug off the fight over the final disputed residence. His lawyer is petitioning for the case to enter arbitration this August, a move which could speed up a decision and makes the case private.
Ryan Davis, now of Compass, first filed the lawsuit against Bacal and Rodeo in November 2013, alleging that Bacal broke the 50/50 agreement the brokers made when they were partners at Sotheby’s International Realty’s West Hollywood office. When Bacal left for Rodeo a month before the suit, the properties, which sold for an estimated total of $96 million, were still in escrow, said a source with knowledge of the case. When they did close, Bacal, settled into his new brokerage, allegedly failed to pay Davis his half of the commission, according to documents obtained by TRD.
The suit alleges breach of fiduciary duty and contract, as well as breach of good faith and fair dealing.
Davis did not immediately return a request for comment.
Bacal’s attorney Ronald Richards of Ronald Richards and Associates in Beverly Hills said Davis was able to get some of the commission he sought during arbitration on three properties. But the two brokers are still battling it out over the $30 million sale of 1 Electra Court and an adjacent plot of land that was sold to film producer Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, in 2013.
Shaking it off
Bacal launched into the real estate business in 2005. The native Canadian, who has a filmmaking background, told TRD in an interview last year that he initially wanted to sell homes to finance his own productions.
“I ended up really loving the art of the deal,” he said. “It became a passion and a focus so I decided to go full time.”
Since then, Bacal’s career has skyrocketed. He has gained notoriety for famous clients such as Matt Damon, Ellen DeGeneres — and, of course, Ellison. He was even named “Most Innovative Real Estate Agent” last year at the Inman Innovator awards.
But the high-profile broker remains stuck in his dispute with Davis. His attorney filed demurrers, or motions to dismiss, Davis’ suit but a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge overruled the motion in January, allowing the case to move forward.
With his lawyer now petitioning for the case to be moved to arbitration, Bacal is at least hoping to move it out of the public eye — if not finally shake off the allegations.
Richards described Davis’ allegations as blackmail and false.
“Mr. Davis wants something for doing nothing,” he said.
Davis’ suit is not the first time Bacal has been in hot water over splitting commissions.
While working at Keller Williams Realty in 2010, Bacal and former business partner Hillel Sanowicz agreed to split any commission earned on the sale of a home on Sarbonne Road in Bel Air.
When Bacal left the brokerage to join Sotheby’s, Sanowicz alleged in a 2012 lawsuit that Bacal took the home as a pocket listing for himself. The home sold for $14 million and Bacal received a commission of $210,000, according to Sanowicz’s complaint.
Sanowicz initially lost the case but was able to win on appeal, court documents show, paving the way for lawsuits between agents based on their commission sharing agreements without the involvement of their brokerage firms.