Whose sale is it anyway? Keller Williams targets former top agent for advertising past deals
Brokerage’s lawyer pens cease-and-desist notice to ex-agent Jesse Weinberg for marketing old deals at his new firm
Jesse Weinberg received an unusual email April 22 from a lawyer who represented Keller Williams, Weinberg’s brokerage until he left in February.
“It is both improper and unethical for you to advertise any sales under Keller Williams Silicon Beach as sold by you,” attorney Steve Spile wrote in the letter.
Weinberg had started Jesse Weinberg & Associates in February along with eight other agents previously at Keller Williams. But now he was being informed his new brokerage couldn’t publicize the sales done at his old brokerage.
Spile demanded in the email that Weinberg, “cease and desist from advertising properties as being sold by anyone other than Keller Williams Silicon Beach.”
Weinberg said he was shaken by the letter. He believes Keller Williams, the biggest franchise residential real estate brokerage in the country by sales volume and agent count, is engaged in a “bullying campaign” to drive him out of business.
A Keller Williams spokesperson said it was their policy not to comment on “pending legal matters.”
Spile did comment, and said Weinberg misunderstands the situation.
“I apologize for misleading Jesse in any way,” Spile said.
The strange – and still unfolding – dispute underscores an evidently unanswered question in real estate advertising: Who gets to advertise past sales as their own? The agent, the agent’s ex-brokerage, or both?
The lack of guidance on this issue, real estate lawyers said, is partly to blame for Spile’s cease-and-desist letter, and the ensuing squabble around it.
“The letter is not credible,” said Sean Andrade, a lawyer at Andrade Gonzalez. “He literally cites nothing, no real estate rules, regulations or case law.”
The Weinberg-Keller Williams standoff concerns a specific part of L.A. County that is centered on a man-made harbor, recreational boaters, and the similar sounding communities of Marina Del Rey and Playa Del Rey.
To potential homebuyers, the area is advertised as part of Silicon Beach, but it lies several miles south of the county’s tech hub.
Weinberg joined Keller Williams in 2009, and soon became the brokerage’s no. 1 seller in Marina Del Rey. In 2013, Keller Williams honored Weinberg as heading the brokerage’s no. 1 nationwide sales team.
When Weinberg struck out on his own three months ago, he took with him a sales team that the broker said racked up $170 million total in 2019 sales volume, churning out deals of the $1 million to $2 million homes that typify his market.
Spile, an experienced real estate attorney at Spile, Leff & Goor, said Keller Williams contacted him to write the cease-and-desist letter for two reasons.
One, is that Weinberg’s Keller Williams accomplishments were plastered all over his brokerage’s website – to the point, Spile said, that someone could be confused into thinking Weinberg still worked for Keller Williams.
“It was risk management. It was holy mackerel, what if Weinberg gets sued?” Spile said.
Second, Keller Williams objected to Stephanie Brooker, a former Keller Williams agent now at Weinberg & Associates, sending out mailers that publicized some of her sales done at Keller Williams.
Spile said that Keller Williams is okay with Brooker and other Weinberg & Associates agents advertising their old sales. But the brokerage requests agents “have a footnote” that the deal took place while at Keller Williams.
However, the cease-and-desist letter makes no reference to a possible compromise using footnotes, nor does it request Weinberg make clear he no longer works for Keller Williams
Instead, the letter stipulates Weinberg & Associates not to advertise any sales done at Keller, and to “review your various websites and other social media and have all references to Keller Williams Silicon Beach removed immediately.”
John Gordy, director of operations at Weinberg & Associates, said his brokerage interpreted the cease-and-desist letter as a blanket ban on advertising sales that took place while at Keller Williams.
“Given this demand we have been unable to create any advertisements referencing past sales,” Gordy said. “We will proceed as advised by our attorney on future advertisements.”
The letter “has had and will continue to have a significant impact on our business,” Gordy said.
Spile said it was never Keller Williams’ intention to chill Weinberg & Associates’ advertising.
Asked if he reached out to Weinberg to clarify Keller Williams’ demand, Spile said he had not.
Real estate advertising 101
Agents change brokerages like leaves change color in the fall, but the California Department of Real Estate has no guidelines about agents’ advertising sales done at prior brokerages.
Brokers and real estate lawyers interviewed said that, to their knowledge, the matter had not come up either in civil lawsuits, or simply bad blood between agents and brokerages after a parting of ways.
“In my experience, I have not seen brokerages require that a former agent note that they sold the property while they were at the company,” said Carolyn Rae Cole, a broker at Nourmand & Associates and attorney. “The most common scenario tends to be that the agent will continue to promote the sale as part of their portfolio. And often the previous brokerage will promote the sale after the agent leaves if it’s a notable sale.”
Andrade agreed, saying that even the request that Weinberg agents footnote old deals as Keller sales is unreasonable. Any professional, Andrade said, “advertises past wins,” and there’s nothing in state or federal law that requires real estate agents (or anyone else) to say where those wins took place.
For example, Hilton & Hyland does not publicize the brokerages Lisa Optican generated sales for before joining Hilton & Hyland last week.
But the ambiguity of advertising etiquette means Keller Williams “could have a legitimate gripe,” said Nicholas Rozansky, an attorney at Brutzkus Gubner.
Despite significant revisions to the Weinberg & Associates website since the cease-and-desist, one webpage is a list of past sales by the new brokerage’s agents that doesn’t reference Keller Williams.
“There’s a possible false advertising claim here,” Rozansky said. “They really should go through and revise their website.”
Keller Williams may want to revise its website as well. It still has Jesse Weinberg listed as an agent.