The Man Behind the New Real Estate Rules

Photograph of Doug Miller

Doug Miller, a Minnesota attorney running a solo law practice with the demeanor reminiscent of a character from “Fargo,” has dedicated close to four decades to championing fairness in the residential real estate sector for consumers. His journey seemed like a constant uphill battle—until this pivotal month.

In the early hours of March 15th, legal representatives finalized a significant agreement in Washington, D.C. The National Association of Realtors resolved a lawsuit alleging collusion within the industry to artificially inflate prices. NAR committed to a settlement exceeding $400 million and pledged revisions to long-standing commission structures pivotal in real estate agent compensation.

Traditionally, home sellers foot the bill for the buyer’s agent commission, complicating negotiations for buyers regarding this expense. The residential brokerage industry has proven resilient to regulatory and legal interventions. Despite multiple probes by the Justice Department, including a recent investigation culminating in 2020, little substantive change occurred. The prospect of a class-action lawsuit appeared daunting to plaintiff firms, considering it would entail challenging not just a single entity but an entire industry.

Over five years ago, Miller proposed his case concept to attorneys at Cohen Milstein, a prominent Washington-based plaintiffs’ firm renowned for litigating against corporate giants. His focus was on challenging a rule mandating sellers to offer compensation to a buyer’s agent.

Benjamin Brown, a partner at Cohen Milstein, credited Miller for providing crucial insights and a fresh perspective on the industry, enriching their approach to building the case. Miller, aged 63, has amassed industry knowledge for over four decades, dating back to his high school days when he obtained his real estate license in New Jersey.

His disillusionment with industry practices deepened during the late 1980s while working as a Realtor alongside the then-president-elect of the National Association of Realtors. Observing deceptive practices, such as agents representing both buyers and sellers without disclosure, fueled Miller’s resolve for reform.

Following law school, Miller’s legal career kicked off with a focus on challenging unethical practices. His early success in a class-action lawsuit against a prominent Minnesota real estate brokerage garnered national attention. However, subsequent lobbying efforts by Realtors led to legislative rollbacks, marking the first of many setbacks in Miller’s crusade.

Undeterred, Miller founded a nonprofit in 2008 aimed at educating consumers about the real estate industry. Financial challenges persisted, as public interest in such topics proved limited. Alongside his advocacy work, Miller continued practicing real estate law, offering clients discounted services compared to standard agent fees.

Beyond his legal pursuits, Miller finds solace in nature photography, cultivating a lush backyard oasis. Prentiss Cox, a friend and law professor at the University of Minnesota, recalls a pivotal moment during a lunch with Miller, where the idea for a class-action antitrust case emerged. This breakthrough led to the filing of lawsuits in Chicago and Kansas City, the latter resulting in a landmark $1.8 billion verdict.

While Miller prefers to remain behind the scenes, his strategic guidance proved invaluable throughout the legal battle. He continues to provide input on potential future cases, driven by a belief in the necessity of systemic change within the real estate industry.

Reflecting on the recent settlement, Miller acknowledges mixed emotions. While recognizing potential hardships for some within the industry, he remains steadfast in his conviction that the reforms will ultimately benefit consumers.

“I feel like I just dropped a nuclear bomb on the industry,” Miller remarked. “But it needs it.”

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