The Best of the Legal Hotline: Fair Housing Enforcement

 Tracy Rucka, WRA Director of Professional Standards and Practices  |    March 01, 2023

The content in this article provides information and options for individuals who have experienced discrimination in the housing market. In the WRA Legal Hotline article tradition, this article includes question to the hotline, but then follows with enforcement options. 

The hotline question 

The buyers made an offer on a property, but the offer was rejected by the sellers. The listing agent said there was competition, and the sellers accepted another offer. Initially, the buyers were concerned whether the offer was presented by the listing agent. The buyers’ underlying concern was discrimination — by the listing agent and the sellers — because the offer was from two women attempting to purchase the property together. What can the cooperating agent and the buyers do regarding the offers and the discrimination concerns? 

Presentation of the offer

The buyers or their agent can request that the listing agent tell them when the buyers’ offer was presented to the seller and when it was rejected. The listing agent is to immediately provide a written statement indicating when the offer was presented and when it was rejected when this is requested by the buyers or their agent, per the administrative code § REEB 24.13 and the REALTOR® Code of Ethics, Standard of Practice 1-7. If the buyers or the buyers’ agent believes the offer was not presented, or the listing agent does not respond in compliance with Wis. Admin. Code § REEB 24.13(4), the buyers and/or their agent can file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) and/or the listing agent’s local board. 

Secondary offer

Practically, if the buyers remain interested in the property, the buyers may consider drafting an additional offer, in secondary position. Although the seller has accepted a different offer, the buyers could position themselves to potentially move into a primary position in the event that transaction fails. The buyers might submit the second offer via an entity if it is believed the original offer was rejected based on a discriminatory basis. 

Complaint options

The buyers who have reason to believe the seller’s or listing agent’s conduct was discrimination-based may consider consultation with private legal counsel regarding the allegations. The buyers may also be referred to the Milwaukee Fair Housing Council or other local provider for assistance and options. In anticipation, the buyers can document their experience, making a timeline of the transaction and reasons why they believe there was discrimination by the licensee or the seller. This will help with legal counsel or the fair housing council staff when they ask about the transaction and the buyers’ experience. In addition, the buyers may think about their desired outcome because that will, in part, determine how to proceed.  

Desired outcomes 

Violations of the fair or open housing laws may result in monetary damages and possibly attorney fees if they file a complaint with HUD or sue in federal court. The target of discrimination may obtain access to the housing or services they were seeking in the real estate transaction. Alternately, the offender may be required to complete education or training relating to fair housing. Financially, there may also be forfeitures to the appropriate governmental agency. The buyers’ motivation may be more selfless in the effort that they may want the conduct to be identified so other individuals do not encounter the same experience.       

The complaint process is not only about the target of the discrimination, but it is also about the licensee providing services in the transaction. As REALTORS®, the Preamble to the REALTORS® Code of Ethics invites you to take steps when you have knowledge of discriminatory conduct: 
“In recognition and appreciation of their obligations to clients, customers, the public, and each other, REALTORS® continuously strive to become and remain informed on issues affecting real estate and, as knowledgeable professionals, they willingly share the fruit of their experience and study with others. They identify and take steps, through enforcement of this Code of Ethics and by assisting appropriate regulatory bodies, to eliminate practices which may damage the public or which might discredit or bring dishonor to the real estate profession. REALTORS® having direct personal knowledge of conduct that may violate the Code of Ethics involving misappropriation of client or customer funds or property, willful discrimination, or fraud resulting in substantial economic harm, bring such matters to the attention of the appropriate Board or Association of REALTORS®. (Amended 1/00)”

There are many options when it comes to potential enforcement mechanisms because fair housing laws are based at the federal, state and local levels. If the alleged discrimination was based on the conduct of a REALTOR® licensee, both license law and the Code of Ethics are applicable.

REALTOR® Code of Ethics  

Article 10 of the Code of Ethics provides:
“REALTORS® shall not deny equal professional services to any person for reasons of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity. REALTORS® shall not be parties to any plan or agreement to discriminate against a person or persons on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity. (Amended 1/23).” 

If a broker or consumer believes a REALTOR® has violated Article 10, they may file an ethics complaint with the local REALTOR® association. Such ethics complaints need to be filed within 180 days of the events or the closing of the transaction, whichever is later. In addition, the REALTOR® association offers mediation and ombudsman services as well as alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options. Although these ADR services regarding possible discrimination were previously limited, policy from the National Association of REALTORS® now allows mediation or ombudsman services to identify potentially discriminatory conduct, which may raise awareness and educate the member, allowing creative appropriate resolution. 

License law 

According to Wis. Stat. 452.14(3)(n), a real estate licensee may be disciplined by the DSPS if they “treated any person unequally solely because of sex, race, color, handicap, national origin, ancestry, marital status, lawful source of income, or status as a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking, as defined in s. 106.50 (1m) (u).”

If a consumer or broker has information or knowledge about a real estate licensee’s conduct that could violate state law, a complaint may be filed with the DSPS at

Federal fair housing act 

It is illegal discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act to refuse to rent or sell housing, refuse to negotiate for housing, or otherwise make housing unavailable because of race, color, religion, sex — including gender identity and sexual orientation, disability, familial status or national origin. 

Given notice by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2021, HUD’s interpretation of sex for protected classes will be broadly interpreted. Policy now includes members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ) community. Learn more by visiting HUD’s “Housing Discrimination and Persons Identifying as LGBTQ” webpage at

The Fair Housing Act can apply to the conduct of real estate licensees, landlords or sellers. To file a complaint to HUD related to housing discrimination, visit

Wisconsin open housing law 

Likewise, Wisconsin law prohibits discrimination in Wis. Stat. § 106.50(2) based on protected classes. Discrimination includes the refusal to sell or negotiate the sale of housing.  

Wis. Stat. § 106.50(1m)(h) defines “discriminate” as “to segregate, separate, exclude, or treat a person or class of persons unequally” because of “sex, race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religion, national origin, marital status, family status, status as a victim of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking, lawful source of income, age, or ancestry.”

If a consumer or licensee believes the actions by a seller, a landlord or a licensee were discriminatory, they can contact the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) for complaint information at and

If the buyers or the buyers’ agent believes the actions of the sellers were discriminatory, they can contact the DWD at the links listed above. The DWD also provides mediation services, with more information available at The Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) works collaboratively with the DWD in the investigation and prosecution of housing complaints. With the DOJ, individuals can seek temporary judicial relief to preserve their housing rights and/or halt eviction proceedings while a complaint is pending. 

Federal law 

There are several administrative agencies providing opportunities for complaints, investigation and enforcement of fair housing law. HUD receives complaints related to housing discrimination at The DOJ also has complaint processes in place at

Depending on the location of the property, there may also be county or city ordinances regarding the listing broker’s or sellers’ alleged conduct. Local equal opportunities commissions might provide assistance. For example, see the Madison EOC at

Litigation courts/private cause of action 

In addition to regulatory agencies that enforce fair housing law, a victim of discrimination may file litigation regarding the conduct. According to the federal law, 42 U.S. Code Section 3613, private persons may commence civil action in federal or state court. The courts have the authority to award actual or punitive damages, attorney fees or grand appropriate injunctions. Again, depending on the desired outcome, there are different options available to individuals who have been the target of discrimination.   

Reach out — you are not alone

Finally, the licensees can be a liaison between the party and third-party service providers. An individual who has experienced discrimination may find support in various ways. The process of seeking mediation, filing a complaint, or initiating litigation can be emotional or intimidating.  Finding assistance with legal counsel or a local fair housing council can make the difference to find the appropriate paths to desired outcomes and to find partners to seek meaningful results.

Additional resources

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