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Lawsuit alleges Bellingham-based real estate firm knew of drugging, sexual assault

By Heidi Groover, The Seattle Times
Published: March 1, 2023, 4:02pm

A Bellingham-based real estate brokerage faces accusations that it knew two of its male agents drugged and sexually assaulted female co-workers during work events.

In a civil lawsuit filed in federal court in California last week, four women say two eXp Realty agents drugged and assaulted them — or attempted to assault them — at networking and recruitment events in California and Nevada between 2018 and 2020. Several women say they alerted the company, according to the complaint.

The complaint names eXp Realty, its publicly traded parent company, eXp World Holdings and the two male real estate agents.

Jennifer Lenze, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said eXp is “equally as accountable” as the individual agents named. The company “knew or should have known and prevented what happened to our plaintiffs from happening,” Lenze said in an interview.

eXp Realty declined to comment, citing pending litigation. The two agents named as defendants did not return requests for comment.

The Seattle Times typically does not publicize the names of people accused of crimes unless charges are filed.

In 2021, one of the men was arrested and charged with two counts of sexual assault related to similar allegations, according to local media reports. Prosecutors later dismissed that case, saying they “received additional information and evidence that led us to believe that we cannot prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. The man is no longer an eXp agent, according to the complaint.

One of the four women bringing the case, Florida real estate agent Fabiola Acevedo, is named in the complaint. The others are referred to as Jane Doe.

Speaking out with her name is “the only way I will assist other women to step forward and heal,” Acevedo said in an interview. “It’s part of my healing process, and it’s important for me to be able to overcome what has happened.”

Registered with an office address in Bellingham, eXp Realty says it has more than 85,000 agents worldwide, including in Seattle, Tacoma and elsewhere in Washington.

Along with typical commissions, eXp offers agents incentives to recruit other agents. The company’s agents “sponsor” new agents and get a share of company commissions from those new agents’ sales, according to eXp Realty’s website. If the new agents in turn recruit others, their sponsor can make even more. The company collects startup and ongoing fees from agents as well as a portion of agents’ commissions, according to the company’s website.

According to the complaint, the two male agents worked to “entice” women “with the promise of career advancement and coaching.”

Acevedo said in the legal filing that one of the men recruited her to join eXp and told her she should list the other as her sponsor agent. The agent also suggested she participate in a networking event with the second man in Southern California in July 2018.

When Acevedo arrived at the hotel for the event, she learned there was no room reserved for her, and the hotel was sold out. The agent who had recruited her suggested Acevedo stay in the other male agent’s room, which had separate beds, according to the complaint.

Acevedo said she had one cocktail with the second man and others at the hotel bar but doesn’t remember anything afterward until the next morning. When she attempted to shower that morning, the man entered the bathroom naked, “exposing himself to her and attempting to engage her in inappropriate sexual contact,” according to the complaint.

The complaint also includes allegations from three other women, all real estate agents from Tennessee, Florida and California.

One woman attended an April 2019 networking event at a hotel in Beverly Hills,

California, “for the purpose of learning during the day and recruiting real estate agents to join eXp Realty at night,” according to the complaint.

During a group gathering in a hotel room, one of the agents handed her a drink and she blacked out until the next morning, according to the complaint, which also details signs of sexual assault the woman experienced the next morning.

When she confronted the agent, he “repeatedly told her that she was crazy and that nothing happened,” according to the complaint. Later, he “admitted that they did have sex at the last event,” but “did not confess that he had drugged her,” the complaint says.

The woman “considered at that point reporting him to the authorities but thought no one would believe her,” according to the complaint. “She did confide in some friends about what had happened.”

Two other women described similar events at an eXp recruiting event in Las Vegas in August 2020.

One woman said she went to the two men’s suite for a group get-together and later went on a walk with one of the men. Although her memory is limited, she “does recall being sexually assaulted” by the man that night, according to the complaint.

Another woman said she had a drink at a group gathering in the two male agents’ hotel suite before leaving for dinner with friends, then could not remember much of the rest of the night. After talking with other people, she “realized that she was drugged/rendered incapacitated,” according to the complaint.

Several women alerted eXp, the complaint alleges. Acevedo said she told the current and former CEOs of the company last year about the 2018 incident. The two women who were in Las Vegas in 2020 “informed defendant eXp Realty about what happened to them” shortly after it happened, according to the complaint and the attorneys representing the women.

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The complaint says eXp “elected to continue to ignore pleas from other eXp agents who’d been assaulted and profit from” the two male agents and their recruits.

The women are seeking a jury trial and yet-to-be-determined damages.

The case, filed in United States District Court in the Central District of California, seeks damages for allegations including negligent hiring, retention and supervision, sexual battery and sex trafficking, because the two agents allegedly encouraged women to cross state lines to attend events.