by Jarrod Clabaugh,  Printed with permission from Source of Title
   
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 133 into law on September 25, 2008. The legislation implements greater controls over the practice of title insurance in California. Introduced by Senator Sam Aanestad in January 2007, the bill focuses on inducements offered by title marketing representatives to real estate agents and brokers in exchange for the steerage of business to their title insurance companies. The bill was supported by both the California Department of Insurance and the California Land Title Association.
The bill provides the department of insurance with significant new powers to regulate marketing practices in the title insurance industry. In particular, the bill creates the first program in the country to register and regulate title company sales representatives.

According to the bill, a person is prohibited from being employed as a title marketing representative unless he or she holds a valid certificate of registration issued by the commissioner for a three-year period. Should a person market title insurance without a valid certificate, the commissioner can issue a cease and desist order prohibiting that person from further marketing.

Additionally, under the legislation, title companies must notify the commissioner when a title marketing representative is hired or terminated. It also establishes an application process for the certificate of registration and allows the commissioner to set a fee to obtain or renew a certificate in an amount sufficient to defray the actual costs of processing it. The legislation states this cost cannot exceed $200.

The submitted application must contain several facts about the applicant, including the person’s residential address, principal business address, and the applicant’s mailing address. The applicant must also submit a statement, signed by an officer of the business by whom the applicant is or will be employed, certifying that the applicant will be provided training within 60 days of the hiring date or date of application. The applicant must submit another statement as to whether he or she has previously had a certificate of registration revoked, suspended or denied.

Should a marketing representative violate any terms of the state’s title insurance code, the legislation states that the department can revoke, suspend, restrict or decline to issue a certificate of registration if it determines at a hearing that the representative did violate the law. Additionally, any title marketing representative who has his or her certificate revoked by the department is not permitted to reapply for another certificate of registration with the department for five years from the date of revocation.

The legislation also establishes that it is unlawful for any title insurer, underwritten title company or controlled escrow company to pay, directly or indirectly, any commission, compensation, or other consideration to any person as an inducement for the placement or referral of title business. The actual placement or referral of title business is not a precondition to a violation of this section, whether the violation is or is not a per se violation pursuant to subdivision.

While the legislation sets many guidelines as to what is considered an inducement, one particular aspect that alarms title agents is they can no longer pay for anyone’s food, beverage or entertainment but their own.

“So no more free lunches for clients,” said Greg Knowles, an agent with Lawyers Title in Santa Barbara. “That is a huge change in our business. I am having a hard time thinking I can’t take a good customer to lunch. I can’t take one of them to a baseball game or local sporting event.”

“Competing specifically on the quality of the work we do and the price we charge probably isn’t the worst outcome in the world,” he added. “I do have many close friends in this business that my wife and I may invite over for dinner, is that illegal as well?”

The legislation mandates that representatives can continue to provide parties with promotional items with a permanently affixed company logo so long as each individual item’s value does not exceed $10. These gifts, however, cannot be gift certificates, gift cards or any other item that has a specific monetary value.

The legislation states that the provision or payment of any form of consideration as an inducement for the placement or referral of title business not specifically set forth in the bill will be considered unlawful and is, thus, prohibited.

“Restricting the illegal activities by title marketing representatives is a win for businesses and consumers,” said Steve Poizner, the department of insurance’s commissioner. “By curtailing the practice of real estate agents and brokers recommending a specific title insurer to their clients due to incentives provided by title marketing representatives, competition and transparency are fostered in the insurance marketplace.”

The legislation was the culmination of several years of effort by the department of insurance to address the growing problem of inducements. While such practices are illegal, the department had no enforcement authority over the individuals who used them before this legislation was signed. Now, the department is provided with regulatory oversight of title marketing representatives.

“Senate Bill 133 enhances consumer protection while maintaining the healthy, competitive title insurance marketplace in California,” said Craig Page, the executive president of the CLTA. “The legislation is just the latest example of the industry’s effort to promote consumer choice in the title insurance market. The competitive market in California has led to title insurance rates that are below the national average according to Bankrate.com.”

“Senate Bill 133 is win-win legislation for California,” Aanestad said. “It is pro-business and it is pro-consumer. By curtailing the practice of some real estate agents and brokers who recommend a specified title insurer to clients due to the use of incentives offered by some title marketing representatives, it promotes real competition in the title insurance marketplace. Competition among insurers can transfer into lower rates and a better deal for homebuyers.”