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Noem administration pays $200,000 to settle allegation of age discrimination

When Sherry Bren logged off her state computer on March 30, it would be the last time.

The next day, the 70-year-old would accept a $200,000 settlement. In accepting the payment, Bren would withdraw an age-discrimination complaint against the state. Her 30-year career as the executive director of the Appraiser Certification Program for the state of South Dakota would be over.

She said it was a rewarding job.

"It was extremely challenging," Bren said. "And it was a great growing experience."

Four days earlier, she sent an email to several appraisers.

"I have been forced to retire by the Secretary of the Department of Labor and Regulation [Marcia Hultman] at the behest of the Administration," Bren's email said.

"The Administration has made it clear that it does not see a value to my experience, my involvement in ongoing projects or in a transfer of any of my extensive institutional knowledge and connections," Bren's email continued.

As part of the settlement of Bren’s age discrimination complaint, the Department of Labor and Regulation denies all allegations set forth by Bren.

In the complaint, Bren said she was called by Secretary Hultman to talk about her retirement. Bren said in the complaint she was given six months to retire because of her age. The settlement prevents Bren from disparaging public officials in the state.

The Associated Press reports that Gov. Kristi Noem's daughter, Kassidy Peters, applied to become a certified real-estate appraiser while Bren ran the certification program. The AP reports Peters initially faced denial of her license, but obtained it months after attending a meeting with the governor, Bren and others. The AP asked Gov. Noem about the meeting and Bren's retirement. The governor's spokesman accused the AP of attacking Noem politically.

Bren was the executive director of the program that certifies, licenses and registers appraisers in the state. She held that position from March 1991 until she left the position earlier this year.

Appraisers evaluate the worth of real estate before a sale. Every state in the country has a program that regulates the profession. In 1989, Congress passed a banking reform act that required every state in the union to follow a uniform standard of appraisal. Following the 2008 housing crisis, the Dodd-Frank Act added to those standards.

Bren was hired to create the South Dakota program that oversees all aspects of appraiser certification.

“Appraisers weren’t generally regulated,” Bren said. “This was a very unique system—and still is—that appraisers are regulated on the federal level through state appraiser regulatory agencies.”

Bren wanted to stay in her role until 2022, to establish another program that would help more potential appraisers get certified.

The new program would help satisfy federal requirements for trainees to become licensed or certified appraisers. The state received a federal grant of $120,000 that would encourage appraisers to work with entry-level apprentices to bring new people into the field.

“It’s just hard to get those professionals in the very small, rural communities, which is a very big problem because people still want to purchase and sell property," Bren said. "I would like to say that this is not unique to South Dakota. The shortage is identified across the nation.”

In her email to other appraisers, Bren said she would never leave a project unfinished if she had a choice in the matter.

"I sincerely regret that I will not be able to work with you in my former role as Executive Director," Bren wrote in the email.

The Governor’s Office declined to answer SDPB's questions on the situation and recommended a response come from the Department of Labor and Regulation. That department responded with an email saying it doesn’t discuss the specifics of personnel decisions.

Sherry Bren said it was not her choice to end her career.

“I was forced to retire,” Bren said. “I turned 70 at the time that this happened. I believe that I was perceived as not being able to—being too old to do my job, or something—I don’t know what. I really don’t know. I wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted to leave in a couple of years, but that wasn’t my choice.”

Nationally, Bren was known as a “remarkable asset” to the appraiser profession. That’s what a posting on the website of the Association of Appraiser Regulatory Officials said when Bren left her job.

Joe Ibach is with the organization. He said the association was baffled when Bren’s retirement was announced.

“We thought, ‘How is that possible?’” Ibach said. “She’s done an exceptional job for South Dakota. I still don’t understand the reason as to why the State of South Dakota would let such an asset go. It puzzles me.”

When Bren left her position earlier this year, it sent ripples through the industry.

“We were shocked," said Jim Park, the executive director of the Appraisal Subcommittee. “Sherry had never mentioned anything about retiring.”

The Appraisal Subcommittee was formed as part of a congressional reform act in the late 1980s. It monitors state programs that certify and license appraisers—what Park refers to as Title 11.

“Whenever there is a change within a program, particularly the executive director seat, that’s something the subcommittee takes notice of,” Park said. “And we’ll be working with her replacement or replacements to make sure that the program continues to be in compliance with Title 11.”

Title 11 is a uniform standard set by the federal government to protect real estate transactions. It requires that real estate appraisers are professionals “whose competency has been demonstrated.”

If the state were to stray from those professional requirements, the appraisal subcommittee has the authority to exercise non-recognition of the state program. That’s a move that could shut down residential and commercial lending in the state.

Park said while that is an effective enforcement measure, since it’s extreme it has never been used. He said it would take years for the subcommittee to get to that point.

“But thankfully South Dakota, under Sherry’s leadership, has always had an exceptional program," Park said. "That’s never even been any kind of a consideration.”

Sherry Bren was one of the longest tenured executive directors with any state-based appraisal regulatory program in the country.

Corrected: September 29, 2021 at 10:30 AM CDT
This story has been change to fix a misspelled name. Jim Park's name was misspelled in the original story.
Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.