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Atwood v. Curtiss Candy Co.

SEPTEMBER 14, 1959.

PETER B. ATWOOD, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

CURTISS CANDY COMPANY, A CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Municipal Court of Chicago; the Hon. JAMES A. GEROULIS, Judge, presiding. Judgment reversed.

PRESIDING JUSTICE DEMPSEY DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT.

The plaintiff sued to recover compensation for his services as attorney and assistant secretary of the defendant. He alleged that a contract, which was to run to the end of 1956, was breached when his services were terminated in September of that year. The case was tried without a jury and judgment was entered in his favor for $7,400, the amount for which he sued.

Peter B. Atwood was a member of a law firm which represented the defendant for many years. In 1937 he and his senior partner were named assistant secretaries of the corporation. Their services as lawyers were paid principally by salary and partly by a retainer to their law firm. From time to time other associates of the firm were also placed on the defendant's payroll. Atwood was last elected assistant secretary in 1955, "to serve until the next annual meeting of the Board of Directors. . . ." The next annual meeting was in August, 1956. Election of officers was deferred until September 5, 1956, at which time, by unanimous action, the board of directors dispensed with the services of the law firm and terminated Atwood's employment as assistant secretary.

The fundamental issue before us is whether the plaintiff's employment was for yearly periods or was terminable at will. There is no dispute about his recompense being for legal services only. In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the relationship of attorney and client is terminable at will. Conlan v. Sullivan, 280 Ill. App. 332. The plaintiff concedes this, but he argues that his employment was for a fixed period.

The claim is chiefly founded upon an interchange of letters which followed a 1950 meeting between Atwood and Irwin N. Walker, the senior partner, and Otto Schnering, the president of the corporation, and some of its other officers. The plaintiff testified: ". . . the terms of our compensation were orally agreed upon with Otto Schnering at the meeting of February, 1950, and then were agreed on an annual basis at that meeting. . . ." Schnering died in 1952 and there was no testimony of what was said at the meeting.

The two letters were attached to the statement of claim. The first letter was from Walker to Schnering. The pertinent portions of his letter are:

"In line with our understanding, the $20,000.00 additional yearly amount is to be distributed as indicated below. . . . The $20,000.00 to be received annually and to be added to the payroll accounts is to be distributed as follows:

"Peter B. Atwood $7,000.00

"____________________________________________________________________

"The amounts of each individual, with the former amount and the added amount, will be as follows:

Present Total --------------------------------------------------------------------- "... ... ...

"Peter B. Atwood

"52 weeks at $322.00 $456.61 $23,744.00

"______________________________________________________ ...


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