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Ray v. Winter





Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fifth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Franklin County, the Hon. William G. Eovaldi, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied October 3, 1977.

Plaintiff, Robert Ray, brought an action in the circuit court of Franklin County seeking the imposition of a constructive trust upon 40 acres of farmland owned by the defendants, Emerson and Joyce Winter, and damages for lost profits. Plaintiff alleged defendants committed fraud and/or breach of a fiduciary duty arising out of an arrangement reached by them concerning the purchase of the land. Defendants requested that an advisory jury be empaneled to hear the case, and their motion was granted over the plaintiff's objection. Following the hearing, special interrogatories were submitted to the jury asking them to determine if (1) an agreement existed between the parties concerning the purchase of the land; (2) if a fiduciary relationship existed; (3) if fraud was committed by the defendants; and (4) whether defendants used undue influence. The jury returned a verdict answering "Yes" to the first three interrogatories, and "No" to the last. In addition, the jury found the plaintiff to have suffered $2,500 in lost profits.

The trial court entered judgment imposing a constructive trust in plaintiff's favor, and ordered defendants to convey the 40 acres upon plaintiff's payment of $5,333.20, the purchase price of the land. The court also awarded plaintiff $2,500 damages representing lost profits resulting from defendants' failure to convey the land.

On appeal, the appellate court reversed, finding the evidence insufficient to demonstrate either fraud or breach of a fiduciary duty. (39 Ill. App.3d 567.) This court granted plaintiff leave to appeal.

In July of 1972, plaintiff became interested in expanding his farming operations, and made an inquiry about a 60-acre tract of land located near his home in Thompsonville, Illinois. He contacted the owner after learning his name from a neighbor, W. Marsh, the owner's overseer, and orally agreed to purchase the entire 60-acre tract for $8,000. Since plaintiff did not have adequate finances at the time, the owner agreed to hold the land for plaintiff until he sold some cattle later that fall.

Shortly thereafter, plaintiff learned that the defendants were also interested in acquiring a tract of land in the Thompsonville area. Plaintiff's wife was a friend of Mrs. Winter, the two having been involved in various church activities together. Defendants visited plaintiff's home in late July. Plaintiff informed Mr. Winter of the availability of acreage, and took him to view the premises. A road divided the 60-acre tract into 40- and 20-acre parcels. Plaintiff agreed to sell defendants the 20-acre tract at the same price per acre that he had agreed to pay the owner. Plaintiff testified, however, that he informed Mr. Winter at that time that no purchase could be made until later that fall when he sold his cattle. Plaintiff and Winter then drove to Marsh's place, where they informed him of the arrangement they had made.

The next contact between plaintiff and defendants occurred on August 15. Apparently prior to this time, another party, Doral Rose, became interested in the 60-acre tract, contacted the owner, but learned that the acreage was not available. Defendants testified that they received a letter from plaintiff's wife on August 15, informing them that another party was interested in purchasing the property, and that defendants might have to do something. That night, defendants phoned plaintiff and expressed concern over the possibility of losing the land. During the conversation, it was agreed that Winter would purchase the entire 60-acre tract. Plaintiff then gave Winter the owner's telephone number, and Winter contacted the owner, arranging for the 60 acres to be sold to him and his wife, Mrs. Winter.

Plaintiff testified that Winter was going to purchase the 40 acres for his benefit and convey it to him when he sold his cattle in September. After the conversation, plaintiff stated, he contacted the owner, informed him of the arrangement, and gave him permission to sell the land to Winter.

The deeds were not recorded until late October due to difficulties with abstracting. The final installment payment was made shortly before Thanksgiving. Plaintiff testified he sold his cattle in September, and received assurances from his bank that he could obtain the necessary financing. He contacted Winter in October to learn if he could remove the hay and plant his winter wheat, but Winter informed plaintiff that he could not give him permission to enter the premises because the papers had not yet been signed and the property was not his.

Plaintiff and his wife visited the defendants' home shortly after Christmas. Mr. Winter was not home at the time, but Mrs. Winter was, and she informed plaintiff that her husband was thinking about keeping the entire 60 acres. Plaintiff informed her that he wanted his 40 acres. Several weeks later, Mrs. Winter wrote plaintiff's wife and informed her that her husband had decided to keep the entire acreage, which she indicated was not finally acquired until shortly before Thanksgiving.

Plaintiff responded with a letter which was characterized at trial as "nasty." Winter testified he wrote plaintiff back and informed him that if he had not written the letter, they could have worked something out. Winter denied the existence of any agreement with plaintiff and also denied that plaintiff had told him that he was going to sell his cattle in September. Despite his denial of an agreement, Winter's testimony ...

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