APPEAL from the Circuit Court of La Salle County; the Hon.
WENDELL THOMPSON, Judge, presiding.
MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE STENGEL DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
This action for specific performance of an option to lease real estate was dismissed at the close of plaintiff's case for want of equity, and plaintiff appeals.
According to the record, the facts are not in dispute. In 1964 plaintiff R.J. Lannon, Jr., an attorney, and Don Wilmot paid $10 to August and Edward Toedter for a one-year option to lease seven acres of farm land for a term of 99 years. The Toedter farm was situated at the southwest corner of the intersection of Interstate 80 and Illinois Route 51, and plaintiff said he wanted the land for purposes of constructing a motel at that location. This option provided for a rental of $200 per acre per year.
In August of 1965, plaintiff prepared a five-year option to lease 24 acres of land located immediately south of the seven-acre parcel, and gave it to Don Wilmot. Wilmot gave it to his wife Lois, who had known the Toedter brothers for many years, and instructed her to get the Toedters to sign the option because the original option to the seven acres was about to expire. According to Mrs. Wilmot, he also told her that more acreage was needed for a longer time in order to provide a roadway for access to the seven-acre parcel.
The Toedters were elderly bachelor brothers who lived alone in a primitive farm home. Mrs. Wilmot told them that the previous option had expired, and she asked August if he would sign "for more acreage and for a longer period of time" to provide access to the property. August Toedter said he knew the original option expired that week, and he was expecting someone to come. He also said he knew they would need more land for a roadway because some people had given up a previous option for lack of access. August then studied the option for a considerable time. He asked no questions, but after reading the document, he signed it and gave it to Edward to sign. Mrs. Wilmot gave August her personal check for $10 and returned the executed option to her husband. He gave it to plaintiff who had it recorded. The check for $10 was never cashed.
Under the terms of the second option, for $10 consideration the Toedters gave plaintiff and Wilmot a five-year option for a 99-year lease of 24 acres at $200 per acre per year, payable semi-annually. The option provided that the lease would be "under a written agreement," and contained no provision for taxes. The option would expire at 12 p.m. on August 1, 1970. The final paragraph provided that the option could be exercised by posting at any United States mailbox a letter addressed to either August or Edward Toedter, Peru Township, Peru, Illinois, indicating that Wilmot and plaintiff were exercising that option.
Plaintiff personally typed a letter exercising the option. He testified that he signed the letter and also obtained Wilmot's signature to the letter which he then placed in the outside maildrop of the Peru post office at 8:30 p.m. on August 1, 1970. Enclosed with the letter was plaintiff's personal check for $2,400, representing six months rent in advance as required by the option. On cross-examination plaintiff identified an envelope postmarked August 2, 1970, as the one he used to mail the letter.
According to plaintiff's testimony, Wilmot negotiated the 24-acre option. The additional land was not in fact essential for construction of a motel but instead was regarded by plaintiff as a speculative venture. Plaintiff hoped the land would increase in value since, as farm land, it would not make $200 an acre for a tenant. Plaintiff had met the Toedter brothers earlier when the seven-acre option proposal was discussed, and he considered August to be "a very shrewd man" who was intelligent and who expressed himself well. Edward never said much, and merely followed August's lead.
Both August and Edward died prior to August 1, 1970. The heirs of the Toedter brothers refused to recognize the validity of plaintiff's exercise of the option, and returned plaintiff's check. Wilmot assigned his interest to plaintiff, and plaintiff filed an action against the Toedter heirs to compel specific performance of the contract for the 99-year lease. Defendants filed a motion to strike the complaint for numerous reasons, including that the alleged agreement was ambiguous and uncertain, and that it was inequitable and unconscionable. The motion was denied, and defendants subsequently filed assorted affirmative defenses which included as grounds that the agreement was ambiguous and inequitable.
At the hearing before the chancellor, Lois Wilmot and plaintiff testified to the facts indicated above, and plaintiff rested. Then the court granted defendants' motion for judgment and entered an order which stated that "this cause is dismissed for lack and want of equity, with prejudice." Plaintiff appeals, contending that he established a prima facie case and that defendants, having pleaded the want of equity as an affirmative defense, now have the burden of proving it.
• 1 According to the Illinois authorities, specific performance will be decreed only if it is clearly established that the contract is just, reasonable, and free from misapprehension or misrepresentation. (E.g., Favata v. Mercer (1951), 409 Ill. 271, 99 N.E.2d 116; Carver v. VanArsdale (1924), 312 Ill. 220, 143 N.E. 579.) Accordingly, plaintiff had the burden of introducing prima facie evidence of the fairness and reasonableness of the option agreement as well as prima facie evidence of the other essential elements of his cause of action.
• 2 A decree dismissing the complaint for want of equity is regarded on appeal as tantamount to finding that plaintiff failed to prove the essential allegations of the complaint. (Daven v. Downey (1941), 378 Ill. 543, 39 N.E.2d 45). Where an appeal has been taken from a dismissal of a complaint for insufficient proof, the reviewing court must consider the evidence, together with all reasonable inferences therefrom, in the light most favorable to plaintiff. Banks v. Gregory (1959), 16 Ill.2d 227, 157 N.E.2d 12; Faulkner v. Black (1941), 378 Ill. 112, 37 N.E.2d 796.
• 3 Applying these principles to the case at bar, we believe it reasonable to infer that August Toedter could read and understand the fairly simple two-page option agreement which he executed on August 7, 1965. Although Lois Wilmot apparently misstated the purpose for which the land was to be acquired, she quite clearly alerted both Toedter brothers to the fact that this option was for more land and for a longer period of time than the previous option. There is no evidence in the record that $200 per acre annual rent was unreasonable for the land in question at the time, and in fact, plaintiff's testimony would indicate that the price was fair. There is nothing to show that the Toedters failed to understand what they were signing, and construing Mrs. Wilmot's testimony most favorably to plaintiff, it can be inferred that they fully understood the terms of the option.
• 4 Defendants contend that plaintiff's evidence casts sufficient doubt on the fundamental fairness of the option and the method by which it was obtained to support the trial court's ruling. Admittedly the evidence is capable of being so interpreted; however, at this stage of the proceeding, a court should not weigh the evidence but rather must give plaintiff the benefit of any doubt. Using that standard, we find that plaintiff met his ...