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Grover v. Commonwealth Plaza Condominium





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. HAROLD NUDELMAN, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff, Abner Grover, the owner of a condominium unit, brought this contract action against defendants Commonwealth Plaza Condominium Association (the Association), the condominium association of which plaintiff is a member, and its managing agent, Sudler & Company (Sudler). In his action, which was brought pro se, plaintiff sought to recover money he was allegedly caused to expend as a result of defendants' breach of an alleged agreement to install heating units in the sequence of orders placed.

The cause proceeded to a trial before a jury, which rendered a verdict of $30 in favor of plaintiff and against both defendants. In addition, after the jury had retired to deliberate, the trial court, acting on its own motion, assessed a penalty of $70 against defendants under section 41 of the Civil Practice Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 110, par. 41) for statements which defendants' attorney had made in procuring a continuance of the trial.

Defendants appeal, contending (1) that the trial court erred in failing to direct a verdict in their favor; (2) that the conduct of the trial court deprived them of a fair trial; (3) that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury adequately; and (4) that the trial court erred in making the section 41 award. The following pertinent testimony was adduced at trial.

Because plaintiff was acting in a pro se capacity, the court permitted him to read a brief opening statement and then testify in narrative form, subject to defendants' right to object and to cross-examine. Plaintiff owns a condominium unit in Commonwealth Plaza Condominium, a complex consisting of two high-rise buildings with a total of 370 residential units. The Association is a not-for-profit corporation established to govern affairs relating to the maintenance, repair, administration, and operation of the complex and composed of all condominium unit owners. The Association's authority is vested in a board of directors (the board), which in turn has since July of 1977 retained a real estate agent, Sudler, to act as managing agent for the property.

Sometime after October of 1976 and before September of 1977, the board became aware of problems relating to the heating and air conditioning systems in the complex, specifically the fan coil units, several of which were in each individual condominium. At a meeting of the board on September 15, 1977, the board was advised of the need to replace most of the fan coil units. After deliberation, the board directed Sudler to procure the manufacture and installation of new heating units for condominium owners who wanted to purchase replacements for their failing units.

On October 7, 1977, Sudler sent a letter to all condominium owners, including plaintiff, informing them that Sudler had received a firm contract proposal for the new heaters from a manufacturer. The letter stated that the fan coil units would be sold to one of three firms in the business of installing such units, who would then sell them to and install them for individual condominium owners. After stating that the first group of 40 units would be ready in six weeks and after spelling out the terms of the sale, the letter concluded:

"If you wish to order new fan coil units, complete the accompanying form and return it to the management office * * * at the earliest possible moment. All order will be processed in the order in which they are received. * * *" (Emphasis supplied.)

The letter was signed by Ted Johnson of Sudler as agents for the Association.

Plaintiff appeared at the management office with his order early the next morning, before the office had even opened, as did one or two other residents of the complex, resulting in plaintiff's order being one of the first two or three orders received. Plaintiff's order requested replacement of three of his four heating units. By letter dated October 24, 1977, Sudler requested a deposit of $100 to confirm previous orders, which deposit was timely made by plaintiff.

Meanwhile, at the board meeting on October 11, 1977, the last meeting plaintiff attended as a member of the board, Sudler's representatives informed the board that the low bidder for installation of the heaters was Thermo-Dynamics, Inc. Plaintiff asked what was included in the price quoted by the installer, but was told that Sudler would send him the specifications. On October 17, plaintiff spoke with Ted Johnson of Sudler, who again said he would send plaintiff the specifications and who affirmed that plaintiff was "in the first batch with failed units." However, unbeknownst to plaintiff, Sudler soon after learned by a letter from Thermo-Dynamics dated October 19, 1977, that Thermo-Dynamics' bid was contingent on the firm's ability to "provide a work schedule based on a logical sequence of apartments."

Thermo-Dynamics began installing the heaters during the first week of January 1978. By letter dated January 11, 1978, Sudler announced that heaters were being installed first in the nearly 40 apartments in which all heaters had become inoperative, and that installation would continue on a systematic basis. Payments for the heaters would be made to the Commonwealth Plaza Condominium, which would then pay the contractor. The minutes of the next board meeting reflect that heaters were being installed in the order stated in Sudler's letter of January 11, 1978.

Plaintiff thereafter contacted Ted Johnson of Sudler seven times, complaining about the delay in receiving his heaters. He was told that the contractor was proceeding floor-by-floor. Along with all other residents, plaintiff received a letter from Sudler announcing that heaters were being installed on a priority basis, contrary to the contractor's floor-by-floor schedule, only upon payment of an additional $30 charge by the condominium owner, which the letter further stated was authorized by the board.

Plaintiff's heaters were installed at the end of February 1978 on a priority basis, for which he paid $30. Plaintiff was seeking that amount in damages as well as $75 expended to buy electric blankets and an electric heater and approximately $200 for additional electricity allegedly used to power these interim heating devices.

On cross-examination, plaintiff admitted that he purchased the blankets and heater on October 3 and October 11, 1977, respectively, before he knew of or experienced any delay in getting the fan coil units. Plaintiff also testified that the last board meeting he attended was on October 11, 1977, and that he did not ever protest the $30 charge or the decision regarding priority at any subsequent board meeting. However, he stated ...

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