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Hartke v. Conn





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Iroquois County; the Hon. RONALD L. DANNEHL, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff Harry Hartke appeals from the judgment of the circuit court in favor of defendant Ronald Conn in Hartke's declaratory action against Conn. In the declaratory judgment action, Hartke had sought to have a written lifetime lease between the parties declared invalid and unenforceable. The circuit court upheld the lifetime crop-share lease. Consolidated for trial with the declaratory action was a forcible entry and detainer action, in which Hartke sought damages for an alleged breach by Conn of the written lease. Recovery was denied by the court in that action as well, with judgment entered on Conn's counterclaim for damages under the written lease. While no appeal is taken by either party from the forcible entry and detainer judgment, that action is implicated in this appeal. On appeal, the plaintiff Hartke contends that the written lease between the parties was invalid under the Statute of Frauds and also that such defense was properly pleaded by him in the declaratory judgment action. Alternatively, Hartke argues that even if the lease is enforceable, it created only a tenancy at will.

The record discloses that in 1963, Ronald Conn began farming two tracts of farmland in Iroquois County. One of the tracts belonged to Theodore Hartke, brother of plaintiff, and the other belonged to plaintiff Harry Hartke. From 1963 until 1973, Conn farmed the land as a tenant, under an oral year-to-year crop-share lease with the Hartkes. Sometime in the early part of 1973, the parties, including Harry Hartke's wife, Cora, who owned no interest in either of the farms, began discussing a longer term lease. The discussions included the Hartke's attorney. After their attorney and Conn had worked out the terms of the lease, on June 23, 1973, Conn went to the Hartke's home for the purpose of executing the written lease. The written lease, which now forms the subject of this action, was executed by Cora Hartke, Harry Hartke's wife, on behalf of Harry and his brother Theodore. Theodore Hartke was present at the time of the signing, but could not sign due to a stroke he had previously suffered. Harry Hartke was outside, doing chores, when the lease was executed. Cora Hartke signed each brother's name and then signed her own name to the lease. It is undisputed that she had no interest in the farmland subject of the lease. It is also undisputed that at the time she signed the lease on behalf of her husband and Theodore she had no written authority from them to act as their agent in the matter. The evidence did disclose, however, that Cora Hartke had executed checks for her husband and that she had taken an active part in the negotiations for the lease. The written lease provided for a 50-50 crop-share arrangement between the parties and was to be effective from January 1, 1973, through the lifetime of the lessee Ronald Conn.

Cora Hartke informed her husband Harry that night that she had signed the lease for him during the day. No comment and no objection was made by Harry Hartke to that procedure either that day, or for years thereafter. In fact, Conn farmed the properties under the written lifetime lease from 1973 until 1979, when a dispute arose between the Hartkes and him. Harry Hartke had inherited his brother's tract of land in 1975. The 1979 dispute centered upon an accounting for grain between the parties. The Hartkes believed that Conn had sold some grain that belonged to them, under the lease terms. During that time, Hartke requested that his attorney prepare two cash-rent leases, with one-year terms, for the two parcels of land. The one-year leases were presented to the defendant, who refused to sign them, not wishing to affect in any way the written lease that was executed in 1973.

Thereafter, on November 2, 1979, plaintiff Hartke caused a notice to quit to be served upon the defendant Conn. The notice to quit stated that Conn was in default on the lease by his failure to account for the crops harvested. It informed Conn that Theodore Hartke, Harry Hartke and Cora Hartke were terminating the lease with Conn. It was signed by Alexander Edgar, attorney for Harry and Cora Hartke.

On May 27, 1980, a forcible entry and detainer action was filed by Harry Hartke against Ronald Conn, requesting possession of the farmland. Subsequently, on October 29, 1980, Hartke filed his declaratory judgment action, seeking a declaration of the parties' rights under the written instrument of June 1973. In the complaint, Hartke alleges that the written lease was not signed by him or by his brother, Theodore. The complaint further alleges that Cora Hartke was not the agent of either of the brothers when she signed the lease for them in 1973. Harry Hartke sought in the action to have the written lease declared invalid and unenforceable, and to enforce allegedly existing year-to-year oral leases. Plaintiff Hartke, on December 8, 1980, filed an amended complaint in the forcible entry and detainer action. In it Hartke alleged the existence of the written lease, though signed only by Conn. Further, Hartke alleged that the defendant violated the written lease in specified particulars and that the violations constituted a breach of the lease. It is also alleged in the amended complaint that a notice of forfeiture and demand were served upon the defendant Conn on or about November 2, 1979, and that the defendant refused to give up possession. Attached to the amended complaint was the written 1973 lifetime lease and a copy of the notice to quit. While the record is not before us from the forcible entry and detainer action, the above facts relating to that action were set forth in the record of the declaratory judgment action, either in the evidence or as part of the court's findings of fact.

Ronald Conn filed an answer to the declaratory judgment action, admitting the execution and existence of the lease, but denying the matters as to unenforcibility. He also counterclaimed for damages, being the landlord's share of expenses he had incurred. The counterclaim was met by an answer of Hartke, containing general denials only. The forcible entry and detainer action, along with the declaratory judgment action, were consolidated for trial.

After the trial, at which a number of witnesses testified, the court entered its judgment order. In the declaratory judgment action, the court found that there was a valid lifetime lease of the property, as per the written lease agreement of June 1973. The court found that Cora Hartke was acting as the agent for Harry Hartke and Theodore Hartke at the time she signed the lease agreement on their behalf. The court further found that Harry Hartke had, by his subsequent conduct, ratified the act of Cora Hartke in executing the written lease as his agent. As to the effect of the Statute of Frauds upon the lease agreement, the court found that the Statute of Frauds has not been properly pleaded by the plaintiff Hartke in his complaint. In the forcible entry and detainer action, the court concluded that there had been no breach of the written lease by defendant Conn and that Conn was entitled to a judgment on his counterclaim, being a claim for expenses incurred by him on Hartke's account, totaling $6,039.36. The judgment order in the declaratory judgment action incorporated by reference the findings of fact and conclusions of law in the court's memorandum opinion, issued earlier. From the judgment in the declaratory judgment action, the plaintiff files the instant appeal. He raises several questions with respect to the applicability of the Statute of Frauds, as well as an issue with respect to the nature of the lifetime lease.

We need not reach the various issues raised by plaintiff concerning the Statute of Frauds, for we find that the statute was satisfied. It provides:

"No action shall be brought to charge any person upon any contract for the sale of lands, tenements or hereditaments or any interest in or concerning them, for a longer term than one year, unless such contract or some memorandum or note thereof shall be in writing, and signed by the party to be charged therewith, or some other person thereunto by him lawfully authorized in writing, signed by such party. This section shall not apply to sales upon execution or by any officer or person pursuant to a judgment or order of any court in this state." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 59, par. 2.)

It has long been established that no particular form of memorandum is necessary to satisfy the statute. As noted by the Illinois Supreme Court in Kohlbrecher v. Guettermann (1928), 329 Ill. 246, 250, 160 N.E. 142:

"It is sufficient if there be a memorandum or note of the contract in writing, signed by the party to be charged or by someone by him duly authorized. Any kind of writing is sufficient to satisfy the statute, including hasty notes, memoranda in books, papers, letters and telegrams, if they contain on their face or by reference to other writings the names of the vendor and vendee, a sufficient description of the property to render it capable of identification, and the terms and conditions of the contract. [Citations.]"

It is also firmly established that:

"[T]he contract need not be on a single piece of paper, but the writings taken together must contain all the essential elements to show a contract between the parties so that there is no need of parol proof of any of the terms or conditions of the sale or the intention of the parties. [Citation.] It is necessary that where various writings are involved, they be connected in some definite manner. [Citation.] The signed writing or writings must refer expressly to the other writing, or the several writings must be so connected, either physically or otherwise, as to show by internal ...

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