The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rapp
IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County.
Honorable Melvin E. Dunn, Judge, Presiding.
Plaintiffs, Thomas Hake Enterprises, Inc.; Richard Dahlquist, individually and doing business as Western Mechanical; and Ihor Hnytka, individually and doing business as C&H Construction, sought to impose mechanics' liens upon defendants, Allen Betke, Jason C. Birck, Charlotte Birck, Jack E. Bruns, Patsy A. Coffman, and unknown owners and non-record claimants. The circuit court of Kane County granted defendants' motion for a directed finding, dismissing plaintiffs' mechanics' liens claims. The circuit court also awarded sanctions against plaintiffs pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 137 (155 Ill. 2d R. 137) and section 17(c) of the Mechanics Lien Act (770 ILCS 60/17(c) (West 1996)). On appeal, plaintiffs raise the following issues: (1) whether the trial court erred by entering a directed finding in favor of the defendants; (2) whether sanctions in the form of attorney fees and costs were proper under the circumstances; and (3) whether the trial court erred by admitting certain documents as evidence of the reasonableness and amount of attorney fees. We affirm in part and reverse in part.
Late in 1993, Allen S. Betke (Betke) negotiated an interest in a piece of undeveloped property (Lot 43) located in Carpentersville, Illinois, from Ihor Hnytka (Hnytka). Betke and Hnytka began to construct a residence thereon. Subsequently, because of financial difficulties, Betke was unable to proceed with the construction of the house. Charlotte Birck (Charlotte) and her son, Jason Birck (Jason), provided funds to purchase Lot 43 and Betke's interest in the home from Hnytka for $68,000. Charlotte negotiated the purchase price, but, at Charlotte's request, the title to the lot was placed in Jason's name.
Construction continued on the home after Lot 43 was sold and the title placed in Jason's name. Betke continued to contract with subcontractors to complete the house. Because Betke was unable to pay for the contractors' services, Charlotte assisted by providing the financing. She wrote checks directly to subcontractors and channeled funds through Betke to subcontractors.
Each party's role is unclear at this point. Title to the property was in Jason's name, yet he took no action to ensure that construction on the home was completed. In fact, he denied any knowledge of such construction. Charlotte financed the construction and indicated to one of the plaintiffs that she was the owner of Lot 43. Betke testified that he was building the house for his own purchase, and he believed that at some point he would purchase his interest back. He admitted, however, that there was no written agreement to that effect between him and Charlotte or Jason.
After the house was completed, Charlotte approached Betke to sell Lot 43 and the home. Betke was again unable to acquire the necessary funds or arrange for financing. As a result, Charlotte negotiated the resale of Lot 43 to the ultimate purchasers, Jack E. Bruns (Bruns) and Patsy A. Coffman (Coffman), for over $175,000.
Plaintiffs are all subcontractors who verbally contracted with Betke and performed services on Lot 43. They brought this action against Betke, Charlotte, Jason, Bruns, and Coffman. On September 9, 1997, the court entered a directed finding dismissing the complaint against all defendants except Betke, whom the court found individually liable. The court found that the mechanics' liens were void because no agency relationship existed between the owner of the property, Jason, and Betke, with whom the plaintiffs contracted. In light of the absence of an agency relationship, the Judge also found, on October 24, 1997, that sanctions were appropriate because the complaint was not well-grounded. Consequently, on December 9, 1997, Charlotte was awarded a total of over $16,000 in attorney fees and costs under section 17(c) of the Mechanics Lien Act and Supreme Court Rule 137 (155 Ill. 2d R. 137).
Before we reach the merits of plaintiffs' arguments, we must first address a threshold issue raised by defendants. Specifically, defendants challenge the timeliness of plaintiffs' appeal. As a general rule, Supreme Court Rule 303(a)(1) allows appeals within 30 days from final judgments or from an order disposing of a timely filed posttrial motion. 134 Ill. 2d R. 303(a)(1); Cinch Manufacturing Co. v. Rosewell, 255 Ill. App. 3d 37, 40 (1993). A final judgment is a determination by the court on the issues presented that fixes absolutely and finally the rights of the parties in the lawsuit. Cinch Manufacturing, 255 Ill. App. 3d at 40. As long as any party's timely posttrial motion remains undisposed, however, the underlying judgment is not final, and complete jurisdiction remains in the circuit court. In re Marriage of Uphoff, 99 Ill. 2d 90, 95 (1983).
In the present case, the trial court dismissed the counts against defendants on September 9, 1997. On October 9, 1997, 30 days later, defendants filed a posttrial motion for sanctions, and plaintiffs filed a motion for rehearing. Both motions were timely filed. On October 24, 1997, the court denied plaintiffs' motion for rehearing but granted defendants' motion for sanctions, while reserving judgment as to the amount and reasonableness of attorney fees. On December 9, 1997, the court found defendants' attorney fees were ...