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Downs v. Webster

September 03, 1999

THE ESTATE OF BENJAMIN DOWNS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
V.
WAYNE L. WEBSTER, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 9th Judicial Circuit Knox County, Illinois No. 97-LM-158 Honorable James B. Stewart Judge Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Lytton

The estate of Benjamin Downs (estate), through its executor, Caroline Downs, instituted an action in replevin against defendant Wayne L. Webster d/b/a Galesburg Mini-Storage. Caroline sought recovery of property wrongfully placed in Webster's storage facility by the estate's original executor, Thomas Downs. The trial court found that, pursuant to section 3 of the Self-Storage Facility Act (Act)(770 ILCS 95/3 (West 1996)), and a lease agreement entered into between Webster and Thomas, Webster had an existing lien for past rent, attorney fees and costs on all property which Thomas placed in the facility. Caroline appeals, claiming that (1) Webster cannot have a lien on "stolen" property, and (2) attorney fees were improper. In addition, Webster contends that he is entitled to collect rent which has accrued during the pendency of this appeal. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

I. FACTS

Benjamin Downs died in January 1988. Thomas was appointed executor of Benjamin's estate; he was subsequently removed as executor in December 1989 amidst allegations of improper conduct. Caroline then became executor of the estate.

One month after his removal, Thomas entered into a lease with Webster, owner of Galesburg Mini-Storage, for rental of a storage unit. Under the terms of the lease, Thomas agreed to pay "all costs, including attorney fees, incurred in collecting any money due hereunder or enforcing the terms of this lease."

Upon discovering that Thomas had stored property belonging to the estate in Webster's storage facility, Caroline, as executor, filed an action in replevin against Webster. After a bench trial, the court found Webster to have a lien on all property contained in the storage facility for past rent, attorney fees and court costs. The court ordered Webster, upon payment of the lien, to return any items belonging to the estate. Caroline appeals.

II. LIEN CLAIM

Citing general common law principles *fn1 , Caroline claims that "one cannot derive an interest in property, be it title to property or a lien over a property from a thief." Accordingly, Webster cannot have any interest in the estate property because Thomas had no ownership rights over the property when he placed it in storage. Webster responds that a lien on the property is appropriate under section 3 of the Act.

1.

Liens originate from a variety of sources, including the common law, statute and equity. D. Overton, The Law of Liens, §38, at 40 (Banks & Bros. ed. 1883). The common law right to impose a lien or seize property for the compulsion of rental payments dates back to feudal times. L. Jones, The Law of Liens, § 561, at 347 (2nd ed. 1894). At common law, innkeepers could maintain a lien over property which guests brought to the inn. There were two opposing theories, however, regarding whether an innkeeper could secure a lien on stolen property. D. Overton, The Law of Liens, §122, at 149. Ohio's common law, for example, would not allow an innkeeper's lien under such circumstances. See M & M Hotel Co. v. Nichols, 32 N.E.2d 463 (1935). In contrast, Overton, in his treatise on lien law, explained that,

"[i]f property * * * [is] brought by a guest to an inn, at which he obtains accommodations, and leaves the property in custody of the innkeeper, it seems the lien will attach thereto, whether it belong to a guest or * * * even if it had been stolen by the guest. For the innkeeper is bound to receive and entertain the guest, and when unaccompanied by any suspicious circumstances, would not be justified in inquiring into the title to the property delivered by the guest to his possession." D. Overton, The Law of Liens, §123, at 150, citing Yorke v. Greenaugh, Ld. Raym. 866 (1702).

Innkeepers' rights are no longer within the province of the common law, having been replaced by statute, "with some modifications and extensions," in all states. J. Sherry, Law of Innkeepers, § 20:20, at 605 (Rev. ed. 1981).

Landlord-tenant rights also evolved from the common law. While the common law did not allow a landlord, in the absence of a statute or agreement, to acquire a lien over a tenant's property when the tenant defaulted on rental payments (24 Illinois Law and Practice, § 461, at 558 (1980)), the common law did provide that "all chattels found upon the demised premises were prima facie distrainable, whether they belonged to the tenant or not." L. Jones, The Law of Liens, § 561, at 347 (2nd ed. 1894); see also Gray v. Rawson, 11 Ill. 528, 529 (1850).

Like innkeepers' rights, landlords' rights have been codified. However, a "landlord's statutory lien for rent does not generally attach to goods of other persons which happen to be upon the demised ...


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