Appeal from Circuit Court of Piatt County No. 00MR3 Honorable Frank W. Lincoln, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Knecht
Plaintiff, Joseph O. Daugherty, Sr., is the tenant farmer under oral crop-share leases on three tracts of land in Piatt and Douglas Counties. He is also a joint owner of all three tracts, owning less than a majority interest in each. Defendants Mary Burns and James Daugherty, plaintiff's sister and brother, are joint owners with plaintiff of all three tracts. Their mother's sister, defendant Helen Short, is a joint owner with them of one tract. Their father's sister, Grace Dye, who is not a party to this action, is a joint owner with them of another tract. On October 22, 1999, defendants served plaintiff with notice to terminate all three leases. They also filed an action seeking to partition the three farms. In March 2000, with defendants' partition action pending, plaintiff brought an action seeking a declaratory judgment he was entitled to remain in possession of the three farms under the oral leases until partition. In July 2001, the trial court ruled in defendants' favor. Plaintiff appeals, arguing (1) defendants lacked the power to terminate his tenancy absent the consent of all joint owners, and (2) their notice to terminate was ineffective because it was not served more than four months prior to the end of the lease as required by statute. See 735 ILCS 5/9-206 (West 1998). We affirm.
Plaintiff, defendants, and Grace Dye are joint owners of three tracts of farmland in Piatt and Douglas Counties. They acquired their interests through inheritance or grants from family members.
Plaintiff began farming the first of the three tracts, known as Farm No. 1167, in 1977. Farm No. 1167 includes 400 acres in Piatt County (where plaintiff resides) and 151 acres in Douglas County. At that time, plaintiff's mother, Ruth Daugherty, and her sister, defendant Helen Short, each owned an undivided one-half interest in the land and plaintiff was merely a tenant farmer. After Ruth Daugherty died, plaintiff and his brother and sister acquired her interest in the farm. Helen Short deeded portions of her interest to her husband, William V. Short, who died in 1999, and both purported to transfer their interests into living trusts. Currently, Helen Short, individually or through the William and Helen Short Trusts, owns an undivided one-half interest in Farm No. 1167, while plaintiff and his two siblings each own undivided one-sixth interests.
Plaintiff began farming Farm No. 1738, consisting of 53.3 acres in Piatt County, in 1988. He and defendants Mary Burns and James Daugherty each own an undivided one-third interest in this land. He began farming Farm No. 1001, consisting of 320 acres in Piatt County, in 1990. Although plaintiff farms Farm No. 1001 as a single unit, it is divided into 40-acre and 80-acre tracts, each of which is owned by plaintiff, Mary Burns, James Daugherty, and Grace Dye (their father's sister) in varying proportions. Grace Dye owns a 100% interest in one 40-acre tract. Mary Burns and James Daugherty together own a majority interest in Farm No. 1001.
Plaintiff does not have written leases for any of the three farms. The terms of the three oral crop-share leases are essentially identical. Plaintiff, as tenant farmer, provides all farming equipment and labor. The landowners, including plaintiff, pay the property tax on the land and supply the limestone and half the cost of seed, herbicide, and fertilizer in proportion to their interest in the land. Plaintiff, as tenant farmer, receives half the proceeds from sale of the crops; the parties divide the other half among the landowners, including plaintiff, in proportion to their ownership interests. The parties have always settled their financial accounts involving the three farms around January 1 each year.
Plaintiff could not testify to the exact dates he took possession of Farm No. 1167 or began farming it. He testified he began purchasing farming equipment and storing it on the land some time in the autumn of 1976, began farming "in crop year 1977," and took possession of the buildings "in crop year 1978." He moved into the house in July 1979.
On October 22, 1999, defendants served plaintiff with a notice to terminate his tenancy effective March 1, 2000. They also filed an action seeking partition of the three farms. On March 13, 2000, plaintiff filed a declaratory judgment action in the circuit court of Piatt County. In August 2000, defendants served plaintiff with a second notice to terminate his tenancy effective January 1, 2001. They did so because plaintiff challenged the efficacy of their original notice partly on grounds of untimeliness, claiming the lease term coincided with the calendar year.
On May 25, 2001, the trial court issued a memorandum of opinion in which the trial judge determined defendants had the authority to terminate the lease absent the consent of minority interest-holders plaintiff and Grace Dye. He found the parties' oral agreement did not specify a start date and took judicial notice of the fact custom and usage in East-Central Illinois is to begin crop-share leases on March 1. Thus, he found the October 1999 notice effective to terminate the leases as of March 1, 2000. On July 25, 2001, the trial court entered a judgment denying plaintiff the relief he sought. This appeal followed.
A. Defendants' Authority To Terminate Plaintiff's Leases
Plaintiff argues defendants lacked the power to terminate the leases without the unanimous consent of all the joint owners of the farmland in question. No case law in Illinois directly answers the question and the rule varies in other jurisdictions. Plaintiff urges us to follow those authorities holding the rights and obligations between lessors and lessees are indivisible, thus requiring the unanimous consent of all joint owners to terminate a tenancy. Defendants ...