Appeal from the Circuit Court for the 10th Judicial Circuit, Tazewell County, Illinois. No. 99 L 114 Honorable Scott A. Shore Judge Presiding
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Breslin
Plaintiffs Chicago Title & Trust Company and Suncoast Investments, Inc. (collectively, Chicago Title), filed an action against David Levine to recover compensatory and punitive damages for slander of title. Chicago Title claimed that Levine maliciously filed an attorney's lien against property held in a land trust of which Chicago Title was trustee. The jury rendered a verdict in favor of Chicago Title and awarded it attorney fees and punitive damages. Levine moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n.o.v.). The motion was denied, and Levine appealed. We affirm and hold that an attorney commits slander of title when he maliciously files a lien against property in contravention of the Illinois Attorneys Lien Act (770 ILCS 5/1 (West 2000)), disparages title to the property, and causes damages.
In December of 1993, Susan Fasse filed an action against Thomas Cassidy in Cobb County, Georgia, to dissolve their common law marriage. The action also sought the rights to a farm located near Delavan, Illinois, and named Television Cablecasting, Inc. (TCI), and Chicago Title as defendants. Fasse, who assigned her interest in the farm to a trust naming Chicago Title as trustee, later transferred the beneficial interest in the trust to TCI, a corporation owned by Cassidy. Levine represented TCI and Cassidy in the litigation.
During the pendency of the litigation the parties and their agents were under a standing order of the court entered on December 10, 1993, not to encumber any of the property belonging to the parties. Regardless, Levine filed an attorney's lien against the farm in the recorder's office of Tazewell County, Illinois, on May 9, 1995. One week later, a jury awarded Fasse 100% of the stock in TCI (which held the beneficial interest in the farm), and pursuant to the verdict the court directed Cassidy to satisfy all outstanding liens on the farm. Afterwards, TCI, under the ownership of Fasse, assigned its interest in the trust to Suncoast.
Subsequent to the change in beneficial ownership of the farm from TCI to Suncoast, Levine sent Cassidy a bill for services for work he performed on behalf of TCI and Chicago Title. Although the bill did not provide an itemization of the amount of fees and expenses for each activity that Levine claimed to have performed, the bill indicated that a balance of $42,762.35 was due and owing. Thereafter, Levine sent Cassidy a draft of an engagement letter that described the future services that Levine would provide on behalf of Cassidy, TCI and Chicago Title *fn1 in the dissolution of marriage case. The letter was backdated by two years, signed by Cassidy, and sent to Fasse by Levine with a copy of the attorney's lien. Later, Levine filed an action for fees against TCI in a Georgia court.
In August of 1999, Chicago Title filed the instant matter against Levine in the circuit court of Tazewell County, Illinois. Chicago Title claimed slander of title and requested a declaratory judgment that the lien on the property was invalid. Levine answered and counterclaimed, arguing that Suncoast received the transfer of interest in the farm by a fraudulent conveyance. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Chicago Title, declaring that the lien was invalid as a matter of law. The court also entered an order striking the counterclaim on the basis of lack of jurisdiction.
At trial on the slander of title claim, Fasse testified that after a significant judgment was entered against her in another matter she put the property into a trust so that it could not be touched by the judgment creditor. She later conveyed the interest in the property to Suncoast so that it could not be touched by Cassidy or Levine. An attorney called as an expert on behalf of Chicago Title opined that an attorney who performed a minimum amount of legal research would know that the lien was invalid: (1) where the attorney was defending a claim instead of pursuing a claim on behalf of his client against a third party, and (2) no notice was given in accordance with the statute. Levine testified that he believed the lien was valid because Cassidy, a licensed Illinois attorney, had told him that it was.
At the conclusion of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Chicago Title. It awarded $3,929.60 in attorney fees and $30,000 in punitive damages. Levine appealed. Subsequently, Levine amended his complaint in the Georgia fee action adding a count against Suncoast for fraudulent conveyance.
Additional facts will be provided as they become pertinent to the analysis.
On appeal, Levine contests the jury's verdict and its award of damages. He also claims that the jury was improperly instructed and that the court erroneously dismissed his counterclaim based on lack of jurisdiction. This court uses a de novo standard to review a trial court's decision to deny a motion for a judgment n.o.v. and to dismiss a claim on jurisdictional grounds. Kopczick v. Hobart Corp., 308 Ill. App. 3d 967, 721 N.E.2d 769 (1999); Doe v. McKay, 183 Ill. 2d 272, 700 N.E.2d 1018 (1998). We review a trial court's decision regarding jury instructions for abuse of discretion. Linn v. Damilano, 303 Ill. App. 3d 600, 708 N.E.2d 533 (1999).
Levine's first argument is that the verdict was improper because there was no evidence that he acted with malice or filed false information in the lien. He also argues that the award of actual ...