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Dotson v. Former Shareholders of Abraham Lincoln Land and Cattle Co.

August 1, 2002


Appeal from Circuit Court of Coles County No. 98CH6 Honorable Robert B. Cochonour, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Knecht

In March 1998, plaintiff, Joseph S. Dotson (Joseph or plaintiff), a minor by his next friend and father, L. Stanton Dotson (Dotson), an attorney, filed suit to quiet title in a parcel of real estate situated in Coles County that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln and that was later owned by defendant corporation, Abraham Lincoln Land and Cattle Company, Inc., and unknown owners (collectively, defendants). As the grantee of a nominal share of the parcel, whose prior owner, Dotson, had paid the real estate taxes for seven years, plaintiff claimed title should be quieted in his favor pursuant to section 13-110 of the Code of Civil Procedure, also referred to as the Limitations Act (735 ILCS 5/13-110 (West 1996)). In March 2001, the trial court found that plaintiff had established all elements of section 13-110 and quieted title to the parcel in plaintiff. Defendants appeal. We reverse.


In 1841, the 40-acre farm parcel was purchased by Abraham Lincoln from his father, Thomas Lincoln, who reserved a life estate in the property for himself and his wife, Sarah Bush Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was a frequent visitor to the parcel, and it was the only farm property he ever owned.

Sarah Bush Lincoln resided on the farm until her death in 1869, some four years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Prior to 1900, the parcel was obtained by the ancestors of Raymond Phipps, who received 36 acres of the parcel from his grandparents' estate in 1973.

In 1975, Phipps developed a business plan to sell interests in a portion of the parcel, based upon its connection to Abraham Lincoln. Pursuant to this plan, Phipps platted and recorded a four-acre portion of the entire 40-acre parcel as the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Farm Plat (Farm Plat). The Farm Plat consisted of four separate lots of approximately one acre, numbered 1 through 4 (Lots 1 through 4). These lots were rectangular in shape, approximately 132 feet by 330 feet, running along a north-south axis, with the short ends of the rectangles forming the boundaries between the lots. The entire four-acre tract formed a large, 132-foot-wide, 1,320-foot-long rectangle. Eventually, Phipps transferred his entire interest in the Farm Plat to a for-profit Illinois corporation he had recently formed, Abraham Lincoln Land & Cattle Company, Inc. (Lincoln Land I).

As described by Phipps, the corporate aim of Lincoln Land I was to sell nominal deeds, primarily for souvenir purposes, to Lot 1 of the Farm Plat to persons interested in the history of Abraham Lincoln and Coles County. Under this plan, each deed would transfer a 1/1,672,640 undivided interest--approximately one square inch--in Lot 1 of the Farm Plat. According to Phipps, the proximity of the Farm Plat near the Abraham Lincoln State Park and other sites of local and historic interest would be a salient feature in the sale of the souvenir deeds. Phipps eventually developed a strategy to market the deeds, planning to use the proceeds to maintain the land and to make a small profit. Phipps was even successful in persuading the Neiman-Marcus department store to offer the deeds in its famous Christmas catalog in 1977.

On June 3, 1976, plaintiff's father and next friend, Dotson, purchased one of the souvenir deeds. At that time, Dotson considered the deed a "memento" of Abraham Lincoln, and he did not consider it as an investment or substantive interest in Lot 1. Later, on August 30, 1976, Dotson recorded the deed with in the Coles County recorder's office.

Eventually, in the mid-1980s, Lincoln Land I became insolvent. Phipps failed to pay franchise taxes, failed to file an annual report, and began paying Lincoln Land I's bills with his own funds. On March 1, 1985, the Secretary of State dissolved Lincoln Land I without objection from Phipps.

In 1989, Dotson learned Lincoln Land I had been dissolved. After contacting the Secretary of State and learning the corporate name Abraham Lincoln Land & Cattle Company, Inc., was available, Dotson formed a not-for-profit corporation with the same name (Lincoln Land II).

On July 24, 1989, Dotson prepared and executed a deed of his interest in Lot 1 in favor of his then-wife, Judith Anna Dotson (Judith). However, the legal description omitted the fractional interest, so the deed purported to transfer an entire interest in Lot 1 to Judith. Further, the deed indicated all future real estate tax bills should be mailed to Judith. Dotson paid the $1 transfer tax.

As part of dissolution proceedings, on March 28, 1991, Judith transferred several parcels of real estate, via warranty deed, back to Dotson. Among these was the interest in Lot 1 created by the July 24, 1989, deed from Dotson to Judith. This deed specified all future tax bills should be sent to Dotson.

Two months later, on June 10, 1991, Dotson quitclaimed the interest in Lot 1 to his second wife, Laurie Ann Roley Dotson (Laurie), and he specified all future tax bills should be sent to her. Then, on June 2, 1992, Dotson and Laurie, listed as cograntors, purportedly transferred the interest in Lot 1 to plaintiff via warranty deed. This deed specified all future tax bills should be sent to plaintiff.

On December 2, 1997, Laurie quitclaimed an interest in Lot 1, "except the [n]orth [e]ight (8) [f]eet thereof," to plaintiff and stated all future tax bills should be sent to plaintiff. Dotson was not listed as a cograntor on this deed. According to defendants, at some point after this deed, Dotson purportedly quitclaimed the north eight feet of Lot 1 to an individual who was running for Congress.

Then, on January 29, 1998, Laurie executed a "corporation warranty deed" as president of, and on behalf of, Lincoln Land II. This deed purported to transfer Lot 1, except "[t]he [n]orth 8 feet of Lot One (1), except the [n]orth 1 foot thereof and except the east 12 feet thereof," to plaintiff. Dotson attested this deed as the secretary of Lincoln Land II.

By this point, Dotson had received and paid the real estate taxes due on Lot 1 for the tax years 1990 through 1996, each payable in the following year. In those years, the tax due on Lot 1 never exceeded $40. Through those same tax years, Phipps received and paid the tax bills for Lots 2, 3, and 4. According to Phipps, he did not notice when the Coles County assessor stopped sending the tax bills for Lot 1 because he received a single bill which did not itemize what amounts were due on which lots or which lots it covered. Instead, the bill simply specified an amount due, which varied from year to year. For example, Phipps's tax bill--with no specification as to the lots covered--amounted to $267.26 in 1992, $308.20 in 1993, $355.84 in 1994, and $305.86 in 1995.

On February 19, 1998, Dotson strung a single, loose strand of barbed wire across the south boundary of Lot 1, which is adjacent to a road. Additionally, Dotson posted a no-trespassing sign on the fence. The eastern, western, and northern boundaries were not then otherwise fenced.

On March 4, 1998, plaintiff and Dotson filed a petition to quiet title, naming the former shareholders of Lincoln Land I and unknown owners as defendants. Service was made by publication, and in the affidavit required for such service, Dotson attested to his inability to locate the unknown owners after a diligent inquiry. According to defendants, however, the original deed of the nominal interest included Phipps's name and address, which was still his address on March 4, 1998.

After a three-day trial in January 2001, the trial court issued a four-page memorandum opinion (memorandum opinion) on March 13, 2001, granting quiet title to plaintiff. While the memorandum opinion stated "judgment is entered for the [p]laintiff and quiet title is granted [plaintiff]," no mention was made of whether the trial court would require the parties to submit a written draft order.

The following day, March 14, 2001, plaintiff and Dotson filed a motion for sanctions pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 137 (155 Ill. 2d R. 137). On March 22, 2001, defendants filed a notice of appeal to this court, seeking reversal of the trial court's judgment as expressed in the memorandum opinion, docketed No. 4-01-0250. After a hearing on the motion for sanctions on April 19, 2001, the trial court denied the motion the same day in a docket entry, which stated, "[b]y [a]greement of [c]counsel, the docket entry will stand as dispositive."

On July 3, 2001, defendants filed a motion in this court seeking voluntary dismissal of their own appeal, arguing the notice of appeal was premature under Supreme Court Rule 272 (137 Ill. 2d R. 272) and a local rule of the Fifth Judicial Circuit (5th Judicial Cir. Ct. R. XI(A) (eff. November 3, 1997) (III Ill. Court Rs. & Proc. 193 (West 2002))). We granted the motion on July 5, 2001. Dotson v. Former Shareholders of Abraham Lincoln Land & Cattle Co., No. 4-01-0250 (July 5, 2001) (dismissal order).

After the dismissal of defendants' appeal, defendants' counsel wrote to plaintiff's counsel July 13, 2001, requesting plaintiff submit a written judgment order for the trial court's signature. When plaintiff failed to respond, defendants filed a motion for entry of judgment in the trial court on September 5, 2001. The trial court denied this motion on October 11, 2001, stating in a docket entry: "Motion denied. Docket entry to stand as and for the ...

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