Appeal from the Circuit Court of Richland County. No. 08-MR-6 Honorable Christopher L. Weber, Judge, presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Goldenhersh
NOTICE Decision filed 04/14/11. The text of this decision may be changed or corrected prior to the filing of a Peti tion for Rehearing or th e disposition of the same.
JUSTICE GOLDENHERSH delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Welch and W exstten concurred in the judgment and opinion.
Plaintiff, R. Joe Trimble, filed in the circuit court of Richland County a petition to vacate an award of arbitration (710 ILCS 5/12 (West 2008)). The circuit court denied the petition and plaintiff appealed. On appeal, the issue is whether the arbitrators exceeded their powers. We reverse and remand with directions.
On December 10, 1998, defendants, Jim Graves, Jerry Graves, and Tony Graves, doing business as Clover Farms, entered into an agreement to lease registered Jersey cows from plaintiff and John S. Trimble, doing business as Trimble Farms. The terms of the lease were for one year beginning on December 10, 1998, and ending on December 10, 1999.
On May 4, 2006, the parties entered into an "Arbitration Agreement" (Agreement). The Agreement stated, "The purpose of this arbitration is to decide by three competent arbitrators that will be discussed later in this agreement the amount of money due, if any, from collectively the [defendants] to [plaintiff]." The Agreement provided that the parties were entering into binding arbitration to resolve issues which had arisen concerning the lease. The Agreement outlined the nature of the dispute:
"At the conclusion of the contract, [plaintiff] did not pick up the cows, but they remained in the possession of and under the responsibility of [defendants]. [Defendants] paid rent on said cows provided in the lease agreement until a time certain. [Plaintiff] ultimately picked up the remaining twelve (12) cows on or about September 23, 2005[,] and left four (4) cows due to the fact that they were not sound."
Plaintiff nominated Tim Butikofer as his arbitrator. Defendants nominated Fred Kuenstler as their arbitrator. The Agreement provided that the two selected arbitrators would select a third, neutral arbitrator. Arbitrator Kertz was selected later. The Agreement set prehearing rules for discovery, including the disclosure of documents and expert and lay witnesses.
Paragraph 6 of the Agreement provided as follows:
"6. That once the arbitration is completed, the arbitrators will at that time start the deliberations and will not separate until the matter is resolved to their satisfaction and a written document prepared, which can be handwritten, making the award as them [sic] deem best supported by the evidence. At that same time, the arbitrators will fix the costs of the arbitration and the costs shall be shared 50% by each side to this dispute. This paragraph can be modified only by the acceptance of all three arbitrators and the parties."
The Agreement established rules for the conduct of the arbitration hearing. The Agreement set forth an order of proof with plaintiff going first, followed by defendants and a rebuttal by plaintiff:
"12. Since this is an arbitration proceeding, the strict formal rules of evidence do not apply, but the arbitrators will have to determine whether the evidence is or is not credible. Either side can argue that the evidence is not credible.
13. That the attorneys who represent the parties will [be] the only persons who can speak on behalf of their client(s) and that would be Robert L. Douglas for [plaintiff] or a designee, but nobody other than one attorney per side can address the arbitrators. For [defendants], Mr. John A. Clark of the law firm of Croegaert, Clark & Hough, Ltd., or a designee."
The Agreement called for the arbitrators to select one among themselves to conduct the hearing to ensure proper decorum during the hearing. The Agreement also provided as follows:
"17. The arbitrators are by this agreement permitted to ask questions of any witness if they do not understand the answer or they ...