Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 06 CH 4309 The Honorable Martin S. Agran, Judge Presiding. Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 02 CH 656 The Honorable Mary Anne Mason, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Garcia
JUSTICE GARCIA delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.
Presiding Justice Gordon and Justice Palmer concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 This consolidated appeal concerns disputes between adjacent landowners over a right-of-way.*fn1 Plaintiff South Branch owns the property immediately south of the property owned by defendant JS II. Defendant River Village was a developer of the JS II property. A right-of-way, formerly owned by a railroad company, crosses both properties. The dispute between the parties centers on that portion of the right-of-way that intersects three driveways on the South Branch property.
¶ 2 In the first of the parties' two lawsuits (circuit court No. 02 CH 5656), Judge Mary Anne Mason, after a bench trial, found that JS II owns the right-of-way, a ruling that South Branch did not appeal. After trial concluded, but before judgment issued, South Branch filed a motion to reinstate a claim for ownership by reversion of the right-of-way based on abandonment of its use by a railroad, a claim it had voluntarily dismissed almost four years earlier. Judge Mason denied the motion. However, she ultimately ruled that South Branch owns three easements across the right-of-way at the location of the existing driveways that intersect with Racine Avenue as the only means to access the entire South Branch property from a Chicago street. The court issued a permanent injunction barring the defendants from interfering with the use of the easements and ordered the defendants to pay $2,000 in nominal damages and $10,000 in punitive damages for trespass arising from the defendants' excavation of a trench along the right-of-way, which rendered one driveway useless, and which encroached upon the South Branch property.
¶ 3 The second lawsuit (circuit court No. 06 CH 4309) was dismissed with prejudice by Judge Martin S. Agran. In this complaint, South Branch reasserted its claim of ownership by reversion of the right-of-way, the same claim that Judge Mason refused to reinstate in the case pending before her. Judge Agran ruled the pending ownership claim by JS II before Judge Mason rendered South Branch's complaint duplicative as it constituted "another action pending between the parties for the same cause." 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(3) (West 2010).
¶ 4 Under the manifest weight of the evidence standard, we affirm Judge Mason's judgment that South Branch owes the three easements, as a contrary conclusion is not clearly evident. We affirm the court's injunction against JS II, and those acting on its behalf, as necessary to prevent future harm to the easements owned by South Branch. We find the court did not abuse its discretion in awarding nominal and punitive damages in light of the defendants' clear trespass, which the court found was committed with the intention of harassing South Branch. Finally, we agree with the trial court that South Branch's motion to reinstate its claim of ownership by reversion was filed too late, where reinstatement was sought after the close of evidence and after the presentation of closing arguments.
¶ 5 We affirm Judge Agran's dismissal with prejudice of South Branch's 2006 complaint that reasserted a claim of ownership by reversion of the right-of-way. South Branch's claim of ownership was rendered moot by Judge Mason's verdict that JS II owned the right-of-way, a finding that South Branch failed to challenge in its cross-appeal of the denial to reinstate its ownership-by-reversion claim.
¶ 7 Plaintiff South Branch and defendant JS II are the owners of two adjacent parcels of land. South Branch owns a lot that lies directly to the south of the property owned by JS II, with both properties bordered on the west by the south branch of the Chicago River and on the east by Racine Avenue. A right-of-way in the form of a thin strip of land crosses both properties. The circuit court ruled that JS II owns the right-of-way that traverses the South Branch property, a ruling that South Branch did not appeal.
¶ 8 There are three driveways on the South Branch property that cross the right-of-way owned by JS II. Each driveway begins on the east at Racine Avenue. The driveways provide the only means of ingress and egress by land to a warehouse on the South Branch property from a Chicago street. The three driveways lead separately to the "atrium" of the warehouse, the south parking lot, and the north parking lot, all of which are situated between the Chicago River on the west and the right-of-way on the east.
¶ 9 In appeal No. 1-07-0212, JS II challenges Judge Mason's rulings finding that South Branch owns prescriptive easements over the right-of-way at the location of the three driveways, her award of damages for the defendants' trespass against the easements and the South Branch property, and the issuance of an injunction barring the defendants from interfering with South Branch's reasonable use of the easements. In its cross-appeal, South Branch challenges only Judge Mason's denial of its motion to reinstate its ownership-by-reversion claim over the right-of-way, which it voluntarily dismissed nearly four years before trial.
¶ 10 In appeal No. 1-06-3240, South Branch contends Judge Agran erred as matter of law in dismissing its complaint reasserting its claim of ownership by reversion of the right-of-way, the same claim Judge Mason denied leave to reinstate following the bench trial.
¶ 11 The title history of the two properties dates back to 1880 when the now South Branch property and the now JS II property were owned as a single plot of land in fee simple by John Yale and several others. In 1880, the Yale group conveyed a 30-foot-wide strip of land to the Chicago and Indiana Stateline Railway as a right-of-way, which allowed the railroad to cross virtually the entire property. This is the same right-of-way at issue in this case. The grant allowed for a "perpetual lease" of 99 years, provided the land continued to be used for railroad purposes. The grant document contained a covenant requiring the railroad to "reasonably accommodate" businesses on either side of the right-of-way. At some point, railroad tracks were constructed on the right-of-way.
¶ 12 In 1885, the Yale group conveyed full ownership of the strip of land to the railroad, "as a railroad right-of-way." The conveyance did not contain a covenant requiring a reasonable accommodation for businesses to cross the right-of-way. While the record lacks a full tracing of the title of the South Branch property and the right-of-way to the present, references to easements across the right-of-way appear in different documents over the years. In 1911, the warehouse on what is now the South Branch property was built. By 1919, Central Manufacturing District owned the single plot of land that comprised both the South Branch property and the JS II property. A 1919 document conveyed what is now the South Branch property from Central Manufacturing District to Albert Pick. The 1919 document referenced easements over the railroad right-of-way on the conveyed land.
¶ 13 In 1958, when the pertinent railroad companies split up, the right-of-way was transferred into a trust with unknown trustees and then conveyed to new owners. The now South Branch property was also transferred in 1958 in like manner. A 1958 document that transferred the right-of-way property referenced the original 1880 Yale conveyance, which expressly provided that businesses be accommodated in crossing the railroad right-of-way. On the same day of the filing of the 1958 transfer of the right-of-way property, a document was filed that contained express easements granted by Chicago Junction Railway to Central Manufacturing District (then owners of the JS II property), which required the grantee to maintain, repair, use, and permit others to use the roadways already present that crossed the right-of-way. This document also referenced the 1880 Yale conveyance.
¶ 14 By 1978, Spiegel, Inc., owned the South Branch lot, which it conveyed in four parcels to Goodwill Industries. That same year, Goodwill leased the south portion of the large parking lot on the property to Spiegel. The lease contained a provision that an easement existed over the right-of-way to permit ingress and egress to the lot.
¶ 15 Sometime in 1978 or 1979, Goodwill conveyed its entire property to Harry Alter Heating and Air Conditioning. Harry Alter began construction to improve the property and employed Warren Sutton as building engineer to oversee the construction. Sutton began working at the property on a daily basis shortly after the purchase and was responsible for its general upkeep. At the time Sutton began his employment as building engineer, the three driveways were already in existence and in daily use. Sutton testified that in 1986 or 1987, Harry Alter sold the property to Harris Markus Furniture Company. Sutton continued his employment as building engineer of the property with Harris Markus. Sutton testified that during his time working on the property, he observed trains pass through on the tracks a few times. The most recent time occurred in the 1980s. Sutton recalled that one or two such trains damaged shrubbery lining the tracks. According to Sutton, the tracks were removed sometime in the 1980s.
¶ 16 South Branch purchased the property on June 7, 1999, from Harris Markus. At the time of South Branch's purchase, the right-of-way had been abandoned. Prior to closing on the land purchase, one of South Branch's members, Paul Levy, discovered the existence of the railroad right-of-way in a survey conducted in 1991. South Branch did not ask permission to use that portion of the right-of-way that crossed the driveways, nor did it discuss its anticipated crossing of the right-of-way with its owner prior to closing on the property. Instead, Levy obtained insurance over the easements from a title services company. Marshall Snow-the title insurance agent-testified that he issued the policy covering the easements because his investigation concluded that South Branch had valid easement rights over the driveways. After the purchase, South Branch retained Sutton as the property engineer until 2000 or 2001. Sutton testified that the three driveways were in continual use throughout his employment with the three different employers.
¶ 17 The JS II property came into existence with the 1919 division of the original Yale property into two parcels by Central Manufacturing District. In 1998, JS II began to acquire the property when it purchased portions of the land from Norfolk Southern Railroad, ConRail, and the City of Chicago. The ConRail deed conveyed property that included the right-of-way. The JS II property is now called Bridgeport Village, where defendant River Village constructed single-family homes. The defendants considered acquiring some or all of the South Branch property to add to the development; however, environmental concerns caused them to abandon the acquisition. On January 5, 2000, River Village recorded a postclosing notice of objection to South Branch's crossing of the right-of-way at the location of the three driveways.
¶ 18 On January 10, 2002, South Branch filed suit against JS II and River Village. The complaint was filed after the defendants excavated a trench on the right-of-way through one of the driveways, rendering it unuseable. The complaint sought damages for trespass, an injunction barring further interference with the driveways, and a declaration that South Branch owned the right-of-way by reversion, or, alternatively, that it owned three easements, either by grant or by prescription, across the right-of-way at the location of the driveways.
¶ 19 On June 7, 2002, the trial court granted South Branch's motion to voluntarily dismiss its claim of ownership of the right-of-way by reversion. On August 20, 2003, JS II filed a counterclaim seeking a declaration that it was the lawful owner of the right-of-way and that South Branch had no easement rights over the right-of-way. JS II sought a permanent injunction to bar South Branch from crossing the right-of-way for any purpose absent its express written permission.
¶ 20 Judge Mason conducted a five-day bench trial on the complaint and counterclaim, which ended on January 27, 2006, with the matter taken under advisement. On February 16, 2006, before the court issued its verdict, South Branch filed a motion to reinstate its claim of ownership of the right-of-way by reversion, which Judge Mason denied. She pointed out that the evidence had been limited to the claims pending before the court, with no evidence on reversion introduced. The court reasoned it was unfair to the defendants to permit consideration of the claim after trial had ended. On June 21, 2006, Judge Mason entered an initial memorandum opinion and order, setting forth her findings following the bench trial. South Branch moved to amend the court's findings to include the locations and dimensions of the easements, which South Branch contended could be resolved by the parties if given time. The parties agreed to delay the entry of a final judgment.
¶ 21 On March 3, 2006, South Branch filed a new complaint against JS II only, asserting a claim of ownership of the right-of-way by reversion and a quiet title claim, which came to be heard by Judge Agran. JS II filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it was duplicative of a claim pending before Judge Mason. Judge Agran agreed and dismissed the complaint with prejudice on October 25, 2006. South Branch filed a timely notice of appeal challenging Judge Agran's dismissal.
¶ 22 On December 19, 2006, Judge Mason entered an amended memorandum opinion and order setting out her final judgment on the 2002 complaint and counterclaim, which did not specify the locations of the prescriptive easements because the parties were never able to reach an agreement. Judge Mason found the passage of title to the right-of-way established ownership in JS II. The court ruled, however, that South Branch owned easements over the right-of-way at the location of the three existing driveways. The court permanently enjoined the defendants from trespassing on the easements or otherwise interfering with South Branch's use of the driveways. The court awarded South Branch nominal damages of $2,000 and punitive damages of $10,000 for the defendants' trespass of the South Branch property during their excavation of the right-ofway, which blocked, at least temporarily, the use of one driveway. The defendants appealed the trial court's adverse judgment, with South Branch filing a timely cross-appeal of the denial of its motion to reinstate its ownership-by-reversion claim.
¶ 23 We consolidated the appeal of Judge Mason's judgment with the appeal of Judge Agran's dismissal order. We address the case in its entirety.
¶ 25 Though the appeal from Judge Agran's ruling came first in time, the appeals from the bench trial before Judge Mason provide the necessary background to address all the issues raised by the parties. We begin our analysis with the appeals from the bench trial.
¶ 26 The defendants*fn2 challenge Judge Mason's finding that South Branch owns easements over the right-of-way. Further, the defendants argue that an injunction was unnecessary and South Branch was not entitled to any damages for trespass.
¶ 27 In its cross-appeal, South Branch contends Judge Mason erred when she denied its motion to reinstate its ownership-by-reversion claim. South Branch contends reinstating a claim is akin to refiling a complaint under section 13-217 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/13-217 (West 2010)), which grants a plaintiff the right to refile a complaint not otherwise barred by the statute of limitations. South Branch contends that if Judge Mason did not err in denying its motion to reinstate, then Judge Agran certainly erred in dismissing with prejudice its ...