JILL KNOWLES ENTERPRISES, INC., Plaintiff and Counterdefendant-Appellee and Cross-Appellant,
MARY ANN DUNKIN, Defendant and Counterplaintiff-Appellant and Cross-Appellee.
from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 15-SC-5759
Honorable Theodore S. Potkonjak, Judge, Presiding.
JUSTICE ZENOFF delivered the judgment of the court, with
opinion. Justices Hutchinson and Birkett concurred in the
judgment and opinion.
1 Defendant and counter plaintiff, Mary Ann Dunkin, appeals
an order of the circuit court of Lake Count y granting
judgment in favor of plaintiff and counter defendant, Jill
Knowles Enterprises, Inc. (JKE), in the amount of $8, 955.98
following a bench trial. JKE cross-appeals an order awarding
it $9, 392.85 in attorney fees, contending that it was
entitled to over $23, 000. For the reasons that follow, on
Mary Ann's appeal, we affirm the judgment in part,
reverse it in part, and enter judgment in Mary Ann's
favor and against JKE in the amount of $3, 424.66. On
JKE's cross-appeal, we vacate the judgment.
2 I. BACKGROUND
3 This small-claims litigation stemmed from a heated dispute
over fees for boarding Mary Ann's horse, Zidane. JKE,
doing business as Hidden Knoll in Wadsworth, Illinois, is a
facility that trains and boards horses. The proprietor is
Jill Knowles. On September 7, 2013, the parties entered into
a written contract for Zidane's boarding. The contract
provided that it was "month to month" for
"eight hundred dollars ($950) [sic] per
month." The contract also provided for finance charges
and late fees. In addition, the contract contained an
attorney-fee-shifting provision. In approximately June 2014,
JKE raised the monthly boarding rate to $1, 000. Mary Ann did
not protest that amount, and her husband, David, paid some of
the bills at that rate. However, beginning in approximately
August 2014, Mary Ann became delinquent in payments.
4 In approximately February 2015, David desired to sell
Zidane. Knowles took Zidane to Florida, because potential
buyers were there for the winter horse-show circuit. Knowles
testified that she informed David that the fees for the
Florida venture would be $10, 000 to $12, 000 per month.
David verbally agreed. Zidane was with Knowles in Florida for
approximately five weeks. Meanwhile, the monthly boarding
fees at Hidden Knoll continued to accrue, because JKE kept
Zidane's stall reserved for his return from Florida.
5 In February 2015, Knowles made repeated demands for payment
of the Hidden Knoll boarding bill, and she threatened legal
action. On February 26, 2015, David directed his bank to wire
$10, 000 to JKE, and JKE applied that payment to the
delinquent Hidden Knoll boarding fees, leaving a balance due
of approximately $7, 000.
6 On March 17, 2015, JKE invoiced Mary Ann for the Florida
venture in the amount of $10, 181.25. The invoice contained a
notice that it would be considered overdue on the
"fifth" of the month.
7 On March 20, 2015, JKE's accountant's office
notified David that the outstanding Hidden Knoll balance was
$6, 575.34. On that date, the accountant's office also
informed David of the amount of the Florida bill. On March
21, 2015, David directed his bank to wire another $10, 000 to
JKE. Knowles directed her accountant to apply it to the
Florida bill rather than to the Hidden Knoll balance. Then,
on November 16, 2015, JKE filed suit against Mary Ann for
breach of contract, or, in the alternative, for account
stated to recover the balance of $7, 358.73 that it claimed
was still owed for the Hidden Knoll boarding fees. JKE also
sought reimbursement for its attorney fees. Attached to
JKE's complaint as exhibits were the written contract and
certain paid and unpaid invoices. Also attached as an exhibit
was a document showing an outstanding balance of $7, 358.73
as of October 31, 2015. The lawsuit sought to recover only
for the money due on the Hidden Knoll account. The lawsuit
also requested attorney fees for collecting the amount due.
8 Mar y Ann obtained leave of court to file an answer, a
counterclaim, and affirmative defenses . Mary Ann denied that
the monthly boarding fee was either $950 or $1, 000, but
claimed that it was $800. In her first affirmative defense,
Mary Ann alleged that, as of March 15, 2015, she owed JKE $6,
575.34 for the Hidden Knoll boarding fees and that the $10,
000 that was wired on March 21, 2015, was to be applied
toward that balance. She also alleged that she made an
overpayment of $3, 424.66. In her second affirmative defense
and counterclaim, Mary Ann alleged that the base contract
amount was $800 per month and that the increase to $1, 000
was never effective, because she never signed a document
agreeing to the increase, as required by the contract. Mary
Ann sought a setoff of $3, 650 from any judgment against
9 The bench trial commenced on May 24, 2016. JKE's
attorney questioned Knowles about the documents t h at we r e
at t ached to the complaint as exhibits, and about additional
unpaid invoices after October 31, 2015, showing that the
balance Mary Ann owed to JKE as of May 18, 2016, was $7,
923.79. JKE's attorney did not mark any documents as
trial exhibits or move to admit them into evidence. On
November 22, 2016, approximately two months after the notice
of appeal was filed, the court, apparently sua
sponte, entered an order purporting to admit "all
exhibits into evidence for purpose of appeal."
10 At trial, Knowles testified that the base contract amount
for boarding Zidane was $950 per month and that the $800
figure printed on the contract was a scrivener's error.
Knowles testified that neither M a r y An n nor D avid
objected to the invoices reflecting either the $950 amount or
the increase to $1, 000. According to Knowles, $7, 358.73 was
due under the written contract as of October 31, 2015.
Additional unpaid invoices raised the amount due as of May
18, 2016, to $7, 923.79. Also, she testified that finance
charges continued to accrue.
11 In response to her attorney's question―"Did
defendant's husband, David Dunkin, ask for a bill for the
services in Florida so it could be paid after the horse was
sold?"―Knowles answered "Yes." She
testified that on March 24, 2015, her accountant's office
gave David an invoice showing the entire outstanding balance
for the boarding at Hidden Knoll as well as an invoice for
the Florida venture. The accountant's office also
informed David that the ...