Quoting from the cult classic film “The Big Lebowski,” a federal judge has settled a property dispute between an Antioch bowling proprietor and the bank that owned the mortgage on the building.
“The character Walter Sobchak once said, ‘This is bowling. There are rules,’” U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall wrote. “If only the same could be said regarding how the law classifies property items in a bowling alley.”
FirstMerit Bank is in the process of foreclosing on a mortgage for Antioch Bowling Lanes, a bowling alley on Illinois Route 173 in far north suburban Antioch, which has operated since 1992.
Kenneth Sterbenz, who ran the bowling outfit, wanted to sell the contents of the building, believing it to be personal property. The bank, however, maintained items such as the bowling lanes, gutters, ball return, pin setting and scoring machines, seats and tables are essential fixtures subject to the foreclosure, and filed a lawsuit to keep Sterbenz from removing and selling the items.
“The case is not simple, however, since relevant Illinois authority tends to be very old; not consistently theorized; and usually holds ‘intent’ to be determinative, even though parties in these cases rarely seem to think about this issue, let alone harbor intent,” Gottschall wrote in her opinion. “Another difficulty is that a commonly-relied-upon factor in characterizing property as fixture or personalty is whether the property can easily be moved from the premises without damaging the real estate.”
Citing several earlier - and at times, conflicting - cases, Gottschall noted bowling equipment has in recent years become more portable and less durable. This is especially notable because the Antioch Bowling Lanes building was damaged heavily in a June 18, 2010, storm, after which Sterbenz loaned the business $920,000 to replace the lanes, gutters and return systems.
Gottschall’s opinion relied on the so-called “integrated industrial doctrine,” which looks less to whether or not the items could be removed without harming the building and more to the owner’s intent to blend the equipment with the physical space such that the property is necessary to the use of the structure.
“In short,” Gottschall wrote, “since the Sterbenz family is for all practical purposes the owner of the bowling alley, and since the bowling alley can function as such only if it has lanes, pinsetters, ball returns and gutters, the integrated industrial doctrine compels the court to infer an intent to annex this property permanently to the real estate.”
At an April hearing, FirstMerit had testified regarding its intent to collateralize its mortgage with a working bowling alley, not just the empty shell of a building. At the same hearing, Sterbenz testified he always intended to remove and sell the bowling equipment if circumstances warranted.
Working against Sterbenz is the fact the building housed bowling operations dating back to 1954, nearly four decades before his family took ownership. Gottschall cited several Illinois cases from the early 20th century in which a property owner attempted to retain ownership of equipment installed in a facility - including one regarding 20 refrigerators in an apartment complex - noting each time the court ruled the business operator “was viewed as having intended a permanent installation and the equipment was viewed as a fixture,” and that intent trumped the portability of the equipment in question.
In her conclusion, Gottschall separated the chairs and tables from the remainder of the bowling equipment, pointing to testimony she believed revealed FirstMerit never believed it had a claim to those components, “as well as the lack of any evidence suggesting that such tables and chairs are essential to the functioning of a bowling alley.” She ruled Sterbenz should be allowed to remove and sell those items, while the rest of the equipment would remain.