Categories
2020 February

YOKOHAMA TIRE PHILIPPINES, INC., PETITIONER, V. SANDRA REYES AND JOCELYN REYES, RESPONDENTS.

FIRST DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 236686, February 05, 2020 ]

YOKOHAMA TIRE PHILIPPINES, INC., PETITIONER, V. SANDRA REYES AND JOCELYN REYES, RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

PERALTA, C.J.:

Before the Court is a petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court assailing the July 10, 2017 Decision[1] and the November 7, 2017 Order[2] of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Angeles City, Branch 56 in Case No. R-ANG-16-00138-SC. The disputed RTC Decision dismissed herein petitioner’s petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the same Rules questioning a portion of the Decision of the Municipal Trial Court (MTC) of Clarkfield, Pampanga, in Criminal Case No. 12-5960 which acquitted herein respondents of the crime of attempted theft. The challenged RTC Order, on the other hand, denied petitioner’s Motion for Reconsideration of the above Decision of the RTC.

The facts are as follows:

Herein respondents, together with one Celeste Tagudin (Tagudin), were former employees of herein petitioner company.

On June 17, 2011, petitioner filed a criminal complaint[3] for qualified theft against respondents and Tagudin, accusing them of having taken HP ink cartridges from the company’s stock room through stealth and without the consent of petitioner or any of its authorized representatives.

In a Resolution/Recommendation[4] dated March 22, 2012, the Assistant City Prosecutor (ACP) of Angeles City recommended that the complaint against Tagudin be dismissed for insufficiency of evidence, while an Information for Attempted Theft be filed against respondents. The City Prosecutor of Angeles City approved the Resolution /Recommendation of the ACP. Thus, on May 23, 2012, an Information for Attempted Theft was filed with the MTC of Clarkfield, Pampanga and the case was docketed as Criminal Case No. 12-5960.

On June 14, 2012, petitioner filed a Motion for Reconsideration[5] of the March 22, 2012 Resolution of the Angeles City ACP, but the same was denied by the latter in his Resolution/Recommendation[6] dated June 20, 2012, which was, likewise, approved by the City Prosecutor.

Thereafter, trial proceeded. Hence, on November 10, 2015, the MTC of Clarkfield, Pampanga rendered its Decision[7] acquitting herein respondents of the crime of attempted theft.

Herein petitioner, then, filed a petition[8] for certiorari with the RTC, docketed as R-ANG-16-00138, contending that the MTC acted without or in excess of jurisdiction and/or with grave abuse of discretion in ruling that the pieces of HP ink cartridges found by petitioner’s representatives inside the vehicle of one of respondents, which was subsequently presented as evidence by the prosecution, were inadmissible for having been obtained in violation of the law and of respondents’ right against unreasonable search and seizure. Petitioner prayed for the annulment of the November 10, 2015 Decision of the MTC.

In its Decision[9] dated July 10, 2017, the RTC dismissed the certiorari petition for lack of merit.

Petitioner filed a Motion for Reconsideration, but the same was denied by the RTC in its Order [10] dated November 7, 2017.

Hence, the present petition based on the following arguments:

RTC-ANGELES CITY UNDULY DEVIATED FROM THE ESTABLISHED LAWS AND SETTLED JURISPRUDENCE THAT:

I
THE COURTS MUST ABIDE BY THE EVIDENCE FORMALLY OFFERED DURING THE TRIAL SUCH THAT OBJECT AND OTHER EVIDENCE ALREADY ADMITTED SHOULD BE THE BASES OF THE FINDINGS OF FACTS AND THE JUDGMENT OF THE COURTS x x x.

II
THE LAW AGAINST UNREASONABLE SEARCHES AND SEIZURE IS A RESTRAINT AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT AND NOT PRIVATE ENTITIES x x x. [11]

Petitioner contends that the RTC committed error in affirming the assailed decision of the MTC. Ultimately, petitioner basically seeks to annul the decision of the MTC which acquitted herein respondents. In so doing, petitioner contends that the pieces of HP ink cartridges which were submitted as part of the evidence for the prosecution should have been admitted and considered by the MTC in determining the guilt or innocence of respondents. Petitioner argues that, under prevailing jurisprudence, the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, which was cited by the MTC in excluding the HP ink cartridges from the prosecution’s evidence, is made applicable as a restraint against the government only and not against private entities.

The petition lacks merit.

At the outset, the Court notes that petitioner lacked authority in filing a special civil action for certiorari with the RTC to seek the annulment of the decision of the MTC which acquitted herein respondents from the crime of attempted theft.

It is settled that in criminal cases, the State is the offended party and the private complainant’s interest is limited to the civil liability arising therefrom.[12] Hence, if a criminal case is dismissed by the trial court or if there is an acquittal, a reconsideration of the order of dismissal or acquittal may be undertaken, whenever legally feasible, insofar as the criminal aspect thereof is concerned and may be made only by the public prosecutor; or in the case of an appeal, by the State only, through the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG).[13] The private complainant or offended party may not undertake such motion for reconsideration or appeal on the criminal aspect of the case.[14] However, the offended party or private complainant may file a motion for reconsideration of such dismissal or acquittal or appeal therefrom but only insofar as the civil aspect thereof is concerned.[15]

The rationale behind this rule is that in a criminal case, the party affected by the dismissal of the criminal action is the State and not the private complainant.[16] The interest of the private complainant or the private offended party is limited only to the civil liability.[17] In the prosecution of the offense, the complainant’s role is limited to that of a witness for the prosecution such that when a criminal case is dismissed by the trial court or if there is an acquittal, an appeal therefrom on the criminal aspect may be undertaken only by the State through the Solicitor General.[18] The private offended party or complainant may not take such appeal, but may only do so as to the civil aspect of the case.[19]

Thus, this Court’s ruling in the earlier case of People v. Santiago[20] is instructive, to wit:

It is well settled that in criminal cases where the offended party is the State, the interest of the private complainant or the private offended party is limited to the civil liability. Thus, in the prosecution of the offense, the complainant’s role is limited to that of a witness for the prosecution. If a criminal case is dismissed by the trial court or if there is an acquittal, an appeal therefrom on the criminal aspect may be undertaken only by the State through the Solicitor General. Only the Solicitor General may represent the People of the Philippines on appeal. The private offended party or complainant may not take such appeal. However, the said offended party or complainant may appeal the civil aspect despite the acquittal of the accused.

In a special civil action for certiorari filed under Section 1, Rule 65 of the Rules of Court wherein it is alleged that the trial court committed a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack of jurisdiction or on other jurisdictional grounds, the rules state that the petition may be filed by the person aggrieved. In such case, the aggrieved parties are the State and the private offended party or complainant. The complainant has an interest in the civil aspect of the case so he may file such special civil action questioning the decision or action of the respondent court on jurisdictional grounds. In so doing, complainant should not bring the action in the name of the People of the Philippines. The action may be prosecuted in [the] name of said complainant.[21]

Thus, the Court has definitively ruled that in a criminal case in which the offended party is the State, the interest of the private complainant or the private offended party is limited to the civil liability arising therefrom. If a criminal case is dismissed by the trial court or if there is an acquittal, an appeal of the criminal aspect may be undertaken, whenever legally feasible, only by the State through the Solicitor General. As a rule, only the Solicitor General may represent the People of the Philippines on appeal. The private offended party or complainant may not undertake such appeal.

In its petition for certiorari filed with the RTC, petitioner seeks the annulment of the MTC decision acquitting herein respondents. In so doing, petitioner raises issues on the admissibility of evidence which it submitted to prove the guilt of the accused. These issues necessarily require a review of the criminal aspect of the case and, as such, is prohibited. As discussed above, only the State, and not herein petitioner, who is the private offended party, may question the criminal aspect of the case.

In any event, even granting that petitioner has the requisite authority to question the subject RTC Decision, this Court, after a careful review of the arguments of the parties, finds no error in the questioned Decision of the RTC.

In the instant case, the Court agrees with the ruling of the RTC that the disputed acts of the MTC in denying admissibility to the subject ink cartridges as part of the prosecution’s evidence, its appreciation of the entirety of evidence presented by both parties to the case, and its subsequent finding that the prosecution failed to prove the crime charged, are assailable as errors of judgment and are not reviewable by the extraordinary remedy of certiorari.

The Court finds no error in the ruling of the RTC that petitioner was not able to establish its allegation of grave abuse of discretion on the part of the MTC. Where a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court alleges grave abuse of discretion, the petitioner should establish that the respondent court or tribunal acted in a capricious, whimsical, arbitrary or despotic manner in the exercise of its jurisdiction as to be equivalent to lack of jurisdiction.[22]

Thus, this Court has explained that:

The term “grave abuse of discretion” has a specific meaning. An act of a court or tribunal can only be considered as with grave abuse of discretion when such act is done in a “capricious or whimsical exercise of judgment as is equivalent to lack of jurisdiction.” The abuse of discretion must be so patent and gross as to amount to an “evasion of a positive duty or to a virtual refusal to perform a duty enjoined by law, or to act at all in contemplation of law, as where the power is exercised in an arbitrary and despotic manner by reason of passion and hostility.” Furthermore, the use of a petition for certiorari is restricted only to “truly extraordinary cases wherein the act of the lower court or quasi-judicial body is wholly void.” From the foregoing definition, it is clear that the special civil action of certiorari under Rule 65 can only strike an act down for having been done with grave abuse of discretion if the petitioner could manifestly show that such act was patent and gross x x x.[23]

As found by the RTC, there was no hint of whimsicality, nor of gross and patent abuse of discretion as would amount to an evasion of a positive duty or a virtual refusal to perform a duty enjoined by law or to act at all in contemplation of law on the part of the MTC. If at all, the mistake committed by the MTC is only an error of judgment and not of jurisdiction, which would have amounted to a grave abuse of discretion.

This Court sustains the RTC ruling that even if the subject ink cartridges are admitted as evidence, it does not necessarily follow that they are given probative weight. The admissibility of an evidence is different from its probative value. Thus, this Court held in Mancol, Jr. v. Development Bank of the Philippines[24] that:

x x x [a]dmissibility of evidence should not be confused with its probative value.

The admissibility of evidence depends on its relevance and competence, while the weight of evidence pertains to evidence already admitted and its tendency to convince and persuade. The admissibility of a particular item of evidence has to do with whether it meets various tests by which its reliability is to be determined, so as to be considered with other evidence admitted in the case in arriving at a decision as to the truth. The weight of evidence is not determined mathematically by the numerical superiority of the witnesses testifying to a given fact, but depends upon its practical effect in inducing belief on the part of the judge trying the case. “Admissibility refers to the question of whether certain pieces of evidence are to be considered at all, while probative value refers to the question of whether the admitted evidence proves an issue.” “Thus, a particular item of evidence may be admissible, but its evidentiary weight depends on judicial evaluation within the guidelines provided by the rules of evidence.”[25]

Petitioner chose to simply focus on the MTC’s act of denying admissibility to the subject ink cartridges. Petitioner lost sight of the fact that respondents were acquitted not because the ink cartridges were excluded as evidence but because the MTC, after considering the entirety of evidence presented by the prosecution, found that the latter failed to prove all the elements of the crime charged.

Stated differently, even if the seized ink cartridges were admitted in evidence, the Court agrees with the OSG that the probative value of these pieces of evidence must still meet the various tests by which their reliability is to be determined. Their tendency to convince and persuade must be considered separately because admissibility of evidence is different from its probative value. As contended by the OSG, “[e]ven granting arguendo that the MTC indeed committed an error in ruling that there was illegal search and seizure in this case, the prosecution still has to prove that the seized cartridges were indeed the property of petitioner.”[26] However, the prosecution failed in this respect. This Court agrees with the OSG that since the employee of petitioner who allegedly discovered the theft of the subject cartridges, and who was supposedly the one who put identifying marks thereon was not presented in court, nobody could verify if the cartridges seized from respondents were the ones missing from the stockroom. Parenthetically, what is very damaging to the cause of the prosecution is its failure to present the alleged video recording which supposedly shows respondents in the act of putting ink cartridges inside a bag.

Thus, the Court finds neither error nor grave abuse of discretion on the part of the MTC when it ruled that the prosecution failed to prove the essential element of taking in the alleged crime of theft, to wit:

First. The prosecution attempted to establish the fact of taking through a set of pictures (exhibits DD to UU) allegedly lifted from a video file – in DVD form – copied from a video recording allegedly taken inside stockroom no. 2 on October 22, 2010. The pictures were not even clear – mostly black; with the exception on (sic) Exhibit RR and SS – resembling a female individual, identified by prosecution witness as accused Sandra Reyes. Accused Jocelyn was not even depicted in any of the pictures. However, the video recording itself nor (sic) the DVD copy thereof was not presented nor identified by any witness.

The testimony of witness Dolo as to the report of Edward Buan – in support of the aforementioned pictures – was not sufficient to prove the fact of taking. Without the testimony of Buan – as to the truth of the contents of his report – there could be no sufficient basis for the testimonies of the other prosecution witnesses. In fact, witness Do1o had no personal knowledge of the statements made in Buan’s report nor did he had (sic) prior knowledge of the video recording taken in stockroom no. 2 on October 22, 2012.

Witness Jose Bermundo testified that Buan told him about the missing HP ink cartridges in stockroom no. 2. This was, without question, second-hand information. Bermuda testified that he gave his camera to Buan – to be installed by Buan inside stockroom no. 2. Bermuda testified that he watched the alleged video recording and narrated what he allegedly saw therein; but he never presented nor identified the video recording from which he based most of his testimony.

Witness Jovita Matias testified that he lifted pictures from the DVD copy of the video recording; however, his testimony on what were depicted on the pictures (Exhibits DD to UU) could not be given much weight, as the pictures themselves were not clear and the video file from which the said pictures were lifted from was (sic) not presented. If it were true that the video recording clearly showed accused Sandra in the act of taking the cartridges, then the pictures which had been lifted from said video recording should have clearly depicted such fact. Thus, it is the court’s opinion that the best evidence of the fact of taking should have been the video recording itself; however, no witness for the prosecution ever identified said video recording nor any DVD copy thereof.

The court cannot consider any evidence which has not been presented, identified and offered.

All of the prosecution witnesses had no personal knowledge of the fact of taking: thus, there was no clear and convincing evidence as to the fact of taking.[27]

In sum, this Court finds that the RTC did not err when it held that the MTC did not commit grave abuse of discretion in rendering its assailed decision.

WHEREFORE, the instant petition is DENIED. The July 10, 2017 Decision and the November 7, 2017 Order of the Regional Trial Court of Angeles City, Branch 56 in Case No. R-ANG-16-00138-SC are AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

J. Reyes, Jr., Lazaro-Javier, and Lopez, JJ., concur.
Caguioa, J., see concurring opinion.

[1] Penned by Judge Irin Zenaida S. Buan; rollo, pp. 468-471.
[2] Id. at 544.
[3] Annex “C” to Petition, id. at 73-89.
[4] Annex “D” to Petition, id. at 125-127.
[5] Annex “E” to Petition, id. at 128-142.
[6] Annex “F” to Petition, id. at 143.
[7] Penned by Presiding Judge Ma. Arabella G. Eusebio-Rodolfo; Annex “U” to Petition, id. at 410-422.
[8] Annex “V” to Petition, id. at 423-451.
[9] Annex “X” to Petition, id. at 468-471.
[10] Annex “DD” to Petition, id. at 544.
[11] Rollo, pp. 28-29.
[12] Lydia Cu v. Trinidad Ventura, G.R. No. 224567, September 26, 2018; Allan S. Cu v. Small Business Guarantee and Finance Corporation, etc., G.R. No. 211222, August 7, 2017; Chiok v. People, et al., 774 Phil. 230, 246 (2015).
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] 255 Phil. 851 (1989).
[21] Id. at 861-862. (Emphasis supplied)
[22] Chua v. People, et al., G.R. No. 195248, November 22, 2017, 846 SCRA 74, 81-82.
[23] Yu v. Judge Reyes-Carpio, et al., 667 Phil. 474, 481-482 (2011).
[24] G.R. No. 204289, November 22, 2017, 846 SCRA 131.
[25] Id. at 143-144. (Citations omitted)
[26] Rollo, p. 605.
[27] Id. at 603-605. (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)

CONCURRING OPINION

CAGUIOA, J.:

I concur. The ponencia was correct in denying the petition and in recognizing the right of the accused against double jeopardy.

Brief review of the facts

Petitioner Yokohama Tire Philippines, Inc. (Yokohama) filed a complaint for qualified theft against Sandra Reyes and Jocelyn Reyes (collectively, the accused-respondents), former employees of Yokohama, for allegedly taking ink cartridges from the company’s stock room without the company’s consent.

After preliminary investigation, the prosecutor found probable cause to indict the accused-respondents with attempted theft. Thus, an Information was filed charging the accused-respondents with attempted theft before the Municipal Trial Court of Clarkfield, Pampanga (MTC).

After trial, the MTC issued its Decision acquitting the accused­ respondents of the crime.

Aggrieved by the Decision issued by the MTC, Yokohama filed a petition for certiorari with the Regional Trial Court (RTC), arguing that the MTC issued the Decision with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction by acquitting the accused-respondents on the basis of its finding that the ink cartridges were inadmissible in evidence for having been obtained in violation of the accused-respondents’ right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The RTC, however, dismissed the petition for certiorari. Undaunted, Yokohama sought recourse directly to the Court, ascribing error on the part of the RTC for dismissing its petition for certiorari. Yokohama’s main argument was that the MTC committed grave abuse of discretion in applying the exclusionary rule under Section 3(2), in relation to Section 2, Article III of the Constitution, when the said exclusionary rule applies only when the violator of the right was the State or its agents and not private parties.

The ponencia denies the present petition for two reasons, namely, that the petition was filed without the conformity of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) and that the RTC did not err in not ascribing grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the MTC.

I fully agree with the result of the ponencia’s ruling. But while I ultimately agree with the result, I respectfully submit that a different framework should have been adopted by the ponencia in arriving at the conclusion. In ruling the way it did, the ponencia explained:

As found by the RTC, there was no hint of whimsicality, nor of gross and patent abuse of discretion as would amount to an evasion of a positive duty or a virtual refusal to perform a duty enjoined by law or to act at all in contemplation of law on the part of the MTC. If at all, the mistake committed by the MTC is only an error of judgment and not of jurisdiction, which would have amounted to a grave abuse of discretion.

This Court sustains the RTC ruling that even if the subject ink cartridges are admitted as evidence, it does not necessarily follow that they are given probative weight. The admissibility of an evidence is different from its probative value. x x x

x x x x

Stated differently, even if the seized ink cartridges were admitted in evidence, the Court agrees with the OSG that the probative value of these pieces of evidence must still meet the various tests by which their reliability is to be determined. Their tendency to convince and persuade must be considered separately because admissibility of evidence is different from its probative value. As contended by the OSG, “[e]ven granting arguendo that the MTC indeed committed an error in ruling that there was illegal search and seizure in this case, the prosecution still has to prove that the seized cartridges were indeed the property of petitioner.” However, the prosecution failed in this respect. This Court agrees with the OSG that since the employee of petitioner who allegedly discovered the theft of the subject cartridges, and who was supposedly the one who put identifying marks thereon was not presented in court, nobody could verify if the cartridges seized from respondents were the ones missing from the stockroom. Parenthetically, what is very damaging to the cause of the prosecution is its failure to present the alleged video recording which supposedly shows respondents in the act of putting ink cartridges inside a bag.

Thus, the Court finds neither error nor grave abuse of discretion on the part of the MTC when it ruled that the prosecution failed to prove the essential element of taking in the alleged crime of theft[.][1]

Based on the foregoing reasoning, one can be led into believing that errors in judgment may ripen into errors in jurisdiction depending on the gravity or severity of the error committed.

It is in this regard that I disagree.

The right against double jeopardy

The right against double jeopardy was brought into the Philippine legal system by the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in Kepner v. United States2. In the said case, the Supreme Court of the Philippines reversed a ruling of the court of first instance acquitting the accused therein of estafa. When the accused therein appealed to the SCOTUS, the SCOTUS reversed the ruling of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, holding that the principles of law in the United States which were deemed by then President William McKinley as necessary for the maintenance of individual freedom — which includes the right against double jeopardy — were brought to the Philippines by Congress’ act of passing the Philippine Bill of 1902. The SCOTUS explained:

When Congress came to pass the act of July 1, 1902, it enacted, almost in the language of the President’s instructions, the Bill of Rights of our Constitution. In view of the expressed declaration of the President, followed by the action of Congress, both adopting, with little alteration, the provisions of the Bill of Rights, there would seem to be no room for argument that, in this form, it was intended to carry to the Philippine Islands those principles of our Government which the President declared to be established as rules of law for the maintenance of individual freedom, at the same time expressing regret that the inhabitants of the islands had not theretofore enjoyed their benefit.[3] (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)

Kepner was the standing doctrine when the 1935 Constitution was being drafted. In the deliberations, efforts were exerted to reject Kepner and to change the wording of the constitutional provision such that the right against double jeopardy would be applicable only once the accused has been acquitted or convicted “by final judgment.”[4] These efforts, however, were rejected.[5]

Since then, the understanding of what the right against double jeopardy entails has remained the same even with the subsequent changes in the Constitution. Jurisprudence has provided that for the said right to attach, the following requisites must be present: (1) a valid indictment, (2) a court of competent jurisdiction, (3) the arraignment of the accused, (4) a valid plea entered by him, and (5) the acquittal or conviction of the accused, or the dismissal or termination of the case against him without his express consent.[6]

To give life to the right against double jeopardy, the Court has, in numerous occasions, adhered to the finality-of-acquittal doctrine, which provides that “a judgment of acquittal, whether ordered by the trial or the appellate court, is final, unappealable, and immediately executory upon its promulgation.”[7] As the Court in People v. Court of Appeals and Francisco[8] explained:

As earlier mentioned the circumstances of the case at bar call for a judicial inquiry on the permissibility of appeal after a verdict of acquittal in view of the constitutional guarantee against double jeopardy

In our jurisdiction, the finality-of-acquittal doctrine as a safeguard against double jeopardy faithfully adheres to the principle first enunciated in Kepner v. United States. In this case, verdicts of acquittal are to be regarded as absolutely final and irreviewable. The cases of United States v. Yam Tung Way, People v. Bringas, Gandicela v. Lutero, People v. Cabarles, People v. Bao, to name a few, are illustrative cases. The fundamental philosophy behind the constitutional proscription against double jeopardy is to afford the defendant, who has been acquitted, final repose and safeguard him from government oppression through the abuse of criminal processes. As succinctly observed in Green v. United States “(t)he underlying idea, one that is deeply ingrained in at least the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence, is that the State with all its resources and power should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual for an alleged offense, thereby subjecting him to embarrassment, expense and ordeal and compelling him to live in a continuing state of anxiety and insecurity, as well as enhancing the possibility that even though innocent, he may be found guilty.”[9] (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)

The finality-of-acquittal doctrine, of course, is not without exception. The finality-of-acquittal doctrine does not apply when the prosecution — the sovereign people, as represented by the State — was denied a fair opportunity to be heard. Simply put, the doctrine does not apply when the prosecution was denied its day in court — or simply, denied due process. As the Court explained in the case of People v. Hernando:[10]

Notwithstanding, the error committed can no longer be rectified under the cardinal rule on double jeopardy. The judgment of acquittal in favor of an accused necessarily ends the case in which he is prosecuted and the same cannot be appealed nor reopened because of the doctrine that nobody may be put twice in jeopardy for the same offense. Respondents have been formally acquitted by respondent Court, albeit erroneously. That judgment of acquittal is a final verdict. Errors or irregularities, which do not render the proceedings a nullity, will not defeat a plea of antrefois acquit. The proceedings in the Court below were not an absolute nullity as to render the judgment of acquittal null and void. The prosecution was not without the opportunity to present its evidence or even to rebut the testimony of Leonico Talingdan, the witness on new trial. It cannot be justifiably claimed, therefore, that the prosecution was deprived of its day in Court and denied due process of law, which would have rendered the judgment of acquittal a nullity and beyond the pale of a claim of double jeopardy. What was committed by respondent Judge was a reversible error but which did not render the proceedings an absolute nullity.[11] (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)

The foremost example of this denial of due process was the case of Galman v. Sandiganbayan12 where, despite the acquittal of the several accused in the assassination of former Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr., the Court declared that double jeopardy could not be invoked because the whole trial was a sham. The Court found that the trial “was but a mock trial where the authoritarian president ordered respondents Sandiganbayan and Tanodbayan to rig the trial and closely monitored the entire proceedings to assure the predetermined final outcome of acquittal and total absolution as innocent of all the respondents-accused.”[13]

Due to the influence that the Executive exerted over the independence of the court trying the Galman case, the Court ruled that the Decision therein was issued in violation of the prosecution’s due process. For instance, the Court found that in the trial in the Sandiganbayan, there were, among others, (1) suppression of evidence, (2) harassment of witnesses, (3) deviation from the regular raffle procedure in the assignment of the case, (4) close monitoring and supervision of the Executive and its officials over the case, and (5) secret meetings held between and among the President, the Presiding Justice of the Sandiganbayan, and the Tanodbayan. From the foregoing, the Court saw the trial a sham.

From these observations, the Court ruled in Galman that the right against double jeopardy, absolute as it may appear, may be invoked only when there was a valid judgment terminating the first jeopardy. The Court explained that no right attaches from a void judgment, and hence the right against double jeopardy may not be invoked when the decision that “terminated” the first jeopardy was invalid and issued without jurisdiction.[14]

The facts of Galman constitute the very narrow exception to the application of the right against double jeopardy. The unique facts surrounding Galman — and other similar scenarios where the denial of due process on the part of the prosecution was so gross and palpable — is the limited area where an acquittal may be revisited through a petition for certiorari. As reiterated by the Court in the case of People v. Velasco15, “the doctrine that ‘double jeopardy may not be invoked after trial’ may apply only when the Court finds that the ‘criminal trial was a sham’ because the prosecution representing the sovereign people in the criminal case was denied due process.”[16]

Verily, this means that not every error in the trial or evaluation of the evidence by the court in question that led to the acquittal of the accused would be reviewable by certiorari. Borrowing the words of the Court in Republic v. Ang Cho Kio,[17]” [n]o error, however flagrant, committed by the court against the state, can be reserved by it for decision by the [S]upreme [C]ourt when the defendant has once been placed in jeopardy and discharged, even though the discharge was the result of the error committed.”[18]

As applied in this case, it is thus immaterial whether the MTC was correct or that there was indeed insufficient evidence to convict the accused-respondents. Whether the MTC was correct in its ruling on the merits, the fact remains that the accused-respondents’ right against double jeopardy already attached upon their acquittal, and such right demands that the case be terminated immediately, with any form of re-litigation barred.

In other words, the ponencia need not have done a re-evaluation of the evidence before the MTC. Again, whether the MTC committed any error in its appreciation of the evidence, no matter how flagrant or grave, was already immaterial. No amount of error of judgment will ripen into an error of jurisdiction such that the acquittal would be reviewable by an appellate court through a petition for certiorari. It is only in cases where the State was denied its day in court — like in Galman — that a decision acquitting the accused, or an order terminating the case without the accused’s consent, may be revisited.

To end, it is well to emphasize the purpose for this insistence on having a very narrow exception to the finality-of-acquittal doctrine. To borrow the words of the Court in Velasco:

The fundamental philosophy highlighting the finality of an acquittal by the trial court cuts deep into “the humanity of the laws and in a jealous watchfulness over the rights of the citizen, when brought in unequal contest with the State x x x” Thus, Green expressed the concern that “(t)he underlying idea, one that is deeply ingrained in at least the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence, is that the State with all its resources and power should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual for an alleged offense, thereby subjecting him to embarrassment, expense and ordeal and compelling him to live in a continuing state of anxiety and insecurity, as well as enhancing the possibility that even though innocent, he may be found guilty.”

It is axiomatic that on the basis of humanity, fairness and justice, an acquitted defendant is entitled to the right of repose as a direct consequence of the finality of his acquittal. The philosophy underlying this rule establishing the absolute nature of acquittals is “part of the paramount importance criminal justice system attaches to the protection of the innocent against wrongful conviction.” The interest in the finality-of-acquittal rule, confined exclusively to verdicts of not guilty, is easy to understand: it is a need for “repose,” a desire to know the exact extent of one’s liability. With this right of repose, the criminal justice system has built in a protection to insure that the innocent, even those whose innocence rests upon a jury’s leniency, will not be found guilty in a subsequent proceeding.

Related to his right of repose is the defendant’s interest in his right to have his trial completed by a particular tribunal. This interest encompasses his right to have his guilt or innocence determined in a single proceeding by the initial jury empanelled to try him, for society’s awareness of the heavy personal strain which the criminal trial represents for the individual defendant is manifested in the willingness to limit Government to a single criminal proceeding to vindicate its very vital interest in enforcement of criminal laws. The ultimate goal is prevention of government oppression; the goal finds its voice in the finality of the initial proceeding. As observed in Lockhart v. Nelson, “(t)he fundamental tenet animating the Double Jeopardy Clause is that the State should not be able to oppress individuals through the abuse of the criminal process.” Because the innocence of the accused has been confirmed by a final judgment, the Constitution conclusively presumes that a second trial would be unfair.[19] (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)

Based on these premises, I vote to DENY the Petition.

[1] Ponencia, pp. 6-7.
[2] 195 U.S. 100 (1904).
[3] Id. at 124.
[4] The proposed wording was “No person shall be twice put in jeopardy of punishment for an offense upon which the final judgment has been rendered.”
[5] Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J., THE 1987 CONSTITUTION OF THE REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES: A COMMENTARY 589 (2009 Edition).
[6] Condrada v. People, 446 Phil. 635, 641 (2003).
[7] Chiok v. People, 774 Phil. 230, 248 (2015).
[8] 468 Phil. 1 (2004).
[9] Id. at 12-13.
[10] 195 Phil. 21 (1981).
[11] Id. at 32.
[12] 228 Phil. 42 (1986).
[13] Id. at 83.
[14] Id. at 90.
[15] 394 Phil. 517 (2000).
[16] Id. at 555.
[17] 95 Phil. 475 ( 1954).
[18] Id. at 480.
[19] People v. Velasco, supra note 15 at 555-557.

Categories
2020 February

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. DANTE CASILANG Y RINO AND SILVERIO VERGARA Y CORTEZ, ACCUSED-APPELLANTS.

THIRD DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 242159, February 05, 2020 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, VS. DANTE CASILANG Y RINO AND SILVERIO VERGARA Y CORTEZ, ACCUSED-APPELLANTS.

DECISION

GESMUNDO, J.:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty by proof beyond reasonable doubt.[1] When moral certainty as to culpability hangs in the balance, acquittal on reasonable doubt inevitably becomes a matter of right.[2]

On appeal is the Decision[3] dated April 30, 2018 issued by the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 07852, which affirmed the Decision[4] dated August 18, 2015 rendered by the Regional Trial Court of Dagupan City, Branch 42 (RTC) in Criminal Case No. 2012-0003-D finding Dante Casilang y Rino (Casilang) and Silverio Vergara y Cortez (Vergara; collectively, accused-appellants) guilty of violation of Section 5, Article II of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 9165, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

The Antecedents

In the Information[5] dated January 6, 2012, accused-appellants were charged with violation of Article II, Section 5 of R.A. No. 9165, allegedly committed as follows:

That on or about the 5th day of January 2012, in the City of Dagupan, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, DANTE CASILANG Y RINO AND SILVERIO VERGARA Y CORTEZ, confederating together, acting jointly and helping each other, did then and there, wilfully, unlawfully and criminally, sell and deliver to a customer Methamphetamine Hydrochloride (Shabu) contained in one (1) heat sealed plastic sachet, weighing more or less 0.1 gram in exchange for P500.00, without authority to do so.

Contrary to Article II, Section 5, R.A. 9165.[6]

Accused-appellants were arraigned on May 23, 2012 and pleaded not guilty to the charge.[7]

Version of Prosecution

The prosecution presented three (3) witnesses, namely: (1) Police Officer 2 Jayson M. Cadawan (PO2 Cadawan), poseur-buyer; (2) Senior Police Officer 1 Julius Coroña (SPO1 Coroña), the backup and arresting police officer; and (3) Police Senior Inspector Myrna Malojo-Todeño (PSI Malojo-Todeño), the Forensic Chemist of the Pangasinan Provincial Crime Laboratory Office (crime laboratory) who examined the seized illegal drugs. Through their combined testimonies, the prosecution sought to establish the following facts:

On January 5, 2012, Police Chief Superintendent Froiland Valdez instructed some police officers assigned at the Provincial Intelligence Branch (PIB), Lingayen, Pangasinan Police Provincial Office, to conduct a buy-bust operation targeting accused-appellants who the PIB had been monitoring since receiving information of their drug dealing from a confidential informant.[8]

A buy-bust team was formed, consisting of PO2 Cadawan, Police Inspector Romel Centeno (PI Centeno), and SPO1 Coroña. PO2 Cadawan prepared the P500-bill marked money. The team then proceeded to Police Community Precinct No. 6 (PCP 6) at Bonuan-Tondaligan to document the operation, before embarking on their mission near Leisure Coast, Bonuan­Binloc where accused-appellants were usually seen. At around 1:45 p.m., accused-appellants arrived and settled near a waiting shed. PO2 Cadawan approached accused-appellant Vergara and asked if he had P500.00 worth of shabu. In response, Vergara asked his companion, accused-appellant Casilang, to hand him the item which Vergara in turn handed to PO2 Cadawan. After giving the marked money as payment, PO2 Cadawan touched his head to signal the consummation of the sale. SPO1 Coroña approached the group and he and PO2 Cadawan introduced themselves as police officers. They then arrested accused-appellants for selling illegal drugs. PO2 Cadawan marked the seized item with his initials (“JMC”) and the current date (“1-5-12”) and placed it in an envelope. The police officers informed accused-appellants of their constitutional rights and brought them to PCP 6 to record the transaction in the blotter.[9]

At PCP 6, an inventory of the seized item was made in the presence of Barangay Kagawad Segundino Ayson (Barangay Kagawad Ayson), and the evidence was photographed together with accused-appellants. Afterwards, PO2 Cadawan returned the seized item inside the envelope and he, PI Centeno and SPO1 Coroña brought accused-appellants to the Provincial Intelligence Office. Upon arrival thereat, PI Centeno prepared the request for medico-legal and crime laboratory examinations. PO2 Cadawan brought the request and seized item to the crime laboratory, where he personally handed the seized item to Forensic Chemist PSI Malojo-Todeño. Laboratory examination later revealed that the seized item tested positive for shabu.[10]

Version of the Defense

Accused-appellants both testified and interposed the defense of denial.

Casilang testified that he was a tricycle driver plying his route on January 5, 2012. Along the way, he was flagged down by Vergara, who proposed that they drive around (“have a joyride”) as he had nothing to do that day. When they were near Leisure Coast, police officers flagged them down, asked them to alight and frisked them. Although if the police officers did not recover anything from them, they were nonetheless brought to the police station and led to a room where they saw a table with money, and an item they were not familiar with, on top of it. They were then photographed.[11]

For his part, Vergara testified that he was in Salay, Mangaldan on January 5, 2012 between 12:30 to 1:00 p.m., when he flagged down Casilang who was then transporting two passengers to Tondaligan Beach. He boarded the tricycle to have a joy ride. After the passengers alighted, accused-appellants decided to go home. As they neared the Leisure Coast Resort, a person flagged them down. Believing that this person and his companions were passengers, accused-appellants stopped. The persons turned out to be armed. They instructed accused-appellants to alight from the tricycle and searched them, but did not find anything. Still, they were made to board a van and brought to the police station. They were not informed of their constitutional rights.[12]

The RTC Ruling

On August 18, 2015, the RTC rendered a Decision finding accused­appellants guilty as charged. It found the prosecution to have clearly established the passing of the plastic sachet with white crystalline substance from Casilang to Vergara, who in turn handed the same to PO2 Cadawan in exchange for P500.00. Thus, the police officers were justified in arresting accused-appellants without a warrant and in seizing the plastic sachet. Moreover, the white crystalline substance in the plastic sachet was later on confirmed to be methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu, per the Chemistry Report issued by the PNP Crime Laboratory through Forensic Chemist PSI Malojo-Toñedo. SPO1 Coroña also identified in court the recovered P500-bill buy-bust money with serial number FJ848102.[13]

The RTC held that the defenses of denial and frame up interposed by accused-appellants are viewed with disfavor as they can easily be concocted. They should not benefit accused-appellants unless the evidence of frame up is clear and convincing. Here, aside from their self-serving allegations, accused-appellants adduced no evidence to strengthen their claim. Hence, their defenses are highly unacceptable. There is also no proof of any intent on the part of the police officers to falsely impute the commission of a crime on accused-appellants. Consequently, the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duty prevails.[14] The dispositive portion of the RTC Decision states:

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the [C]ourt finds the accused DANTE CASILANG and SILVERIO VERGARA GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of the crime of Violation of Section 5 of Art. II of [R.A. No.] 9165 and are hereby sentenced to suffer the penalty of life imprisonment and to [each pay] the fine of Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P500,000.00).

SO ORDERED.[15] (emphases in the original)

The CA Ruling

The CA affirmed the RTC Decision. It held that the buy-bust operation conducted on January 5, 2012 is valid when scrutinized using the “objective test,” which demands that details of the purported transaction must be clearly and adequately shown. Here, PO2 Cadawan’s testimony, which was corroborated by that of SPO1 Coroña, duly established the details of the buy-bust operation which resulted in the lawful arrest of accused­appellants.[16]

Moreover, the prosecution was able to prove beyond reasonable doubt the existence of all the elements of the crime of illegal sale of shabu, namely: the identity of the buyer and seller, object and consideration, the delivery of the thing sold, and the payment therefor. The prosecution’s evidence established the identity of PO2 Cadawan as poseur-buyer, accused­appellants as the sellers, the object of the sale which is shabu, and the consideration of P500.00. The delivery of the illegal drug in exchange for P500.00 consummated the sale transaction.[17]

The CA also held that even if the police officers did not strictly comply with the requirements of Section 21, Article II of R.A. No. 9165 due to the absence of a DOJ or media representative, the prosecution was able explain that the police officers tried, but found no available media or DOJ representatives at the time. The presence of an elective official in the person of Barangay Kagawad Ayson during the inventory and taking of photographs of the confiscated items is deemed substantial compliance with the requirements of the law. Moreover, even if the police officers did not strictly comply with the requirements of the said provision, such fact did not affect the evidentiary weight of the illegal drugs seized from accused­appellants because the chain of custody of the evidence was shown to be unbroken under the circumstances of the case.[18]

Finally, the CA held that accused-appellants’ defense of denial or frame up must fail in the face of credible and positive testimonies of the prosecution witnesses which are duly supported by documentary and object evidence.[19] The CA disposed of the case as follows:

WHEREFORE, the appeal is DENIED. The Decision dated 18 August 2015 of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 42, Dagupan City, in Criminal Case No. 2012-0003-D, finding accused-appellants Dante Casilang y Rino and Silverio Vergara y Cortez guilty of Violation of Section 5, Article II of Republic Act No. 9165 is AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.[20] (emphases in the original)

Hence, this appeal.

In its Resolution[21] dated December 3, 2018, the Court required the parties to submit their respective Supplemental Briefs, if they so desired. Subsequently, the parties respectively manifested that they are no longer filing such briefs.[22]

The Issues

Accused-appellants maintain their innocence and seek the final resolution of the following issues:

I.

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVE[LY] ERRED IN GIVING FULL CREDENCE TO THE PROSECUTION’S VERSION DESPITE THE PATENT IRREGULARITIES IN THE CONDUCT OF THE BUY-BUST OPERATION.

II.

THE TRIAL COURT GRAVELY ERRED IN CONVICTING THE ACCUSED-APELLANTS OF THE CRIME CHARGED DESPITE THE PROSECUTION’S FAILURE TO ESTABLISH THE IDENTITY AND INTEGRITY OF THE ALLEGED CONFISCATED DRUG CONSTITUTING THE CORPUS DELICTI OF THE CRIME.[23]

The Court’s Ruling

Accused-appellants argue that the police officers failed to comply with the mandatory procedures in the handling and disposition of the seized illegal drug as provided under paragraph 1, Section 21, Article II of R.A. No. 9165, since no representatives from the media and the DOJ were present during the conduct of the inventory. While the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of R.A. No. 9165 allow a degree of latitude with respect to compliance with its requirements, the same must be based on justifiable grounds.[24] Here, the apprehending officers did not tender any explanation or justification for noncompliance with the required procedure. It was thus grave error for the RTC to rule that the shabu transmitted by PO2 Cadawan to the crime laboratory was the very same one allegedly sold to him by accused-appellants. The arresting officers’ deliberate disregard of the legal safeguards under R.A. No. 9165 produced serious doubts on the integrity and identity of the corpus delicti.[25] Moreover, while the Court has held that procedural lapses in the conduct of the buy-bust operation are not ipso facto fatal to the prosecution’s cause as long as the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items have been preserved, still, the courts must thoroughly evaluate and differentiate those errors that constitute a simple procedural lapse from those that amount to a gross, systematic, or deliberate disregard of the safeguards drawn by the law. The presumption of regularity in the performance of official functions was negated by the buy-bust team’s failure to comply with Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165. In view of all these, accused­appellants insist that the Court resolve the case in their favor.[26]

The appeal is meritorious.

The trial court’s evaluation of the credibility of witnesses and their testimonies is entitled to great respect and will not be disturbed on appeal. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. The Court has reviewed the trial court’s factual findings when there is a showing that the trial judge overlooked, misunderstood, or misapplied some fact or circumstance of weight and substance that would have affected the case.[27] Such is the case here, where circumstances exist that raise serious doubts on accused­appellants’ culpability of the crime charged.

In actions involving the illegal sale of dangerous drugs, the prosecution must establish the following elements: (a) the identity of the buyer and the seller, the object, and the consideration; and (b) the delivery of the thing sold and the payment. It is equally essential for a conviction that the drug subject of the sale be presented in court and its identity established with moral certainty through an unbroken chain of custody over it. The prosecution must be able to account for each link in the chain of custody over the dangerous drug from the moment of seizure up to its presentation in court as evidence of the corpus delicti.[28]

Reasonable doubt on the actual
sale of illegal drugs exists

In this case, despite the prosecution’s evidence showing that a buy­bust operation was conducted, there exists reasonable doubt that the sale of illegal drugs actually took place.

PO2 Cadawan testified that police officers conducted surveillance prior to the buy-bust operation. However, he did not describe the particular acts being committed by accused-appellants at the time which led him and the other police officers to conclude that the latter were involved in a crime. Thus:

Q. You mentioned about [two] personalities, who are these two personalities?
A. Dante Casilang and Silverio Vergara, ma’am.

Q. Where were you supposed to conduct this operation?
A. Particularly at Bonuan-Binloc, Dagupan City, ma’am.

Q. You mentioned a while ago that these two personalities have been monitored by your office, who told you this, Mr. Witness?
A. Series of information have been given by confidential informant to our office, ma’am.

Q. You said that you already monitored these two accused, how did you monitor them about their drug dealings?
A. We usually see these personalities at Bonuan-Binloc, ma’am.

Q. You said you usually see them, how often do you see them in Bonuan-Binloc?
A. Twice a week, ma’am.

Q. Why do you go at Bonuan-Binloc?
A. To perform our duties and obligations as intelligence officer in conducting and monitoring illegal activities, ma’am.[29]

Aside from the fact that there was no record of the surveillance,[30] PO2 Cadawan palpably failed to identify the activities to which the “series of information” allegedly provided by a confidential informant pertained. His testimony lacks the bare essentials to justify the conduct of a buy-bust operation. In fact, if the prosecutor did not use the term “drug dealings” in one of his questions, there would have been no indication whatsoever of the crime that accused-appellants were supposed to be committing. As part of the surveillance team, PO2 Cadawan could not have neglected to describe the illegal activities that he witnessed—if indeed he witnessed any. It is considerably uncharacteristic of a police officer who had monitored a crime to omit basic information on what he had perceived, particularly when testifying in court where such information is most crucial.

Moreover, in their Joint Affidavit of Arrest,[31] PO2 Cadawan and SPO1 Coroña described accused-appellants as “long[-]monitored drug personalities” who hailed from Mangaldan, but operated within the area of Bonuan-Binloc, Dagupan City in Pangasinan. The police officers narrated that on the day of the scheduled buy-bust operation, they “stationed [themselves] strategically at an area near the waiting shed where [they] usually [saw] the two drug personalities waiting for their customers.” These statements convey that accused-appellants were confirmed by surveillance to have been habitually engaged in the sale of illegal drugs. However, if this were true, then it is curious why only one (1) sachet of shabu was recovered from accused-appellants during the buy-bust operation.

The prosecution would have the courts believe that accused-appellants travelled from their hometown in Mangaldan to sell their illegal merchandise in Bonuan, which is a good 10.7-kilometer distance or a 20-minute car ride away,[32] to sell only one (1) sachet of shabu worth P500.00 and weighing only 0.17 gram to the first customer who will approach them. While it may be asserted that this fact alone is not beyond ordinary human experience, it gains significance in light of PO2 Cadawan’s palpable omission to testify on the illegal activities committed by accused-appellants and their modus operandi, as supposedly ascertained by undocumented surveillance operations. The facts, taken together, raise doubt on whether accused­appellants were indeed drug pushers, and whether they actually sold illegal drugs in the purported buy-bust operation.

The prosecution is not entitled
to the saving mechanism of
Section 21 of the IRR of R.A.
No. 9165

Even granting that the buy-bust was a legitimate police operation, the Court also finds that the prosecution failed to show justifiable grounds for noncompliance with Section 21(a) of the IRR of R.A. No. 9165, and that there is a substantial gap in the chain of custody of the seized item that puts into question its integrity and evidentiary value.

The statutory requirements to establish chain of custody are reflected in Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165 which provides, among others, that “the apprehending team shall immediately after seizure and confiscation physically inventory and photograph the seized item in the presence of the accused or the person from whom such items were seized, or his representative or counsel, a representative from the media and the Department of Justice (DOJ), and any elected public official who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.”[33] The Court had explained that the presence of the latter three witnesses serves to guard against switching, “planting” or contamination of the evidence.[34]

However, as it is a fact that field conditions vary and strict compliance with the rule may not always be possible, Section 21 of the IRR of R.A. No. 9165 provides a saving clause. It states that noncompliance with the requirements of Section 21 will not automatically render void and invalid the seizure and custody over the seized items, so long as: 1) there are justifiable grounds therefor, and 2) the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized items are properly peserved by the apprehending officer or team. Failure to show these two conditions renders void and invalid the seizure of and custody of the seized illegal drugs.[35]

Here, the inventory and taking of photographs of the seized illegal drug were witnessed by accused-appellants and Barangay Kagawad Ayson. However, there were no representatives from the media and the DOJ present at the time. Since this is a deviation from the requirements of Section 21, it is incumbent upon the prosecution to provide justifiable reasons in order for the saving clause to apply.[36] Unfortunately, the prosecution failed to recognize its procedural lapse and provided no such explanation whatsoever other than that the police officers “cannot avail” of the presence of the required witnesses. On this point, PO2 Cadawan testified as follows:

Q. I am showing to you a Receipt/Inventory of Seized/Confiscated Items, what is the relation of this document with the confiscation receipt that you mentioned?
A. I was the one who personally prepared this, ma’am.

Q. At the left lower portion of this document is a signature above the printed name Segundino Ayson, Jr. the Barangay Kagawad, Bonuan-Gueset, whose signature is this?
A. It’s Kagawad Ayson, (sic) sir.

Q. Why do you say so?
A. I was present and my fellow PO Coroña was also present at that time when he signed that document, ma’am.

Q. I do not see any representative from the Media as well as any representative of the DOJ in this Inventory Receipt, why is that so?
A. Because we cannot avail of any member of the Media and any representative from the City Prosecutor’s Office, ma’am.[37]
they had reasonable time to do so from the moment they received information about the activities of accused-appellants until the time of arrest. In People v. De Guzman,[38] We held that the justifiable grounds for noncompliance with Section 21 must be proven as a fact because the Court cannot presume what these grounds are or that they even exist. Moreover, in People v. Umipang,[39] We emphasized that it is the prosecution which has the positive duty to establish that earnest efforts were employed in contacting the representatives enumerated under Section 21(1) of R.A. No. 9165.[40] A sheer statement that representatives were unavailable without so much as an explanation on whether serious attempts were employed to look for other representatives given the circumstances, is to be regarded as a flimsy excuse.[41] Consequently, for failure of the prosecution to provide justifiable grounds to excuse the absence of the representatives from the media and the DOJ, the Court is constrained to conclude that the integrity and evidentiary value of the item purportedly seized from accused-appellants have been compromised.[42]

Unfortunately, not only did the prosecution fail to provide justifiable reasons for the absence of the required witnesses during the inventory and taking of photographs of the evidence, it also failed to show that the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized item were properly preserved.

In People v. Plaza,[43] We restated the links that the prosecution must prove to establish chain of custody: first, the seizure and marking, if practicable, of the illegal drug recovered from the accused by the apprehending officer; second, the turnover of the illegal drug seized by the apprehending officer to the investigating officer; third, the turnover by the investigating officer of the illegal drug to the forensic chemist for laboratory examination; and fourth, the turnover and submission of the marked illegal drug seized from the forensic chemist to the court.

In this case, PO2 Cadawan testified that he marked the seized item with the date and his initials at the site of the buy-bust operation.[44] Hence, the first link was adequately demonstrated.

With respect to the second and third links, there is no evidence of the presence of an investigator in the case. In People v. Dahil (Dahil),[45] We held that as regards the second link, the usual procedure is that the police officer who seizes the suspected illegal drug turns it over to a supervising officer who will then send it to the police crime laboratory for testing. This is a necessary step in the chain of custody as it will be the investigating officer who shall conduct the proper investigation and prepare the necessary documents for the developing criminal case.[46]

In this case, records bear that it was PO2 Cadawan who took charge of the seized item from the time of seizure until its delivery to the crime laboratory for examination. After accused-appellants were arrested and inventory and taking of photographs were conducted at the police community precinct, PO2 Cadawan placed the seized item in an envelope and brought it to the Provincial Intelligence Office. There, PI Centeno prepared the request for crime laboratory examination. PO2 Cadawan brought the request and the seized item to the crime laboratory and endorsed the seized item to PSI Malojo-Todeño.[47]

To be able to faithfully comply with the chain of custody rule laid down in Dahil, PO2 Cadawan, as apprehending officer, should have endorsed the seized item to the investigating officer, who shall then turn it over to the crime laboratory. As it happened, the police officers followed a different procedure. Nonetheless, We hold that there was substantial compliance with the chain of custody procedure with respect to the second and third links. The prosecution was able to record the movement of the seized item at each stage, from the time of seizure to its receipt by the forensic laboratory. The identities of the persons who held the seized item in custody were established, as well as the date and time when transfer of custody was made.

It is a different matter, however, with respect to the fourth link, which involves the submission of the seized illegal drug by the forensic chemist to the court.

Here, PSI Malojo-Todeño, the Forensic Chemist, testified that she personally received the seized item from PO2 Cadawan.[48] Thereafter, she conducted a qualitative examination on the specimen and indicated her findings in two reports, the Initial and the Final (or Chemistry) Report.[49] After examination, she sealed the improvised envelope containing the illegal drug, marked it with her initials and the current date, and turned it over to the evidence custodian, PO2 Manuel,[50] for safekeeping. PO2 Manuel purportedly kept the illegal drug in the evidence room until PSI Malojo­Todeño retrieved it from him on the day she was to testify in court.[51]

The prosecution would have completed its proof of compliance with the chain of custody procedure through the convincing and straightforward testimony of PSI Malojo-Todeño, were it not for the fact that her statement with regard to the safekeeping of the illegal drug by PO2 Manuel remained unsubstantiated. Other than PSI Malojo-Todeño’s bare allegations, the prosecution failed to present clear and convincing proof that PO2 Manuel took responsibility over the illegal drug.

As a method of authenticating evidence, the chain of custody rule requires that the admission of the exhibit be preceded by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what the proponent claims it to be. It would thus include testimony about every link in the chain, from the moment the item was seized to the time it is offered in court as evidence, such that every person who handled the same would admit how and from whom it was received, where it was and what happened to it while in the witness’ possession, the condition in which it was received and the condition in which it was delivered to the next link in the chain. The same witnesses would then describe the precautions taken to ensure that there had been no change in the condition of the item and no opportunity for someone not in the chain to have possession of the same. It is from the testimony of every witness who handled the evidence from which a reliable assurance can be derived that the evidence presented in court is one and the same as that seized from the accused.[52]

The prosecution’s failure to present evidence showing the manner in which the illegal drug subject of this case was handled, stored and safeguarded by PO2 Manuel pending its presentation in court is fatal to its case. In People v. Obmiranis,[53] We acquitted the appellant due to the failure of the key persons who handled the dangerous drug to testify on the whereabouts of the exhibit before it was offered as evidence in court. This failure casts doubt on the identity of the corpus delicti and negates the presumption of regularity in the performance of official functions.[54]

In sum, the prosecution is not entitled to the saving mechanism of Section 21 of the IRR of R.A. No. 9165. Not only did it fail to provide any justifiable reason for the absence of the required witnesses during the inventory and taking of photographs of the illegal drug, it also miserably failed to prove that the integrity and evidentiary value of the seized item were preserved. The fourth link required to establish the proper chain of custody was thus breached with irregularity.

Given the substantive flaws and procedural lapses, serious uncertainty hangs over the identity of the seized illegal drug that the prosecution presented as evidence before the Court. In effect, the prosecution failed to fully prove the elements of the crime charged, creating a reasonable doubt on the criminal liability of accused-appellants.[55]

WHEREFORE, the appeal is GRANTED. The April 30, 2018 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 07852 is REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accused-appellants Dante Casilang y Rino and Silverio Vergara y Cortez are ACQUITTED of the crime charged against them and ORDERED immediately released from custody, unless they are being held for some other lawful cause.

The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is ORDERED to implement this Decision and inform the Court within five (5) days from its receipt the date of the actual release from confinement of accused­appellants.

SO ORDERED.

Leonen, (Chairperson), Carandang, Zalameda, and Gaerlan, JJ., concur.

June 11, 2020

NOTICE OF JUDGMENT

Sirs/Mesdames:

Please take notice that on February 5, 2020 a Decision, copy attached hereto, was rendered by the Supreme Court in the above-entitled case, the original of which was received by this Office on June 11, 2020 at 2:13 p.m.

Very truly yours,

(SGD.) MISAEL DOMINGO C. BATTUNG III
Division Clerk of Court

ORDER OF RELEASE

TO: The Director
BUREAU OF CORRECTIONS
1770 Muntinlupa City

 Thru:   The Superintendent
     New Bilibid Prison North
     BUREAU OF CORRECTIONS
     1770 Muntinlupa City

GREETINGS:

WHEREAS, the Supreme Court on February 5, 2020 promulgated a Decision in the above-entitled case, the dispositive portion of which reads:

“WHEREFORE, the appeal is GRANTED. The April 30, 2018 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 07852 is REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accused­appellants Dante Casilang y Rino and Silverio Vergara y Cortez are ACQUITTED of the crime charged against them and ORDERED immediately released from custody, unless they are being held for some other lawful cause.

The Director of the Bureau of Corrections is ORDERED to implement this Decision and inform the Court within five (5) days from its receipt the date of the actual release from confinement of accused-appellants.

SO ORDERED.”

NOW, THEREFORE, You are hereby ordered to immediately release DANTE CASILANG y RINO and SILVERIO VERGARA y CORTEZ unless there are other lawful causes for which they should be further detained, and to return this Order with the certificate of your proceedings within five (5) days from notice hereof.

GIVEN by the Honorable MARVIC MARIO VICTOR F. LEONEN, Chairperson of the Third Division of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, this 5th day of February 2020.

Very truly yours,

(SGD.) MISAEL DOMINGO C. BATTUNG III
Division Clerk of Court

[1] See People v. Wagas, 717 Phil. 224, 227 (2013).
[2] People v. Obmiranis, 594 Phil. 561, 579 (2008).
[3] Rollo, pp. 2-17; penned by Associate Justice Maria Filomena D. Singh with Associate Justices Sesinando E. Villon and Edwin D. Sorongon, concurring.
[4] CA rollo, pp. 14-22; penned by Presiding Judge A. Florentino R. Dumlao, Jr.
[5] Id. at 12.
[6] Records, p. 1.
[7] Id. at 49.
[8] Rollo, pp. 3-4.
[9] Id. at 4-5.
[10] Id. at 5.
[11] TSN, September 9, 2014, pp. 3-6.
[12] TSN, November 26, 2014, pp. 3-6.
[13] CA rollo, p. 21.
[14] Id. at 21-22.
[15] Id. at 22.
[16] Rollo, pp. 8-9.
[17] Id. at 9-11.
[18] Id. at 13-15.
[19] Id. at 15.
[20] Id. at 16.
[21] Id. at 25-26.
[22] Id. at 27-29; 37-39.
[23] CA rollo, p. 65.
[24] Id. at 70.
[25] Id. at 72-73.
[26] Id. at 73-74.
[27] People v. Maraorao, 688 Phil. 458, 464-465 (2012).
[28] People v. Año, G.R. No. 230070, March 14, 2018, 859 SCRA 380, 388-389.
[29] TSN, March 20, 2013, pp. 3-4.
[30] PO2 Cadawan testified on cross examination (TSN, May 10, 2013, p. 2):

Q. Did you make a document [of] your surveillance before the buy bust operation?
A. No, madam.

[31] Records, pp. 3-5.
[32] https://www.google.com/search?q=distance+from+mangaldan+to+bonuan+pangasinan&rlz=1C1GCEU_enPH874PH874&oq=distance+from+mangaldan+to+bonuan+pangasinan&aqs=chrome..69i57.9807jlj7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
[33] It bears emphasis that R.A. No. 10640, which took effect on July 23, 2014, amended Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165 by requiring only two (2) witnesses to be present during the conduct of the physical inventory and taking of photograph of the seized items, namely: (a) an elected public official; and (b) either a representative from the National Prosecution Service or the media. As the crime in this case was committed on January 5, 2012, the original version of Section 21 is applicable.
[34] People v. Sood, G.R. No. 227394, June 6, 2018, 865 SCRA 368, 389.
[35] Id. at 390.
[36] See People v. Almorfe, 631 Phil. 51, 60 (2010).
[37] TSN, March 20, 2013, p. 11.
[38] 630 Phil. 637 (2010).
[39] 686 Phil. 1024 (2012).
[40] Id. at 1052-1053.
[41] People v. Crispo, G.R. No. 230065, March 14, 2018, 859 SCRA 356, 376.
[42] Id. at 377.
[43] G.R. No. 235467, August 20, 2018.
[44] TSN, March 20, 2013, pp. 6-7.
[45] 750 Phil. 212 (2015).
[46] Id. at 235.
[47] TSN, March 20, 2013, pp. 7-9.
[48] TSN, January 9, 2013, p. 8.
[49] Id. at 4.
[50] No first name in the rollo, CA rollo or records.
[51] TSN, January 9, 2013, pp. 6-7.
[52] People v. Obmiranis, supra note 2, at 570-571.
[53] Id.
[54] Id. at 577.
[55] See People v. Dela Rosa, 822 Phil. 885, 910 (2017).

Categories
2020 February

LEONARIA C. NERI, ABETO LABRA SALCEDO, JR., JOCELYN ENERIO SALCEDO, EVANGELINE P. CAMPOSANO, AND HUGO S. AMORILLO, JR., COMPLAINANTS, V. JUDGE BONIFACIO M. MACABAYA, BRANCH 20, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, MISAMIS ORIENTAL, RESPONDENT.

EN BANC
[ A.M. No. RTJ-16-2475 (Formerly A.M No. 16-07-261-RTC), February 04, 2020 ]

LEONARIA C. NERI, ABETO LABRA SALCEDO, JR., JOCELYN ENERIO SALCEDO, EVANGELINE P. CAMPOSANO, AND HUGO S. AMORILLO, JR., COMPLAINANTS, V. JUDGE BONIFACIO M. MACABAYA, BRANCH 20, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, MISAMIS ORIENTAL, RESPONDENT.

D E C I S I O N

PER CURIAM:

Before the Court is an administrative complaint against Judge Bonifacio M. Macabaya (respondent) of Branch 20 of the Regional Trial Court of Cagayan de Oro City (RTC) relative to his acts of borrowing and taking money and properties from litigants who had cases pending before his sala.

Factual Antecedents

In separate Sworn Statements filed with Executive Judge Dennis Z. Alcantar (Executive Judge Alcantar) of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Cagayan de Oro City on May 12, 2015, on May 19, 2015, and on May 27, 2015, respectively, Leonaria C. Neri (Neri), the spouses Abeto L. Salcedo, Jr. (Abeto) and Jocelyn Salcedo (Jocelyn) (Sps. Salcedo), Evangeline P. Camposano a.k.a. Evangeline C. Becera (Camposano), and Hugo S. Amorillo, Jr. (Amorillo) (collectively, complainants) alleged that respondent judge and his wife borrowed money from them at various times while their respective cases were pending before the sala of respondent judge.[1]

As summarized by the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), the following are the contents of the foregoing Sworn Statements:

Neri’s Accusation

Neri’s case involves a foreclosure of mortgage over a property owned by her daughter, Elizabeth Neri Garces, also known as “Dayen”, and the latter’s husband, Dr. Garces, which was filed against the said spouses by the Land Bank of the Philippines sometime in 2011, and raffled off to Branch 20 of the RTC of Cagayan de Oro City. Neri alleged that when she and her said daughter went to see respondent, the latter told them that Landbank wanted to take the property but he [respondent] did not sign the Order yet. The respondent then suggested for them to hire Atty. [Alvin] Calingin as their counsel and they heeded respondent’s suggestion.[2]

This complainant likewise alleged that sometime in April 2012, while the case was undergoing judicial dispute resolution proceedings, respondent invited her (Neri) to the Persimmon Bakery at Cagayan de Oro City; that while there, respondent, who at that time was in the company of a certain Cesar Gorilla, borrowed P50,000.00 from her, and that she had to withdraw this amount from the Banco de Oro (BDO) at Cagayan de Oro City; that the driver of respondent drove her to the BDO to withdraw said amount and back to the Persimmon Bakery, where respondent and Gorillo were waiting for her; that after she gave the money to respondent, the latter “executed a personal borrowing receipt.”[3]

Without stating when, Neri further claimed that respondent borrowed another P35,000.00 from her, and that she brought this sum to his house at Candida, Bulua, Cagayan de Oro City; that respondent’s wife was present when he took delivery of the money; that a few days later, using his cousin as intermediary, respondent borrowed another P15,000.00 from her; that the name of respondent’s cousin is shown on the receipt, which bore the signature of respondent’s cousin. Complainant added that her own cousin, Chryster Neri Babanto, was present when she handed the money to respondent’s cousin.[4]

On July 23, 2014, respondent again called for her, and asked her to meet with him at the Centrio, a mall in Cagayan de Oro City; that although respondent had not yet paid the loans he had earlier secured from her, he again asked to borrow money from her; that at first, she was hesitant to lend respondent any additional sum, so she called up Dr. Garces and the latter expressed apprehension over the case pending before respondent; that she tried to allay the apprehension of Dr. Garces and told him that they could not do anything about it and that anyway respondent had promised her that “[the] case will be settled;” that it was only then that Dr. Garces relented, and so she (Neri) had the money withdrawn by a certain Athena at Centrio; that in the company of one Benedicta Bagtong, she gave the amount of P50,000.00 to respondent’s wife, who at that time was eating with respondent at the Pepper Lunch in Centrio, together with their driver; that after delivering the money, respondent told her, “Don’t worry Manang because I will render a decision and you will get your property.”[5]

Complainant claimed that despite respondent’s assurance, the case has remained undecided, and that respondent’s accumulated loans to her and to Dr. Garces have not been paid.[6]

Sps. Salcedos’ Accusation

The Sps. Salcedo claimed that they have cases before respondent which had been pending since 2010; that one of these cases is a criminal case for reckless imprudence resulting in homicide with abandonment, while the other is a civil case for breach of contract.[7]

These spouses alleged that sometime in September 2010, Abeto and respondent, along with the latter’s wife and respondent’s driver, went to the Ramen Tei Restaurant in Cagayan de Oro City, to eat; that while there, respondent “asked from [him] speakers for his videoke business;” that in compliance with respondent’s request, he bought two sets of speakers amounting to P7,900.00 and gave these to respondent in the presence of the latter’s wife and driver.[8]

The spouses further alleged that three days later, respondent and his wife went to their house at SF Abellanosa Street, Cagayan de Oro City, and asked to borrow money from them, saying that he was a newly appointed judge and had not received his salary yet; that on this occasion, respondent said he needed P40,000.00 for “baon” and for his round trip ticket in going to Manila; that he (Abeto) replied that he had no money at the time, but respondent said that he would send someone to pick up the money once he (complainant) had it; that after two days, respondent sent his sheriff, Venus Gilbolingo, to their house to pick up the money; that instead of giving the money to the sheriff, they (Salcedo spouses) themselves went to respondent’s chambers in Branch 20 of the RTC, where they delivered to respondent the amount of P40,000.00, in the presence of his wife.[9]

The spouses further alleged that when respondent and his wife went again to their house sometime in October 2010, he (Abeto) was constrained to give away their “driftwood” when respondent’s wife asked him if she could have it, after she said that it was beautiful; that respondent also requested him to have it delivered to their house; that as these two were about to leave, respondent’s wife also saw an empty karaoke box and asked him if she could buy it; that he told her that she could have it too; that in the afternoon of the same day, a Sunday, they delivered the driftwood and karaoke box to the house of respondent’s cousin in Candida Subdivision, Cagayan de Oro City, where respondent and his wife first resided; that in fact respondent and his wife personally received the items from them.[10]

According to these complainants-spouses, a week later, respondent intimated to him (Abeto) that he would need food and fish for their daily consumption because he had not received his salary yet, and so, every Saturday or Sunday beginning October until the end of November 2010, he (Abeto) would deliver to respondent’s house seven to eight kilos of fish, for which he had to spend between P1,400.00 and P1,500.00 for each delivery.

Abeto also claimed that on November 12, 2010, he (Abeto) gave respondent P5,000.00 through cash transfer, using the facility of the [Cebuana] Lhuiller.

Finally, Abeto recalled that sometime in September 2010, respondent told him, “Jun, your case of Reckless Imprudence resulting in Homicide with Abandonment, I will give a penalty here of eight (8) to ten (10) years so that the accused cannot apply for probation and I promise that I will render the decision in less than two (2) years.” Abeto claims that to-date this case has not been decided.[11]

Camposano’s Accusation

Camposano alleged that she has two cases pending before respondent’s Branch 20. The first one was filed in 1995 and had been archived before respondent was appointed as presiding judge of Branch 20; and the second one involving “Brainweb Foundation, Incorporated” (complete title, docket number, and nature were not indicated) was filed on May 2, 2014.[12]

Camposano claimed that sometime in the second semester of 2014, respondent asked for her phone number while they were inside the court; that respondent later called her and asked to meet with her at the Gaisano Food Court in Bulua, Cagayan de Oro City; that while there, he told her that he has a problem and that he wanted to borrow money from her; and so on that occasion she lent him P50,000.00.[13]

A month later, respondent called her up again, telling her as before, that he had a problem and that he needed P50,000.00. They met at the Limketkai Mall, where on this occasion she gave him P50,000.00.[14]

Several weeks later, respondent called her up anew, telling her that he needed money again. At first, she told him that she had no money as she was “hard up with [her] business,” but respondent was persistent because “his need for money is very urgent.” She ended up giving him P25,000.00 that time.[15]

Asked why she continued to lend respondent money, even if his previous loans had not yet been paid, she said that it was not about the money, but because “he is the presiding judge of the court where [my] cases are pending.” She, however, did not follow respondent’s instruction that she negotiate for the settlement of her cases with the other party because she wanted justice, not negotiation.[16]

This complainant now asserts that respondent “can no longer render a decision” on her cases because he may also be receiving money from the other parties just like he received money from her. She claims that she was told by the other party, the defendant Cecilio Chavez, that he has a strong connection or influence with respondent, and she had reason to believe him because this Cecilio Chavez is always seen going to parties with respondent. She even claims that respondent’s court stenographer Vicky Arroyo (Vicky) knows about this.[17]

Amorillo’s Accusation

Sometime in 2010, Amorillo, and his wife filed an application for temporary restraining order against the order of closure of their restaurant by the mayor of Cagayan de Oro City; that sometime in 2011, while inside the courtroom during one of the hearings, a woman seated behind him and his wife introduced herself as the respondent’s wife; that after the hearing and the other people inside the courtroom had left, they were personally introduced to respondent by respondent’s wife.[18]

Amorillo further claimed that the next day, while he and his wife were in their house at Zone 1, Bulua, Cagayan de Oro City between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., their restaurant supervisor called up his wife, informing them that somebody by the name of “Judge Macabaya” was looking for them; and this call was made after respondent and his wife had left the restaurant.[19]

On the afternoon of the following day, their restaurant supervisor again called up his wife, telling her that respondent and his wife were at the restaurant and that they wanted to go to the Amorillos’ house; that Mrs. Amorillo’s, however, told the supervisor that she and her husband would go to the restaurant themselves; that when they finally met at the restaurant, Amorillo greeted respondent and his wife, “Kumusta, napasyal ho kayo?” To which respondent replied, “May kailangan kami sa inyo;” that Amorillo’s wife asked respondent, “Ano po [iyon]?” and respondent answered, “Manghihiram sana kami, eh.” On hearing this, the Amorillos looked at each other. Respondent then said, “Manghihiram kami ng P100,000.00;” that when Amorillo’s wife told respondent that they did not have that big amount, respondent replied, “Kahit magkano lang,” that Amarillo’s wife, relented and said, “Sige, titingnan ko muna kung magkano ang maipapahiram ko sa inyo.”[20]

Later on, Amorillo learned from his wife that she gave respondent and his wife P30,000.00. Amorillo also claimed that they also gave respondent an additional P20,000.00 which was handed to the latter by their restaurant supervisor named Leonila Ismael; his wife likewise informed him that the amounts she had given to respondent and his wife had already reached a total of P100,000.00.[21]

Amorillo and his wife claimed that after waiting in vain for six months for respondent and his wife to pay back their loans, he (Amorillo) and his wife went to respondent’s house, although it was only he who entered the house; that respondent and his wife were in the house at that time. Per Amarillo’s statement, the following conversation took place on this occasion[22] —

x x x I said, “Judge, andito ho ako para maningil na ho dun sa hiniram ninyo.” x x x “Nagalit. Nagalit in a way na nakita ko yung facial expression.” [Respondent] said, “Ha, akala ko binigay niyo na sa akin yun.” I said, “Ho? Hindi po ako mayaman para mamigay ng pera.” And I became sarcastic, “Hindi po ako pilantropo.” x x x “Pinaghirapan po namin [ang] perang yan.” [Respondent] answered, “Natulungan ko naman kayo sa kaso niyo ah. Di bale, babayaran ko yan. Lalapit din kayo sa akin. Hihingi din kayo ng tulong. My answer was this, “Judge, huwag niyo akong takutin, pareho tayong taga Maynila.” x x x[23]

In the midst of their exchange, respondent’s wife butted in, saying, “Akala namin bigay nyo na.”[24]

The above mentioned accusations were endorsed to the OCA. In a Memorandum dated July 7, 2015, Deputy Court Administrator Jenny Lind R. Aldecoa-Delorino (DCA Aldecoa-Delorino) directed respondent to comment on said accusations.[25]

On September 14, 2015, respondent filed his Comment. He therein denounced the accusations against him as fabricated, self-serving, unsubstantiated, and instigated by Executive Judge Alcantar. In point of fact, respondent utterly failed to dispute, much less overthrow, the material allegations of the accusations; if anything, respondent zeroed in on the alleged bias, prejudice, and vindictiveness that must have impelled DCA Aldecoa-Delorino, supposedly in cahoots with Executive Judge Alcantar, Judge Evelyn Gamotin-Nery (Gamotin-Nery), Judge Florencia Sealana­Abbu (Sealana-Abbu), and Judge Gil Bollozos (Bollozos) all of the RTC of Cagayan de Oro City, to cause the formulation of the accusations, whose ultimate end and purpose, according to respondent, was to have him dismissed from the service.[26]

In a Memorandum dated July 18, 2016, DCA Aldecoa-Delorino endorsed the administrative complaints to this Court. DCA Aldecoa­Delorino recommended that complainants’ accusations be treated as an administrative complaint and that the same be referred to an Associate Justice of the Court of Appeals (CA) for investigation, report, and recommendation.[27]

In a Resolution dated September 14, 2016, the Third Division of this Court docketed the accusations as A.M. No. RTJ-16-2475. The same Resolution directed the Executive Justice of the CA, Mindanao Station, to raffle these cases among the Justices therein for investigation, report, and recommendation within 90 days from the receipt of the records thereof.[28]

Investigation

Immediately thereafter, notices were sent to the parties, setting the case for preliminary conference.[29] Before the preliminary conference, Neri however manifested that she was no longer interested in pursuing her complaint against respondent, citing her failing health and claiming that the cases pending at the sala of respondent had already been settled.[30]

Even then, trial on the merits ensued, in the course of which respondent cross-examined his accusers.[31]

With regard to Camposano: Respondent tried to make her admit that she was merely coerced into filing a case against him by Executive Judge Alcantar, by his fellow judges at the Cagayan de Oro RTC, Judges Gamotin-Nery, Sealana-Abbu, Bollozos, and a certain Vicky Arroyo, his court stenographer at Branch 20. It is significant to note, however, that during his cross-examination of this complainant, respondent avoided touching upon the issue of his borrowing money from her (Camposano). Which means that this complainant’s accusation against respondent virtually stood unchallenged.[32]

As to the accusation of Amorillo: It is respondent’s contention that his aforementioned fellow judges in the RTC of Cagayan de Oro City had united to work for his ouster from the service. This contention is clearly devoid of merit not only because respondent has not adduced a shred of evidence that there had been bad blood or strained relations between him and his said fellow judges at the Cagayan de Oro RTC, but also because respondent, despite the ample opportunity accorded unto him, did not confront or challenge Amorillo in regard to the latter’s accusation that respondent borrowed various sums of money from Amorillo and his wife.[33]

With respect to the claims of the Sps. Salcedo: Respondent returned to his old theme that if Salcedo spouses filed cases against him, it was because these spouses yielded to the instigation of his detractors, DCA Aldecoa-Delorino, Executive Judge Alcantar, and others. Yet, Jocelyn never wavered from her claim that respondent borrowed money from her and from her husband; that respondent also asked for speakers, driftwood, and the empty karaoke box; and that respondent moreover asked them to deliver fish for respondent’s daily consumption during the time respondent had not yet allegedly received his salary. Even though respondent made light sport of the Cebuana Lhuillier receipt which tended to show that the Sps. Salcedo presented to prove that they sent money to him, Jocelyn nonetheless insisted· that she and her husband had indeed sent respondent the money covered by the Cebuana Lhullier receipt.[34]

Respondent’s defense

Taking the witness stand in his defense, respondent testified on the alleged prejudice, vindictiveness and bias against him by DCA Aldecoa­Delorino and accused her of conspiring with Cagayan de Oro RTC Executive Judge Alcantar, and with fellow Judges Gamotin-Nery, Sealana-Abbu, and Bollozos at the Cagayan de Oro RTC to ensure that he is dismissed from the service based on the accusations of complainants.[35] He also assailed the character of the complainants Camposano, Amorillo, and Sps. Salcedo. He insisted that their respective allegations against him are unsubstantiated by the evidence and are riddled with inconsistencies.[36]

Discussion and Recommendation

In his Resolution of September 28, 2017, Investigating Justice Ronaldo B. Martin (Investigating Justice) of the CA found the testimonies of Camposano, Amorillo, and Sps. Salcedo candid, straightforward, and categorical. The Investigating Justice observed that said complainants remained steadfast in their claims that respondent did indeed borrow money in various amounts from them. The Investigating Justice also noted that during respondent’s cross-examination of these complainants, respondent clearly avoided touching upon the point that he borrowed money from these complainants; and that if anything, respondent merely limited himself to belaboring the theory that complainants were just simply coerced into filing complaints against him as part of the alleged grand design of DCA Aldecoa-Delorino, Executive Judge Alcantar, and Judges Gamotin-Nery, Sealana-Abbu, and Bollozos to oust him from the service.[37] The dispositive portion of the Report reads:

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, it is respectfully recommended that respondent Judge Bonifacio M. Macabaya, Presiding Judge of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 20, in Cagayan de Oro City, be DISMISSED from the service, with forfeiture of all retirement benefits, except accrued leave credits, with prejudice to re-employment in any government agency or instrumentality.

RESPECTFULLY SUBMITTED.

The Issue

The chief issue that clamors for resolution by this Court is whether respondent should be held administratively liable as charged.

Ruling of the Court

After a judicious review of the records, the Court finds no cogent reason to reject or overturn the findings and recommendation of the CA’s Investigating Justice, which we hereby adopt in toto:

Here, respondent Judge is accused by complainants, namely: Amorillo Camposano, Neri and spouses Salcedo, of borrowing money from them while their respective cases were pending before respondent Judge’s sala. To reiterate, the administrative charge for gross misconduct stemmed from sworn statements that complainants executed before Executive Judge Dennis Z. Alcantar of the RTC in Cagayan de Oro City and forwarded to the OCA. The OCA endorsed the administrative case to the Supreme Court which gave due course to the complaint and referred the same to the investigating Justice for investigation, report and recommendation.

In the case at bar, complainants were not represented by counsel and in the course of the proceedings, Neri even manifested that she is no longer interested in pursuing her complaint against the respondent Judge. However, the investigating Justice takes judicial notice of the fact that while withdrawing her complaint, Neri stressed that what is alleged in her sworn statement is the truth.

Despite not being represented by counsel, Amorillo, Camposano and spouses Salcedo endeavored to present their respective judicial affidavits in support of their claim of gross misconduct on the part of respondent Judge. In fact, the respective affidavit of Amorillo, Camposano and Jocelyn Salcedo were marked in evidence and upon testifying as to its veracity, respondent Judge extensively cross-examined said complainants.

The gist of complainants’ respective complaints is that while their respective cases were pending before the sala of respondent Judge, the latter sought them outside the courtroom and borrowed a large sum of money from them. In the case of spouses Salcedo, respondent Judge and his wife even asked for speakers, driftwood, empty karaoke box and weekly delivery of fish for their daily consumption. The fact that they all have pending cases before respondent Judge, complainants were thus constrained to accommodate respondent Judge and give him money.

The act complained of is classified as a serious charge pursuant to Section 8(7), Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, as amended by A.M. No. 01- 8-10-SC, which reads:

SEC. 8. Serious charges. – Serious charges include:

  1. Bribery, direct or indirect;
  2. Dishonesty and violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Law (R.A. No. 3019);
  3. Gross misconduct constituting violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct;
  4. Knowingly rendering an unjust judgment or order as determined by a competent court in an appropriate proceeding;
  5. Conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude;
  6. Borrowing money or property from lawyers and litigants in a case pending before the court;
  7. Immorality;
  8. Gross ignorance of the law or procedure;
  9. Partisan political activities; and
  10. Alcoholism and/or vicious habits. (Emphasis supplied)

In this regard, the investigating Justice must stress that the burden of substantiating the charges in an administrative proceeding against court officials and employees falls on the complainant, who must be able to prove the allegations in the complaint with substantial evidence. Corollarily, it is well-settled that in administrative cases, substantial evidence is required to support any findings. Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind may accept as adequate to support a conclusion. The requirement is satisfied where there is reasonable ground to believe that the petitioner is guilty of the act or omission complained of, even if the evidence might not be overwhelming.

Anent the allegation that respondent Judge borrowed money from litigants in cases pending before this court, there is substantial evidence to hold respondent Judge liable for violation of Section 8(7) of Rule 140 of the Rules of Court.

While it is acknowledged that complainants do not have documentary evidence in support of the alleged loans, with the exception of the Cebuana Lhuiller receipt that spouses Salcedo offered in evidence to attest to the fact that they sent P5,000.00 to respondent Judge on November 12, 2011, the investigating Justice is convinced of the veracity of their respective claims. Testimonies are to be weighed, not numbered; thus it has been said that a finding of guilt may be based on the uncorroborated testimony of a single witness when the tribunal finds such testimony positive and credible.

The sworn statements of the complainants as reiterated in their respective judicial affidavits are straightforward and uncomplicated. In the simplest of terms, they narrated how respondent Judge separately approached them while they have cases pending before his court and borrowed money from them. The investigating Justice finds no reason to doubt their credibility. Amorillo, Camposano and Jocelyn respectively testified in a candid, straightforward and categorical manner. Complainants remained steadfast in their assertion that respondent Judge borrowed from them despite the fact that it was respondent Judge himself who cross-examined them.

It is noteworthy that during his exhaustive cross-examination of complainants, respondent Judge did not in fact meet head on the allegations that he borrowed money from complainants. It would have been a perfect time for him to confront complainants and establish the falsity of their claim. Curiously, respondent Judge instead opted to harp on his theory that complainants were just coerced to file a complaint against him as part of the grand design of Deputy Court Administrator Jenny Lind R. Aldecoa-Delorino and Judges Alcantar, Neri, Abbu and Bollozos to harass him and cause his dismissal from service. Respondent Judge merely skimmed over the crux of the controversy which is the alleged borrowing of money from litigants who have cases in his court.

Even in his counter affidavit, respondent Judge only made a cursory denial of the alleged borrowing of money from complainants. Once, again, respondent Judge was transfixed in his conspiracy theory that the aforementioned judges were out to get him. Unfortunately, respondent Judge failed altogether to establish any motive on the part of the aforementioned personalities to falsely accuse him of gross misconduct. Respondent Judge himself admitted that there was no animosity between him and the RTC judges that he claims are conspiring to cause his dismissal from service.

More importantly, the investigating Justice cannot accept respondent Judge’s theory that Judge Evelyn Gamotin-Nery, in conspiracy with Deputy Court Administrator Jenny Lind R. Aldecoa-Delorino and Judges Alcantar, Abbu and Bollozos, orchestrated the filing of administrative cases against him because he earned Judge Nery’s ire when he was appointed as an Acting Judge in the RTC of Malaybalay City, Bukidnon. It must be underscored that respondent Judge is espousing the arguments that Judge Nery is envious of the P6,000.00 allowance that he gets as said acting judge of the RTC of Malaybalay City, and wanted to appropriate said amount for herself. However, aside from being unfounded, the investigating Justice finds respondent Judge’s rationalization incredulous. It is highly unlikely that an esteemed judge would go so low as to ruin a fellow judge’s career for a measly sum of P6,000.00. Such money is preposterous, if not absurd.

Also, the investigating Justice cannot accord any probative weight on the certification that respondent Judge presented in evidence, the sole purpose of which was to rebut the authenticity of the Cebuana Lhuillier receipt that spouses Salcedo submitted in evidence. Indeed, said certification has no probative value for being hearsay.

Well-entrenched is the rule that a private certification is hearsay where the person who issued the same was never presented as a witness. The same is true of letters. While hearsay evidence may be admitted because of lack of objection by the adverse party’s counsel, it is nonetheless without probative value. Stated differently, the declarants of written statements pertaining to disputed facts must be presented at the trial for cross-examination. The lack of objection may make an incompetent evidence admissible, but admissibility of evidence should not be equated with weight of evidence. Indeed, hearsay evidence whether objected to or not has no probative value.

In fine, respondent Judge’s general denial carries little weight. As the preceding paragraphs will show, the charge against respondent Judge is very specific, testified to by complainants, which respondent Judge had the opportunity to directly address and explain, but he merely glossed over. Respondent Judge’s claim that the complaints against him are merely instigated by Judges Alcantar, Neri, Abbu and Bollozos is uncorroborated and self-serving.

In view of the absence of a specific denial on the part of respondent Judge, he is thereby deemed to have tacitly admitted the allegation that he had indeed obtained a loan from each of the complainants while their cases are pending before his court. It is settled that the purpose of requiring specific denials from the defendant is to make the defendant disclose the “matters alleged in the complaint which he [or she] succinctly intends to disprove at the trial, together with the matter which he [or she] relied upon to support the denial.”

Even assuming arguendo that complainants were encouraged to come forward and disclose their experience with respondent Judge by Executive Judge Dennis Z. Alcantar, the same does not detract from the veracity of the complainants’ claim. The fact remains that respondent Judge did borrow money from complainants who are litigants with pending cases before his court. The act alone is patently inappropriate and constitutes gross misconduct on the part of respondent Judge.

The proscription against borrowing money or property from lawyers and litigants in a case pending before the court is imposed on Judges to avoid the impression that the Judge would rule in favor of a litigant because the former is indebted to the latter.

The impropriety of borrowing money from litigants in cases before the court is underscored by the broad tenets of Canon 4 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary. Under Section 13 of Canon 4, “judges and members of their families shall neither ask for, nor accept, any gifts, bequest, loan or favor in relation to anything done or to be done or omitted to be done by him or her in connection with the performance of judicial duties.”

Once again, there is a need to stress that judges must adhere to the highest tenets of judicial conduct. Because of the sensitivity of his position, a judge is required to exhibit, at all times, the highest degree of honesty and integrity and to observe exacting standards of morality, decency and competence. He should adhere to the highest standards of public accountability lest his action erode the public faith in the Judiciary.

As a magistrate, the respondent Judge should have known that he is the visible representation of the law, and more importantly, of justice. It is from him that the people draw their will and awareness to obey the law. For the judge to return that regard, he must be the first to abide by the law and weave an example for others to follow. On this point, respondent Judge clearly failed in his mandate when he unabashedly sought out complainants who are litigants with pending cases before his court and repeatedly borrowed money from them, even going so far as asking spouses Salcedo to provide fish/viand for respondent Judge’s family for more than a month. The repetitiveness of respondent Judge’s acts shows his proclivity in transgressing the law and conducting himself in a manner that is unbecoming a member of the bench.

All told, respondent Judge is found guilty of violating paragraph 7, Section 8, Rule 140 of the Rules of Court (borrowing money from litigants in cases pending before his court) which is also a gross misconduct constituting violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Under Section 8 of Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, it is a serious charge to borrow money or property from lawyers and litigants in a case pending before the court. Under Section 11(A) of the same rule, an act that violates the Code of Judicial Conduct constitutes gross misconduct, which is also a serious charge. In either instance, a serious charge is punishable by (1) dismissal from the service, forfeiture of all or part of the benefits as the Court may determine, and disqualification from reinstatement or appointment to any public office, including government-owned or controlled corporations, provided, however, that the forfeiture of benefits shall in no case include accrued leave credits; (2) suspension from office without salary and other benefits for more than three but not exceeding six months; or (3) a fine of more than P20,000.00 but not exceeding P40,000.00.

All those who don the judicial robe must always instill in their minds the exhortation that the administration of justice is a mission. Judges, from the lowest to the highest levels, are the gems in the vast government bureaucracy, beacon lights looked upon as the embodiments of all what is right, just and proper, the ultimate weapons against injustice and oppression.

Those who cannot meet the exacting standards of judicial conduct and integrity have no place in the judiciary. Perforce, the investigating Justice deems it appropriate to recommend the imposition of an administrative penalty of dismissal from the service, forfeiture of all or part of the benefits as the Court may determine, and disqualification from reinstatement or appointment to any public office, including government-owned or controlled corporations, provided, however, that the forfeiture of benefits shall in no case include accrued leave credits against respondent Judge.[38]

Against the foregoing backdrop, it becomes this Tribunal’s bounden duty to decree respondent’s dismissal from the service.

WHEREFORE, Judge Bonifacio M. Macabaya, Presiding Judge of Branch 20 of the Regional Trial Court of Cagayan de Oro City (RTC), is hereby found guilty of violating paragraph 7, Section 8, Rule 140 of the Rules of Court (borrowing money from litigants in cases pending before the court) which is also a gross misconduct constituting violation of the New Code of Judicial Conduct. He is DISMISSED from the service, with forfeiture of all retirement benefits, (except accrued leave credits), with prejudice to re-employment in any government agency or instrumentality. Immediately upon receipt by respondent of this decision, he is deemed to have vacated his office and his authority to act as judge is considered automatically terminated.

SO ORDERED.

Peralta (C.J.), Perlas-Bernabe, Leonen, Caguioa, A. Reyes, Jr., Gesmundo, J. Reyes, Jr., Carandang, Lazaro-Javier, Inting, Zalameda, Lopez, Delos Santos, and Gaerlan, JJ., concur.
Hernando, J., on official leave.

[1] Id. at 503.
[2] Id. at 504.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 505.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id. at 505-506.
[10] Id. at 506.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. at 506-507.
[13] Id. at 507.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at 507-508.
[19] Id. at 508.
[20] Id.
[21] Id.
[22] Id.
[23] Id. at 509.
[24] Id.
[25] Id.
[26] Id.
[27] Id. 509-510.
[28] Id. at 510.
[29] Id.
[30] Id. at 511.
[31] Id. at 510-522.
[32] Id. at 513.
[33] Id. at 513-517.
[34] Id. at 518-522.
[35] Id. at 522.
[36] Id. at 523.
[37] Id. at 532.
[38] Rollo (Vol. II), pp. 1064-1071.

Categories
2020 February

MICHAEL ANGELO T. LEMONCITO, PETITIONER, V. BSM CREW SERVICE CENTRE PHILIPPINES, INC./BERNARD SCHULTE SHIPMANAGEMENT (ISLE OF MAN LTD.), RESPONDENTS.

FIRST DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 247409, February 03, 2020 ]

MICHAEL ANGELO T. LEMONCITO, PETITIONER, V. BSM CREW SERVICE CENTRE PHILIPPINES, INC./BERNARD SCHULTE SHIPMANAGEMENT (ISLE OF MAN LTD.), RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

LAZARO-JAVIER, J.:

The Case

This Petition for Review on Certiorari[1] assails the following issuances of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 153662 entitled “BSM Crew Service Centre Philippines, Inc., et al. v. Michael Angelo T. Lemoncito:”

1) Decision[2] dated November 9, 2018, which dismissed petitioner Michael Angelo Lemoncito’s complaint for permanent total disability benefits, sickness allowance benefit, exemplary damages, moral damages, and attorney’s fees; and

2) Resolution[3] dated April 26, 2019, denying petitioner’s motion for reconsideration.

Antecedents

On July 16, 2015, respondent BSM Crew Service Centre Philippines, Inc. (BSM), on behalf of its principal respondent Bernard Schulte Shipmanagement (BSS), hired petitioner Michael Angelo Lemoncito as a motor man for a duration of nine (9) months. Petitioner was covered by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between International Maritime Employees’ Council and Associated Marine Officers’ and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines. After being declared fit to work, petitioner boarded MV British Ruby on July 22, 2015.[4]

While on board, petitioner complained of fever and cough productive of whitish phlegm and throat discomfort. His blood pressure reached 173/111, for which he was given medication. On February 22, 2016, he was medically repatriated. On February 26, 2016, he was referred to the Marine Medical Services under the care of company-designated doctors Percival Pangilinan and Dennis Jose Sulit. After a series of tests, he was diagnosed with lower respiratory tract infection and hypertension. He was given an interim disability assessment of Grade 12 – “slight, residual or disorder.” The company-designated doctors opined that petitioner’s hypertension was not work-related. His hypertension had multifactorial causes: genetics, predisposition, poor lifestyle, high salt intake, smoking, diabetes mellitus and “increased sympathetic activities.” He was prescribed Nebilet and Twynsta and advised to return for re-evaluation.[5]

On July 1, 2016, the company-designated doctors issued their 16th and final report where they noted that petitioner had been previously cleared of his lower respiratory tract infection and that his hypertension was responding to medication.[6]

Disagreeing with conclusions of the company-designated doctors, petitioner consulted Dr. Antonio Pascual, who issued a Medical Report dated September 12, 2016. Dr. Pascual certified that petitioner had 1) Hypertensive Heart Disease, Stage 2; and 2) Degenerative Osteoarthritis, Thoracic Spine. Consequently, Dr. Pascual declared petitioner “unfit to work as a seaman.”[7]

On the basis of Dr. Pascual’s certification, petitioner invoked the grievance procedure embodied in the CBA and lodged a complaint for total permanent disability benefits, sickness allowance, damages and attorney’s fees before the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators.

In support of his complaint, petitioner essentially alleged: as a motor man, he was tasked to take care of all the motors and mechanical equipment on board as well as ensure that the engines are in tiptop condition from eight (8) to sixteen (16) hours a day. This was his routine for twenty-four (24) uninterrupted years. Despite the treatment given him by the company-designated doctors, he never recovered from his debilitating illness. His condition was work-related, thus, compensable.[8]

Respondents countered, in the main: aside from his bare allegations, petitioner did not adduce substantial evidence to prove that the nature of his work contributed to his hypertension. Under the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency – Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC), hypertension is only compensable when it is uncontrolled with end organ damage to the kidneys, brain, heart or eyes. Besides, petitioner failed to observe the third-doctor-referral rule under the POEA-SEC when he independently consulted his physician, Dr. Pascual.[9]

Petitioner replied: If there is a conflict between the findings of the company-designated doctor and the seafarer’s doctor, that which is favorable to the seafarer should be upheld. He was totally and permanently disabled considering that more than seven (7) months had passed since he failed to resume his duties as seaman. [10]

Rulings of the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators

By Decision dated May 30, 2017, the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators found petitioner to be totally and permanently disabled. His hypertension was presumed to be work-related. Petitioner’s non-compliance with the third-doctor-referral rule should not be taken against him because the company­ designated doctors failed to make a fitness assessment within the required 120-day period. Besides, records showed that petitioner was unable to obtain gainful employment during the 240-day assessment period. The panel, thus, decreed:

WHEREFORE, premises considered, judgment is hereby rendered ORDERING the respondents to jointly and severally pay the complainant the amount of NINETY[-]SIX THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED NINE U.S. DOLLARS (US$96,909.00) as his total permanent disability benefit; TWO THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED SIXTEEN U.S. DOLLARS (US$2,416.00) as sickness allowance and attorney’s fees equivalent to ten percent (10%) of the total monetary award or in their Philippine peso equivalent at the prevailing exchange rate on the actual date of payment.

All other claims are DISMISSED for lack of merit.

SO ORDERED.[11]

Respondents’ motion for reconsideration was, subsequently, denied through Resolution dated October 20, 2017.[12]

Proceedings before the Court of Appeals

On petition for review, respondents argued: Petitioner failed to prove by substantial evidence that his hypertension was compensable. The company-designated doctors made their final assessment well within the assessment period prescribed by the POEA-SEC. The Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators erred in disregarding the mandatory third-doctor-referral rule and giving weight to Dr. Pascual’s findings. In fact, Dr. Pascual only saw petitioner once. The company-designated doctors examined petitioner for four (4) months, thus, their findings were more credible.[13]

Petitioner reechoed the arguments he raised before the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators.[14]

By its assailed Decision[15] dated November 9, 2018, the Court of Appeals reversed. It held that the findings of the company-designated doctors were more credible and petitioner failed to prove by substantial evidence that he was totally and permanently disabled. In case of conflict between the findings of the company-designated doctors and the seafarer’s doctor, the procedure embodied in the POEA-SEC should be observed. It is also up to the labor tribunals and the courts to assess which of the assessments is more credible. Since the company-designated doctors had more detailed knowledge of petitioner’s condition, their assessment was more credible. Petitioner’s failure to return to his employment within the 120-day period did not automatically entitle him to total and permanent disability benefits. Besides, the company-designated doctors were able to make their final assessment that petitioner was fit to work within the 240-day assessment period. The Court of Appeals further observed:

In the case at bench, Lemoncito was medically repatriated on February 22,2016 and was immediately referred to the company-designated physicians. He was on continuous medications and re-examination even after the lapse of the 120-day period on June 21, 2016. As a matter of fact, during Lemoncito’s check-up on June 8, 2016, he was “shifted to another anti-hypertensive medication” and advised to come back on June 22, 2016 for re-evaluation. Indubitably, the 120-day period had been extended by 240 days or until October 19, 2016 because Lemoncito’s condition required further medical attention. However, on July 1, 2016, the company-designated physicians issued the 16th and Final Report stating that Lemoncito is “cleared cardiac wise” and enclosing therein Dr. Pangilinan’s prognosis that Lemoncito “is considered to have no significant pulmonary findings” and Dr. Sulit’s declaration that he is fit to work. Clearly, the company-designated physicians did not sit idly in assessing Lemoncito’s fitness to resume sea duties and made a categorical declaration before the lapse of the 240-day period. Hence, We find and so rule that the assessment of the company-designated physicians is final and binding. Consequently, Lemoncito is considered fit to work, and thus not entitled to disability benefits.[16]

The Court of Appeals ordained:

WHEREFORE, the instant petition for review is hereby GRANTED. The May 30, 2017 Decision and October 20,2017 Resolutions of the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators of the National Conciliation and Mediation Board in Voluntary Arbitration Case No. MVA-045-RCMB­ NCR-232-14-10-2016 are ANNULLED and SET ASIDE. The complaint of [Michael] Angelo T. Lemoncito is DISMISSED for lack of merit.

SO ORDERED.[17]

Petitioner’s motion for reconsideration was denied under Resolution[18] dated April 26, 2019.

The Present Petition

Petitioner now invokes this Court’s discretionary appellate jurisdiction via Rule 45 of the Rules of Court to review and reverse the assailed Court of Appeals’ issuances.

In his Petition[19] dated July 9, 2019, petitioner essentially alleged: his hypertension is work-related because he acquired it during his employment. His duties as motor man also contributed to his hypertension. Because of the termination of his medical treatment by the company-designated doctors, he was compelled to seek out his own doctor. The company-designated doctors failed to make a final assessment within the 120-day window prescribed by law, thus, he is deemed to be totally and permanently disabled. True, the assessment period may be extended to 240 days, but respondents were unable to present a justification for the extension. He substantially complied with the third-doctor-referral rule.

In their Comment[20] dated October 7, 2019, respondents riposte: The company-designated doctors initially made a Grade 12 interim assessment well within the mandatory 120-day assessment period. Petitioner’s medication, however, was shifted to another anti-hypertension drug, and as a result, he needed to be further observed. This was the reason why the final “fit-to-work” assessment got issued beyond the 120-day period but within the 240-day extended period. Petitioner’s failure to abide by the mandatory third­-doctor-referral rule was fatal, thus, he was bound by the final assessment made by the company-designated doctors. Petitioner’s hypertension is not compensable under the POEA-SEC, because there is no showing that it caused organ damage.

Issue

Can petitioner be declared as totally and permanently disabled by reason of his hypertension?

Ruling

We grant the petition.

After undergoing a pre-employment medical examination (PEME), petitioner was declared fit to work and was permitted to board MV British Ruby on July 22, 2015. Although a PEME is not expected to be an in-depth examination of a seafarer’s health, still, it must fulfill its purpose of ascertaining a prospective seafarer’s capacity for safely performing tasks at sea. Thus, if it concludes that a seafarer, even one with an existing medical condition, is “fit for sea duty,” it must, on its face, be taken to mean that the seafarer is well in a position to engage in employment aboard a sea vessel without danger to his health.[21]

As it turned out though, petitioner, while on board, complained of fever and cough productive of whitish phlegm and throat discomfort. His blood pressure also reached 173/111. This all happened during his seventh month on board. On February 22, 2016, he was medically repatriated. On February 26, 2016, his treatment commenced in the hands of the company-designated doctors at Marine Medical Services. After a series of tests, he was diagnosed with lower respiratory tract infection and hypertension. He was given an interim disability rating of Grade 12, after which he underwent continuous medical treatment until July 1, 2016.

In their final Medical Report dated July 1, 2016, the company-designated doctors stated:

This is a follow-up report of Motorman Michael Angelo T. Lemoncito. who was initially seen here at Marine Medical Services on February 26, 2016 and was diagnosed to have Lower Respiratory Tract Infection; Hypertension.

He was previously cleared by the Pulmonologist with regards to his Lower Respiratory Tract Infection.

He was seen by the Cardiologist who noted his blood pressure to be adequately controlled with medications.

The specialist opines that patient is now cleared cardiac wise effective as of July 1, 2016.[22]

On its face, there was no categorical statement that petitioner is fit or unfit to resume his work as a seaman. It simply stated: a) petitioner was previously cleared of his lower respiratory tract infection; b) petitioner’s blood pressure is adequately controlled with medications; and c) petitioner was cleared cardiac wise as of July 1, 2016. In other words, this assessment is incomplete, nay, inconclusive. In fact, this medical report leaves more questions than answers.

For instance, the phrase “petitioner’s blood pressure is adequately controlled with medications” is too generic and equivocal. It does not give a clear picture of the state of petitioner’s health nor does it give a thorough insight into petitioner’s fitness or unfitness to resume his duties as a seafarer. Do they mean that since his hypertension can now be controlled by medications he is already fit to resume his work? Or do they mean that though his hypertension can now be controlled, he still needs constant monitoring? No one knows.

Likewise, the phrase “patient is now cleared cardiac wise” does not provide much information. Does it mean that since he is cleared of any cardiac disease, he is already fit to work as a seafarer? Or does it mean that though he is cleared of any cardiac disease as of July 1, 2016, he still needs further monitoring? Does being cleared of any cardiac disease automatically mean petitioner has a clean bill of health? The report does not say.

Undoubtedly, the Medical Report dated July 1, 2016 is not complete and adequate, therefore, it must be ignored. Ampo-on v. Reinier Pacific International Shipping, Inc.[23] explains:

Upon finding that the seafarer suffers a work-related injury or illness, the employer is obligated to refer the former to a company-designated physician, who has the responsibility to arrive at a definite assessment of the former’s fitness or degree of disability within a period of 120 days from repatriation. This period may be extended up to a maximum of 240 days, if the seafarer requires further medical treatment, subject to the right of the employer to declare within this extended period that a permanent partial or total disability already exists.

The responsibility of the company-designated physician to arrive at a definite assessment within the prescribed periods necessitates that the perceived disability rating has been properly established and inscribed in a valid and timely medical report. To be conclusive and to give proper disability benefits to the seafarer, this assessment must be complete and definite; otherwise, the medical report shall be set aside and the disability grading contained therein shall be ignored. As case law holds, a final and definite disability assessment is necessary in order to truly reflect the true extent of the sickness or injuries of the seafarer and his or her capacity to resume work as such.

Failure of the company-designated physician to arrive at a definite assessment of the seafarer’s fitness to work or permanent disability within the prescribed periods and if the seafarer’s medical condition remains unresolved, the law steps in to consider the latter’s disability as total and permanent. (Emphasis supplied)

To repeat, without a valid final and definitive assessment from the company-designated doctors within the 120/240-day period, as in this case, the law already steps in to consider a seafarer’s disability as total and permanent.[24] By operation of law, therefore, petitioner is already totally and permanently disabled. Besides, jurisprudence grants permanent total disability compensation to seafarers, who suffered from either cardiovascular diseases or hypertension, and were under the treatment of or even issued fit­to-work certifications by company-designated doctors beyond 120 or 240 days from their repatriation.[25]

ACCORDINGLY, the petition is GRANTED. The assailed Decision dated November 9, 2018 and Resolution dated April 26, 2019 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 153662 are REVERSED and SET ASIDE. The Decision dated May 30, 2017 and Resolution dated October 20, 2017 of the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators are REINSTATED.

SO ORDERED.

Peralta, C.J. (Chairperson), Caguioa, J. Reyes, Jr., and Lopez, JJ., concur.

[1] Under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court.
[2] Penned by Associate Justice Pedro B. Corales and concurred in by Associate Justices Jane Aurora C. Lantion, and Marie Christine Azcarraga-Jacob, all members of the Special Seventh Division, rollo, pp. 55- 70.
[3] Id. at 51-52.
[4] Id. at 56.
[5] Id. at 56-57.
[6] Id. at 57.
[7] Id. at 57-58.
[8] Id. at 58-59.
[9] Id. at 59.
[10] Id.
[11] Id. at 60.
[12] Id. at 61.
[13] Id. at 62.
[14] Id.
[15] Id. at 55-70.
[16] Id. at 67-68.
[17] Id. at 69.
[18] Id. at 51-52.
[19] Id. at 10-46.
[20] Id. at 72-102.
[21] Manansala v. Marlow Navigation Phils. Inc., et al., 817 Phil. 84, 102-103 (2017).
[22] Rollo, p. 24.
[23] G.R. No. 240614, June 10, 2019.
[24] Gamboa v. Maunlad Trans, Inc., G.R. No. 232905, August 20, 2018.
[25] Balatero v. Senator Crewing (Manila) Inc., et al., 811 Phil. 589, 600 (2017).

Categories
2020 February

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, V. ERIC PADUA Y ALVAREZ A.K.A. JERICK PADUA Y ALVAREZ,[*] ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

FIRST DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 239781, February 05, 2020 ]

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, V. ERIC PADUA Y ALVAREZ A.K.A. JERICK PADUA Y ALVAREZ,[*] ACCUSED-APPELLANT.

R E S O L U T I O N

PERALTA, C.J.:

On appeal is the April 6, 2017 Decision[1] of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 07432, which affirmed the February 26, 2015 Decision[2] of Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 204, Muntinlupa City, in Criminal Case No. 09-096, finding accused-appellant Eric Alvarez Padua (Padua), a.k.a. Jerick Alvarez Padua, guilty of violating Section 5, Article II of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

The accusatory portion of the Information[3] reads:

That on or about the 5th day of February 2009, in the City of Muntinlupa, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, not being authorized by law, did then and there, willfully, unlawfully, and feloniously sell, deliver, and give away to another a Methylamphetamine Hydrochloride, a dangerous drug, contained in one (1) heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet weighing 0.01 gram, in violation of the above-cited law.

During arraignment, Padua pleaded not guilty when the Information was read to him in Tagalog, a dialect known and understood by him.

At the pre-trial conference, the prosecution and defense proposed and made the following admissions: (1) that the person in court who responds to the name Jerick Padua y Alvarez @ “Eric” is the same Jerick Padua y Alvarez @ “Eric” who is the accused in this case; (2) that this court has jurisdiction over the person of the accused and over this case; (3) that PS/Insp. Richard Allan Mangalip is a member of the PNP Crime Laboratory, Makati City, as of February 6, 2009, and that he is an expert in Forensic Chemistry; (4) that pursuant to the Request for Laboratory Examination, PS/Insp. Mangalip conducted a laboratory examination on the accompanying specimen which consists of one (1) small heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet with markings “JP” containing 0.01 gram of white crystalline substance, the same examination yielded positive result of the presence of Methylamphetamine Hydrochloride, a dangerous drug; and (5) the execution and authenticity of Physical Science Report No. D-078-095.[4]

The prosecution presented as its witnesses: Police Officer (PO) 1 Bob Yangson, the poseur-buyer in the buy-bust operation conducted against Padua, and PO2 Rondivar Hernaez, the backup officer of the said operation. On the other hand, the defense presented the accused and her sister, Lycka Alvarez Padua.

Version of the Prosecution

The antecedent facts, as narrated by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), are as follows:

On February 5, 2009, acting on a tip from an asset, Police Senior Superintendent Elmer Jamias instructed PO2 Hernaez to conduct surveillance in Upper Sucat, Purok 1 Highway and to monitor appellant, who was said to be engaged in selling illegal drugs. Upon verification, PO2 Hernaez confirmed that indeed, appellant was selling illegal drugs.

Thereafter, PO2 Hernaez looked for an asset to help the police buy illegal drugs from appellant. After PO2 Hernaez found an asset to facilitate the transaction, Police Chief Inspector Eduardo Paningbatan directed PO2 Hernaez to act as. backup to PO1 Yangson, who would be acting as poseur-buyer.

PO2 Hernaez and the rest of the team prepared a [Pre-] Operational Report and a Coordination Form that was submitted to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). Police Chief Inspector Paningbatan handed the buy-bust money, consisting of one bill worth Two Hundred Pesos (Php200.00) and another bill worth One Hundred Pesos (Php100.00). The initials “BY” were placed on the buy-bust money.

Later in the evening, the buy-bust team, composed of PO2 Hernaez, PO1 Yangson, PO3 Gastanes, SPO1 Zamora, PO3 Bornilla, PO3 Villareal, PO2 Salvador Genova, and PO3 Bonifacio Aquino, arrived at Purok 1, Sucat. PO1 Yangson and the asset went to the jeepney terminal along the highway in Upper Sucat, while PO2 Hernaez was positioned ten to fifteen meters away from them.

PO1 Yangson and the asset talked to appellant. Thereafter, appellant handed a plastic sachet to PO1 Yangson, who took the same and, in turn, gave the buy-bust money. At that moment, PO1Yangson lighted a cigarette, the pre-arranged signal that the transaction was consummated. PO2 Hernaez immediately approached appellant and arrested him. PO1 Yangson showed to PO2 Hernaez a small heat-sealed transparent plastic sachet containing white crystalline substance. Afterwards, PO1 Yangson introduced himself as a police officer and informed appellant of his constitutional rights.

After bringing appellant to the police station, the arresting officers conducted an inventory of the item seized during the buy-bust operation. They took a picture of the plastic sachet and PO1 Yangson placed the markings “JP” thereon. Thereafter, PO2 Hernaez and PO1 Yangson brought the item to the crime laboratory. The specimen tested positive for the presence of Methylamphetamine Hydrochloride.[5]

Version of the Defense

On February 5, 2009, appellant was on his way out from his house when he met two men, who asked him if he is Jerick Padua. He denied that he is Jerick and said that his name is Eric. One of the men, who was wearing a white shirt, told him that they are police officers, and that they are inviting him to the police station for questioning.[6]

Believing that he committed no wrong, appellant accepted the invitation of the police officers and went with them. Appellant was then brought to the police office located at the Muntinlupa City Hall. After about thirty minutes, the police officer, who was wearing a white shirt, handed him a document and asked him to sign it. He was told that it was merely for blotter purposes.[7]

When he refused, another police officer punched him and forced him to sign the document. Minutes later, his sister, Lycka Padua, arrived and talked to the police officers. Appellant later learned that the police officers were asking for Twenty Thousand Pesos (P20,000.00) from his sister to settle the matter.[8]

Appellant’s sister, Lycka Padua, corroborated appellant’s testimony and averred that she was washing the dishes with her sister Ericka when they heard voices of several men. They peeped through the window and saw these men approach appellant’s house. These men asked her brother, herein appellant, if he is Jerick Padua, conducted a body search on him, and brought him to the city hall. When their father arrived, she told him what happened and she was directed by her father to follow Padua. At the city hall, she saw appellant seated on a bench, handcuffed, and his statement being documented. She then learned that the police officers were charging appellant for selling illegal drugs and was told to post bail for his brother’s liberty. Their family, however, could not raise the amount required.[9]

Ruling of the RTC

After trial, the RTC handed a guilty verdict on Padua for violating Section 5, Article II of R.A. No. 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. The fallo of the February 26,2015 RTC Decision states:

WHEREFORE, premises considered and finding the accused GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of the crime herein charged, ERIC PADUA y ALVAREZ a.k.a. JERICK PADUA y ALVARES is sentenced to LIFE IMPRISONMENT and to pay a FINE of Php500,000.00.

The preventive imprisonment undergone by the accused shall be credited in his favor.

The drug evidence are ordered transmitted to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) for proper disposition.

Let a commitment order be issued committing accused to the New Bilibid Prisons for the service of his sentence pending any appeal that he may file in this case.

SO ORDERED.[10]

The RTC ruled that the prosecution was able to establish the identity of the buyer, the seller, the money paid to the seller, and the delivery of the prohibited drug. The RTC found the prosecution evidence worthy of credence and had no reason to disbelieve the testimony of the police officers, in the absence of any ill motive that can be ascribed to them to charge the appellant with violation of Section 5 of R.A. No. 9165.

The RTC, likewise, held that the prohibited drug seized was preserved and its integrity was not compromised.

Ruling of the CA

On appeal, the CA affirmed the RTC Decision. It agreed with the findings of the trial court that the prosecution adequately established all the elements of illegal sale of a dangerous drug as the collective evidence presented during the trial showed that a valid buy-bust operation was conducted. Padua resorted to denial and could not present any proof or justification that he was fully authorized by law to possess the same.

The CA was unconvinced with appellant’s contention that the prosecution failed to prove the identity and integrity of the seized prohibited drugs. The CA held that the prosecution was able to demonstrate that the integrity and evidentiary value of the confiscated drugs were not compromised. The witnesses for the prosecution were able to testify on every link in the chain of custody, establishing the crucial link in the chain from the time the seized items were first discovered until they were brought for examination and offered in evidence in court.

Appellant’s mere denial of the accusations against him was not given any credence by the CA. The CA accorded the police officers the presumption of regularity in the performance of their official duty.

Before Us, both Padua and the People manifested that they would no longer file their Supplemental Brief, taking into account the thorough and substantial discussions of the issues in their respective appeal briefs before the CA.[11]

Essentially, appellant Padua maintains that the case records are bereft of evidence showing that the buy-bust team followed the procedure mandated in Section 21(1), Article II of R.A. No. 9165.

Our Ruling

The appeal is meritorious. Appellant Padua should be acquitted for failure of the prosecution to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.

Appellant Padua was charged with the crime of illegal sale of dangerous drugs, defined and penalized under Section 5, Article II of R.A. No. 9165. In order to convict a person charged with the crime of illegal sale of dangerous drugs under Section 5, Article II of R.A. No. 9165, the prosecution is required to prove the following elements: (1) the identity of the buyer and the seller, the object and the consideration; and (2) the delivery of the thing sold and the payment therefor.[12]

In prosecution of drug-related cases, the State bears not only the burden of proving these elements, but also of proving the corpus delicti or the body of the crime. The dangerous drug itself is the very corpus delicti of the violation of the law.[13] Therefore, compliance with the chain of custody rule is crucial. Chain of custody means the duly recorded authorized movements and custody of seized drugs or controlled chemicals from the time of seizure/confiscation to receipt in the forensic laboratory to safekeeping to presentation in court for destruction.[14]

The rule is imperative, as it is essential that the prohibited drug confiscated or recovered from the suspect is the very same substance offered in court as exhibit; and that the identity of said drug is established with the same unwavering exactitude as that requisite to make a finding of guilt.[15] Thus, strict compliance with the procedures laid down under Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165 is required to ensure that rights are safeguarded.

Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165 requires that: (1) the seized items be inventoried and photographed immediately after seizure or confiscation; and (2) that the physical inventory and photographing must be done in the presence of(a) the accused or his/her: representative or counsel, (b) an elected public official, (c) a representative from the media, and (d) a representative from the Department of Justice (DOJ), all of whom shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof.

We have held that the immediate physical inventory and photograph of the confiscated items at the place of arrest may be excused in instances when the safety and security of the apprehending officers and the witnesses required by law or of the items seized are threatened by immediate or extreme danger such as retaliatory action of those who have the resources and capability to mount a counter-assault.[16] The present case is not one of those.

Here, the physical inventory and photograph of the seized item were not done at the place of the arrest but only at the police station. There was no showing by the prosecution that these were done due to extraordinary circumstances that would threaten the safety and security of the apprehending officers and/or the witnesses required by law or of the items seized.

Moreover, the absence of the witnesses required by law – an elected public official, representative of the DOJ and the media – to witness the physical inventory and photograph of the seized items is glaring.[17] In fact, their signatures do not appear in the Inventory Receipt.

The Court stressed in People v. Vicente Sipin y De Castro:[18]

The prosecution bears the burden of proving a valid cause for noncompliance with the procedure laid down in Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165, as amended. It has the positive duty to demonstrate observance thereto in such a way that during the trial proceedings, it must initiate in acknowledging and justifying any perceived deviations from the requirements of law. Its failure to follow the mandated procedure must be adequately explained, and must be proven as a fact in accordance with the rules on evidence. It should take note that the rules require that the apprehending officers do not simply mention a justifiable ground, but also clearly state this ground in their sworn affidavit, coupled with a statement on the steps they took to preserve the integrity of the seized items. Strict adherence to Section 21 is required where the quantity of illegal drugs seized is miniscule, since it is highly susceptible to planting, tampering or alteration of evidence.[19]

It must be alleged and proved that the presence of the three witnesses to the physical inventory and photograph of the illegal drug seized was not obtained due to reason/s such as:[20]

(1) their attendance was impossible because the place of arrest was a remote area; (2) their safety during the inventory and photograph of the seized drugs was threatened by an immediate retaliatory action of the accused or any person/s acting for and in his/her behalf; (3) the elected official themselves were involved in the punishable acts sought to be apprehended; (4) earnest efforts to secure the presence of a DOJ or media representative and an elected public official within the period required under Article 125 of the Revised Penal Code prove futile through no fault of the arresting officers, who face the threat of being charged with arbitrary detention; or (5) time constraints and urgency of the anti-drug operations, which often rely on tips of confidential assets, prevented the law enforcers from obtaining the presence of the required witnesses even before the offenders could escape.[21]

Earnest effort to secure the attendance of the necessary witnesses must be proven. People v. Ramos[22] requires:

It is well to note that the absence of these required witnesses does not per se render the confiscated items inadmissible. However, a justifiable reason for such failure or a showing of any genuine and sufficient effort to secure the required witnesses under Section 21 of RA 9165 must be adduced. In People v. Umipang, the Court held that the prosecution must show that earnest efforts were employed in contacting the representatives enumerated under the law for “a sheer statement that representatives were unavailable without so much as an explanation on whether serious attempts were employed to look for other representatives, given the circumstances is to be regarded as a flimsy excuse.” Verily, mere statements of unavailability, absent actual serious attempts to contact the required witnesses are unacceptable as justified grounds for noncompliance. These considerations arise from the fact that police officers are ordinarily given sufficient time – beginning from the moment they have received the information about the activities of the accused until the time of his arrest – to prepare for a buy-bust operation and consequently, make the necessary arrangements beforehand knowing full well that they would have to strictly comply with the set procedure prescribed in Section 21 of RA 9165. As such, police officers are compelled not only to state reasons for their non-compliance, but must in fact, also convince the Court that they exerted earnest efforts to comply with the mandated procedure, and that under the given circumstances, their actions were reasonable.[23]

The prosecution miserably failed to explain why the police officers did not secure the presence of an elected public official, a representative from the DOJ, and the media. The testimonies of the prosecution witnesses also failed to establish that there was earnest effort to coordinate with and secure the presence of the required witnesses.

Thus, it cannot be denied that serious breaches of the mandatory procedures required by law in the conduct of buy-bust operations were committed by the police. These cast serious doubt as to the integrity of the allegedly confiscated drug specimen, hence creating reasonable doubt as to the guilt of appellant Padua.

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the April 6, 2017 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR-HC No. 07432, which affirmed the February 26, 2015 Decision of Regional Trial Court, Branch 204, Muntinlupa City, in Criminal Case No. 09-096, finding accused-appellant Eric Alvarez Padua, a.k.a. Jerick Alvarez Padua, guilty of violating Section 5, Article II of Republic Act No. 9165, or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, is REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Accordingly, accused-appellant Eric Alvarez Padua, a.k.a. Jerick Alvarez Padua, is ACQUITTED on reasonable doubt, and is ORDERED IMMEDIATELY RELEASED from detention, unless he is being lawfully held for another cause. Let an entry of final judgment be issued immediately.

Let a copy of this Resolution be furnished the Superintendent of the Bureau of Corrections for immediate implementation. The said Superintendent is ORDERED to REPORT the action he has taken to this Court within five (5) days from receipt of this Resolution.

Further, let a copy of this Resolution be furnished the Chief of the Philippine National Police and the Regional Director of the National Capital Region Police Office, Philippine National Police. The Philippine National Police is ORDERED to CONDUCT AN INVESTIGATION on the blatant violation of Section 21 of R.A. No. 9165 committed by the buy-bust team, and REPORT the action they have taken to this Court within thirty (30) days from receipt of this Resolution.

SO ORDERED.

Caguioa, J. Reyes, Jr., Lazaro-Javier, and Lopez, JJ., concur.

[*] Also spelled “Alvares” in some parts of the records.
[1] Penned by Associate Justice Elihu A. Ybañez, with Associate Justices Magdangal M. De Leon and Carmelita Salandanan Manahan concurring; rollo, pp. 2-23.
[2] CA rollo, pp. 16-25.
[3] Records, pp. 1-2.
[4] Pre-trial Order, id. at 53-54.
[5] Appellee’s Brief, CA rollo, pp. 86-87.
[6] Appellant’s Brief, id. at 46-47.
[7] Id.
[8] CA rollo, pp. 46-47.
[9] Id. at 47.
[10] Id. at 25.
[11] Rollo, pp. 34-43.
[12] People v. Opiana, 750 Phil. 140, 147 (2015).
[13] People v. Guzon, 719 Phil. 441, 451 (2013).
[14] Id., citing People v. Dumaplin, 700 Phil. 737, 747 (2012).
[15] Id., citing People v. Remigio, 700 Phil. 452, 464-465 (2012).
[16] People v. Lim, G.R. No. 231989, September 4, 2018. Also see People v. Mola, G.R. No. 226481, April 18, 2018.
[17] Under the original provision of Section 21 (1) of R.A. No. 9165, after seizure and confiscation of the drugs, the apprehending team was required to immediately conduct a physical inventory and to photograph the same in the presence of (1) the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, (2) a representative from the media and (3) the DOJ, and (4) any elected public official who shall be required to sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof. As amended by R.A. No. 10640, it is now mandated that the conduct of physical inventory and photograph of the seized items must be in the presence of (1) the accused or the person/s from whom such items were confiscated and/or seized, or his/her representative or counsel, (2) with an elected public official and (3) a representative of the National Prosecution Service or the media who shall sign the copies of the inventory and be given a copy thereof. (See People v. Ocampo, G.R. No. 232300, August 1, 2018; People v. Allingag, G.R. No. 233477, July 30, 2018; People v. Vicente Sipin y De Castro, G.R. No. 224290, June 11, 2018; People v. Reyes, G.R. No. 219953, April 23, 2018; and People v. Mola, supra note 16).
[18] Supra note 17.
[19] See also People v. Reyes, supra note 17, and People v. Mola, supra note 16.
[20] People v. Lim, supra note 16.
[21] People v. Vicente Sipin y De Castro, supra note 17.
[22] G.R. No. 233744, February 28, 2018, 857 SCRA 175, 190-191. (Citations omitted).
[23] See also People v. Crispo, G.R. No. 230065, March 14, 2018, 859 SCRA 356, 376-377, and People v. Sanchez, G.R. No. 231383, March 7, 2018, 858 SCRA 94, 110-111. (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)

Categories
2020 February

SOCIAL SECURITY SYSTEM, PETITIONER, V. MANUEL F. SENO, JR., GEMMA S. SENO, AND FERNANDO S. GORROSPE,[*] RESPONDENTS.

SECOND DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 183478, February 10, 2020 ]

SOCIAL SECURITY SYSTEM, PETITIONER, V. MANUEL F. SENO, JR., GEMMA S. SENO, AND FERNANDO S. GORROSPE,[*] RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

HERNANDO, J.:

This Petition for Review on Certiorari[1] seeks to reverse and set aside the March 11, 2008 Decision[2] of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 96627 which (a) granted the Amended Petition[3] for Certiorari filed by herein respondents Manuel F. Seno, Jr. (Manuel), Fernando S. Gorrospe (Fernando), and Gemma S. Seno (Gemma, collectively respondents); (b) annulled and set aside the May 29, 2006[4] and September 25, 2006[5] Orders of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 206, Muntinlupa City, in Criminal Case No. 05-853; and (c) granted respondents’ Motion to Withdraw Information[6] filed in the said criminal case. Petitioner Social Security System (SSS) likewise assails the June 25, 2008 Resolution[7] of the CA which denied its Motion for Reconsideration.[8]

Factual Antecedents

Respondents are members of the Board of Directors of JMA Transport Services Corporation (JMA Transport), a domestic corporation and a duly covered member of SSS with Identification No. 03-9077846-6.[9]

Sometime in 2000, SSS filed an Affidavit-Complaint[10] against respondents together with Ruth De Leon (De Leon), Celso Librando (Librando), and Edgar Froyalde (Froyalde), in their capacities as JMA Transport’s Board of Directors before the Prosecutor’s Office of Muntinlupa City for failure to remit the social security (SS) contributions of their employees in violation of Section 22(a)[11] in relation to Sections 22(d)[12] and 28(e)[13] and (f)[14] of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 1161, as amended by R.A. No. 8282, otherwise known as the “Social Security Act of 1997.”

In its complaint, SSS averred that after inspecting the account of JMA Transport, it discovered that the company was delinquent in its payment of contributions for the period September 1997 to July 1999. As of August 31, 1999, the amount due was P838,488.13 inclusive of the 3% penalty per month.[15]

As a result thereof, a Letter of Introduction[16] dated December 16, 1998 was served to JMA Transport to monitor its compliance with the Social Security Act of 1997 and to inspect its SSS records. This was followed by a Billing Letter[17] dated August 25, 1999 and a Demand Letter[18] dated September 16, 1999 informing the company of its outstanding obligation and demanding to pay it within 10 days from receipt of the demand. However, JMA Transport failed to settle its obligations which prompted SSS to file the said Complaint before the Office of the City Prosecutor (OCP) of Muntinlupa City.

During the preliminary investigation, respondents proposed to pay in installment JMA Transport’s outstanding obligation. Manuel issued 24 postdated checks in the total amount of P609,370.50 as payment of JMA Transport’s obligation inclusive of the penalty charges. SSS, in turn, accepted the postdated checks. Thus, the Complaint was provisionally withdrawn in view of the settlement between the parties.

However, when two of the postdated checks were dishonored by the drawee-bank, SSS notified JMA Transport to replace the said checks and to pay its obligation. However, the company did not heed the demand.

Consequently, SSS filed another Complaint-Affidavit[19] against respondents for violation of Section 22(a) in relation to Sections 22(d) and 28(e) of R.A. No. 1161, as amended by R.A. No. 8282. SSS alleged that JMA Transport had unpaid obligations in the aggregate amount of P4,903,267.52 which included the obligations subject of the first complaint plus delinquent SS contributions from August 1999 to June 2004 in the amount of P2,200,470.26 and penalty thereon in the amount of P2,702,797.26.

Manuel refuted SSS’ claims and alleged that JMA Transport had already ceased operations in July 1999. Therefore, he and the other respondents should not be held liable for the SS contributions after July 1999. He further averred that the delinquent contributions as of July 1999 had been settled by the two postdated checks he issued to SSS and that the remaining obligation of the company pertained only to the penalty charges in the amount of P50,780.82. Furthermore, Manuel asserted that he should not have been held responsible for the dishonor of the checks as this was brought about by the drawee-bank’s merger with another bank.

Fernando and Gemma, on the other hand, denied any participation in the alleged violation of the Social Security Act of 1997. They asserted 1that as directors of JMA Transport, they never handled matters relating to the SS contributions of the employees. They also corroborated the contentions of respondent Manuel with respect to the cessation of business operations of JMA Transport effective July 1999 as well as the payments of the delinquent contributions and penalty charges that were the subjects of the previous complaint.

SSS thereafter submitted its Reply[20] maintaining that it assessed JMA Transport the additional SS contributions on the presumption that the company was still in operation since the records of the SSS did not show that it has ceased business operations.

After the preliminary investigation, the OCP, through Assistant City Prosecutor (ACP) Elisa Sarmiento-Flores, found probable cause against respondents, Librando and Froyalde, for the complained violations.[21] As a result thereof, the corresponding Information[22] was filed against them before the trial court and the case was docketed as Criminal Case No. 05-853.

On the other hand, the complaint against De Leon was dismissed because she was no longer in the employ of JMA Transport when it failed to remit the SS contributions.

Meantime, aggrieved with the OCP’s findings, respondents promptly filed a Petition for Review[23] before the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Ruling of the Department of Justice

In its January 31, 2006 Resolution,[24] the DOJ reversed the findings of the investigating prosecutor and ordered the withdrawal of the Information. It held that JMA Transport could not be held liable for the SS contributions after July 1999 because it already had ceased its business operations as or said month. Furthermore, the company’s unpaid delinquent SS contributions plus penalty charges in the amount of P609,370.50 had already been settled by Manuel who had issued postdated checks. The DOJ ruled that the dishonor by the drawee-bank of the checks due to its merger with another bank did not constitute breach of the agreement on the part of Manuel so as to warrant the revival of the complaint. The fallo of the DOJ Resolution reads:

WHEREFORE, the assailed resolution is REVERSED AND SET ASIDE. The City Prosecutor of Muntinlupa City is hereby directed to cause the withdrawal of the information for violation of the Social Security Law earlier filed against Manuel Seno, Jr., Celso Librando, Edgar Froyalde Fernando Gorrospe, and Gemma Seno and to report the action taken thereon within ten (10) days from receipt hereof.

SO ORDERED.[25]

The SSS moved for reconsideration[26] but it was denied by the DOJ in a Resolution[27] promulgated on March 20, 2006.

Ruling of the Regional Trial Court

Meanwhile, on February 17, 2006, the prosecution filed a Motion to Withdraw Information[28] with the trial court in accordance with the DOJ Resolution. During the hearing of the said motion, private prosecutor Atty. Henry L. Tendido manifested that SSS had a pending Motion for Reconsideration[29] with the DOJ.

In its May 29, 2006 Order[30] (May Order), the trial court denied the motion. It held that based on the three Franchise Verifications issued by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) that were attached to SSS’ Reply-Affidavit[31] dated December 8, 2004, JMA Transport was in active status either from August 13, 2003 or June 4, 2004 until March 31, 2006. It therefore showed that from July 1999 onwards, it was still in continuous business operation contrary to respondents’ claim.

Respondents then filed a Motion for Reconsideration[32] before the trial court. They argued that they did not refute the Franchise Verifications purportedly issued by the LTFRB as these were not attached to SSS’ Reply­ Affidavit. The Reply-Affidavit likewise made no mention of the same evidence or, at the very least, as to whether JMA Transport remained in active status.

Furthermore, respondents averred that assuming JMA Transport violated the Social Security Act of 1997, it should be the corporate officers and not the members of the Board of Directors who should be indicted for the offenses charged. Also, the SS contributions had already been duly paid pursuant to the previous amicable settlement between SSS and JMA Transport. The only remaining unpaid obligation was the penalty charges based on the unpaid contributions.

In its September 25, 2006 Order[33] (September Order), and by way of action on the motion for reconsideration, the trial court did not order the grant or denial thereof; rather, it directed the public prosecutor to conduct a reinvestigation for the purpose of receiving respondents’ controverting evidence with respect to the Franchise Verifications, in this wise:

It would appear that the issue here is not simply whether or not there is probable cause against the accused, but whether or not the accused were able to avail of the full opportunity to defend themselves during the preliminary investigation.

The Court is inclined to give the accused the benefit of the doubt. Considering the circumstance that prevented the accused from fully controverting the complaint against them, the Court believes that it would serve the greater interest of justice if the case would be reinvestigated to give the accused the chance to present evidence in avoidance of prosecution.

WHEREFORE, by way of action on the accused’s Motion for Reconsideration, the Court deems it appropriate to direct the Public Prosecutor to conduct reinvestigation for the purpose of receiving the accused’s controverting evidence on the matter of the Franchise Verifications, and to conclude the reinvestigation with dispatch.

SO ORDERED.[34]

Ruling of the Court of Appeals

Respondents filed an Amended Petition[35] for Certiorari with prayer for the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and/or writ of preliminary injunction before the CA. They asserted that the trial court gravely abused its discretion when it issued the assailed May and September Orders denying the withdrawal of the Information filed against them and directing the conduct of reinvestigation, respectively.

Meantime, in its March 29, 2007 Resolution,[36] the CA merely noted respondents’ prayer for issuance of a TRO and/or preliminary injunction but directed the trial court to observe judicial courtesy.

On March 11, 2008, the CA rendered its Decision[37] grating respondents’ petition on the basis that the trial court gravely abused its discretion in issuing the assailed May and September Orders. It held that the trial court went beyond the records of the case when it based its May Order on Franchise Verifications that were not attached to or even mentioned in SSS’ Reply-Affidavit. Anent the September Order, the CA ruled that the act of directing the public prosecution to conduct a reinvestigation brushed aside respondents’ arguments in their motion for reconsideration and infringed on their constitutional rights.

SSS moved for reconsideration.[38] The CA, however, denied it in its Resolution[39] dated June 25, 2008.

Hence, the instant Petition for Review on Certiorari.

Issue

The sole issue to be resolved in this petition is whether the CA committed a reversible error when it ruled that the RTC gravely abused its discretion in the issuance of the assailed May and September Orders.

Our Ruling

SSS maintains that the CA committed grave error in the apprehension of facts when it held that the RTC gravely abused its discretion in issuing the assailed May and September Orders. It points out that, contrary to the findings of the CA, the trial court did not go beyond the records of the case when it issued the May Order. The Franchise Verifications which would prove that JMA Transport was still in operation after the year 1999 were actually attached to its Reply-Affidavit and numbered accordingly. Anent the September Order, SSS posits the view that the RTC’s order to conduct reinvestigation will not prejudice the rights of respondents.

On the other hand, respondents insist that the Franchise Verifications were not appended to SSS’ Reply-Affidavit. In fact, their copy of the Reply-Affidavit contained no attachment of the Franchise Verifications. Thus, the trial court gravely abused its discretion when it issued the assailed May Order because it based its ruling on purported documents which were not presented as evidence. Respondents likewise aver that the RTC similarly acted in grave abuse of discretion in issuing the assailed September Order. Respondents claim that instead of resolving their motion for reconsideration, the trial court directed the conduct of reinvestigation which they did not pray for.

The Court finds the petition partly meritorious.

It is a settled rule that only questions of law may be raised in a petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court. This Court is not a trier of facts. Hence, it will not entertain questions of facts as it is bound by the findings of fact made by the CA when supported by substantial evidence.[40]

There are, however, exceptions to the rule wherein the Court may pass upon and review the findings of fact by the CA. These instances are enumerated in Medina v. Asistio, Jr.,[41] to wit:

(1) When the conclusion is a finding grounded entirely on speculation, surmises or conjectures; (2) When the inference made is manifestly mistaken, absurd or impossible; (3) Where there is a grave abuse of discretion; (4) When the judgment is based on a misapprehension of facts; (5) When the findings of fact are conflicting; (6) When the Court of Appeals, in making its findings, went beyond the issues of the case and the same is contrary to the admissions of both appellant and appellee; (7) The findings of the Court of Appeals are contrary to those of the trial court; (8) When the findings of fact are conclusions without citation of specific evidence on which they are based; (9) When the facts set forth in the petition as well as in the petitioner’s main and reply briefs are not disputed by the respondents; and (10) The finding of fact of the Court of Appeals is premised on the supposed absence of evidence and is contradicted by the evidence on record.[42] (Citations omitted)

The instant case falls under the exceptions since the findings of the Court of Appeals are contrary to those of the RTC, and is based on the supposed absence of evidence, i.e., the Franchise Verifications, but is contracted by the evidence on record. True, the issues of whether the Franchise Verifications were indeed attached to the Reply-Affidavit filed by SSS so as to prove that JMA Transport was still in operation after 1999, and whether the RTC gravely abused its discretion in directing the prosecution to conduct reinvestigation for the purpose of admitting respondents’ controverting evidence against the same are both factual in nature. The Court observes that the findings of the CA were premised mainly on the Franchise Verifications which were allegedly not found in the records. However, upon our review of the records, We find that the said Franchise Verifications were actually appended to the Reply of SSS contrary to the observation of the appellate court.[43] Hence, it is only proper to give due course to the instant petition.

After a thorough examination of the records of the case, We find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in issuing the May Order. There was no gross misapprehension of facts on the part of the trial court with respect to the assailed May Order.

In Crespo v. Mogul,[44] the Supreme Court held that once a complaint or information is already filed in court, any disposition of the case such as its dismissal or its continuation rests on the sound discretion of the court. It is the best and sole judge on what to do with the case before it. Thus, when a motion to dismiss the case is filed by the public prosecutor, it should be addressed to the court who has the option to grant or deny the same.[45] The court should be mindful not to infringe on the substantial rights of the accused or the right of the People to due process of law.[46]

Moreover, in Santos. v. Orda, Jr.,[47] this Court emphasized that the above rule likewise applies to a motion to withdraw Information or to dismiss the case filed before the court, like in the case at bar, even before or after arraignment of the accused. The grant or denial of the same is left to the trial court’s exclusive judicial discretion. Hence, it should not merely rely on the findings of the public prosecutor or the Secretary of Justice that no crime was committed or that the evidence in the possession of the public prosecutor is insufficient to support a judgment of conviction of the accused. Instead, the trial court has to make its own independent assessment of the merits of the case as well as the evidence of the prosecution. Its independent assessment must be based on the affidavits and counter-affidavits, documents, or evidence appended to the Information, the records of the public prosecutor which the court may order the latter to produce before the court, or any evidence already adduced before the court by the accused at the time the motion is filed by the public prosecutor.

In issuing the assailed May Order, the trial court correctly found that there was factual basis in the allegation that JMA Transport was in fact in continuous business operations. In denying the motion to withdraw Information filed by the city prosecutor, the trial court relevantly ruled that:

A review of the record shows that the accused in this case are all directors of JMA Transport Corporation (JMA), a covered member of SSS with Identification Number 039077846 and is reportedly delinquent in the remittance of SS contributions for the period September 1997 to July 1999. During the preliminary investigation, JMA proposed to pay their delinquencies by installment with postdated checks which was accepted by SSS. Nevertheless, it was discovered in 2004 that JMA had failed to complete the installment payment and the company even remained in active status, but despite written and oral demands to pay their delinquencies or to replace the checks, JMA failed to do so.

Concerning the continued business operation of JMA, SSS submitted three (3) Franchise Verifications issued by the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) for JMA Transport Service Corporation. These documents, which were attached to complainant’s reply-affidavit dated December 8, 2004, clearly show that JMA remained inactive status either from August 13, 2003 or June 4, 2004 until March 31, 2006, despite the accused’s claim that the business was retired in July 1999. Notably, accused [Seno] did not refute these Franchise Verifications in his rejoinder-affidavit dated December 21, 2004, while the other accused opted not to file any rejoinder-affidavits.

After careful consideration of the evidence submitted in this case, the Court believes that there exists probable cause against the accused for the offense charged. Hence, the case should be maintained.[48]

We find that, contrary to the conclusion reached by the CA, the three Franchise Verifications[49] were actually appended to SSS’ Reply-Affidavit. These verifications were even mentioned in the April 8, 2005 Resolution[50] of ACP Elisa Sarmiento-Flores who initially recommended the filing of the Information against respondents.[51] Interestingly, all that respondents have advanced was a mere bare and unsubstantiated assertion that they were not furnished copies of the same. Hence, their negative self-serving assertion carries no weight at all especially since it was not supported by any evidence to prove the same. Verily, the trial court did not gravely abuse its dis1retion in issuing the May Order. Its independent assessment with respect to the issue whether JMA Transport was still in operation after the year 1999 was duly based on the evidence adduced before the court.

However, with respect to the assailed September Order, We are one with the findings of the appellate court. To recall, the trial court did not deny or grant the motion for reconsideration; instead, it merely directed the public prosecutor to conduct a reinvestigation and to receive respondents’ evidence that would controvert the Franchise Verifications, and to conclude the same thereafter. The trial court’s directive was erroneous.

It was already unnecessary for the trial court to direct the prosecution to conduct the reinvestigation. What it should have done was to order the parties to submit additional evidence and to admit the same if so warranted during the hearing conducted for the purpose. Notably, the Information was already filed before the trial court. Therefore, it is the best and sole judge to determine the proper disposition of the case, which includes whether to grant or to deny the motion to withdraw the Information filed by the prosecution.

Verily, to direct the prosecution to reinvestigate the case for the purpose of admitting additional evidence would clearly undermine the power of the trial court to adjudicate the case before it. Its directive gave the impression that the trial court might rely on the findings of the prosecution on whether respondents’ motion for reconsideration of the assailed May Order denying the withdrawal of Information should be granted or not. This should not be the case, for to do so would amount to an implied circumvention of a trial court judge’s role to independently assess the cases already filed before him/her based on the evidence submitted by the parties concerned.

At any rate, the records do not show that respondents prayed for the conduct of a reinvestigation in their motion for reconsideration. Jurisprudence dictates that the courts cannot grant a relief not prayed for in the pleadings or in excess of what is being sought by a party to a case.[52] The Court explained the rationale for this rule in Bucal v. Bucal,[53] citing Development Bank of the Philippines v. Teston[54] as follows:

It is well-settled that courts cannot grant a relief not prayed for in the pleadings or in excess of what is being sought by a party to a case. The rationale for the rule was explained in Development Bank of the Philippines v. Teston, viz.:

Due process considerations justify this requirement. It is improper to enter an order which exceeds. the scope of relief sought by the pleadings, absent notice which affords the opposing party an opportunity to be heard with respect to the proposed relief. The fundamental purpose of the requirement that allegations of a complaint must provide the measure of recovery is to prevent surprise to the defendant.

For the same reason, this protection against surprises granted to defendants should also be available to petitioners. Verily, both parties to a suit are entitled to due process against unforeseen and arbitrary judgments. The very essence of due process is “the sporting idea of fair play” which forbids the grant of relief on matters where a party to the suit was not given an opportunity to be heard. (Citations omitted)

Evidently, the trial court gravel y abused its discretion when it issued the assailed September Order. In doing so, SSS’ right to due process was violated when it ordered the conduct of a reinvestigation that was not at the start prayed for by the respondents.

WHEREFORE, the petition is PARTLY GRANTED. The March 11, 2008 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 96627 is AFFIRMED only insofar as it declared the September 25, 2006 Order of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 206 of Muntinlupa City, in Criminal Case No. 05-853 NULL and VOID.

SO ORDERED.

Perlas-Bernabe (Chairperson), A. Reyes, Jr., Inting, and Delos Santos, JJ., concur.

[*] Also spelled as “Gorospe” in some parts of the records.
[1] Rollo, pp. 8-28.
[2] Id. at 29-42; penned by Associate Justice Normandie B. Pizarro and concurred in by Associate Justices Edgardo P. Cruz and Fernanda Lampas Peralta.
[3] CA rollo, pp. 56-72.
[4] Records, Volume I, pp. 187-190; penned by Judge Patria A. Manalastas-De Leon.
[5] Id. at 224-225.
[6] Id. at 155-156.
[7] CA rollo, pp. 228-229.
[8] Id. at 217-219.
[9] Records, Volume I, p. 17.
[10] Id. at 17-18.
[11] SEC. 22. Remittance of Contributions. – (a) The contribution imposed in the preceding Section shall be remitted to the SSS within the first ten (10) days of each calendar month following the month for which they are applicable or within such time as the Commission may prescribe. Every employer required to deduct and to remit such contributions shall be liable for their payment and if any contribution is not paid to the SSS as herein prescribed, he shall pay besides the contribution a penalty thereon of three percent (3%) per month from the date the contribution falls due until paid. If deemed expedient and advisable by the Commission, the collection and remittance of contributions shall be made quarterly or semi-annually in advance, the contributions payable by the employees to be advanced by their respective employers: Provided, That upon separation of an employee, any contribution so paid in advance but not due shall be credited or refunded to his employer.
[12] SEC. 22. Remittance of Contributions. – x x x

x x x x

(d) The last complete record of monthly contributions paid by the employer or the average of the monthly contributions paid during the past three (3) years as of the date of filing of the action for collection shall be presumed to be the monthly contributions payable by and due from the employer to the SSS for each of the unpaid month, unless contradicted and overcome by other evidence: Provided, That the SSS shall not be barred from determining and collecting the true and correct contributions due the SSS even after full payment pursuant to this paragraph, nor shall the employer be relieved of his liability under Section Twenty-eight of this Act.

[13] SEC. 28. Penal Clause. – x x x

x x x x

(e) Whoever fails or refuses to comply with the provisions of this Act or with the rules and regulations promulgated by the Commission, shall be punished by a fine of not less than Five thousand pesos (P5,000.00) nor more than Twenty thousand pesos (P20,000.00), or imprisonment for not less than six (6) years and one (1) day nor more than twelve (12) years or both, at the discretion of the court: Provided, That where the violation consists in failure or refusal to register employees or himself, in case of the covered self-employed, or to deduct contributions from the employees’ compensation and remit the same to the SSS, the penalty shall be a fine of not less than Five thousand pesos (P5,000.00) nor more than Twenty thousand pesos (P20,000.00) and imprisonment for not less than six (6) years and one (1) day nor more than twelve (12) years.

[14] SEC. 28. Penal Clause. – x x x

x x x x

(f) If the act or omission penalized by this Act be committed by an association, partnership, corporation or any other institution, its managing head, directors or partners shall be liable for the penalties Provided in this Act for the offense.

[15] Records, Volume I, p. 17; The Affidavit-Complaint stated that JMA Transport failed to remit SS contributions in the amount of P641 ,478.20 while the penalty due was P197,009.93.
[16] Id. at 21.
[17] Id.at 22.
[18] Id. at 23.
[19] Id. at 30-31.
[20] Records, Volume II, pp. 300-301.
[21] Records, Volume I, pp. 7-10.
[22] Id. at 1.
[23] Id. at 133-143.
[24] Id. at 157-160.
[25] Id. at 159.
[26] Id. at 164-170.
[27] Id. at 185.
[28] Id. at 155-156.
[29] Id. at 164-170.
[30] Id. at 187-190.
[31] Records, Volume II, pp. 300-301.
[32] Records, Volume I, pp. 192-198.
[33] Id. at 224-225.
[34] Id. at 225.
[35] CA rollo, pp. 56-72.
[36] Id. at 160-161.
[37] Rollo, pp. 29-42.
[38] Id. at 217-2l9.
[39] CA rollo, pp. 228-229.
[40] Pascual v. Burgos, 776 Phil. 167, 182 (2016).
[41] Medina v. Asistio, 269 Phil. 225 (1990).
[42] Id. at 232.
[43] Records, Volume II, pp. 303-305.
[44] 235 Phil. 465, 476 (1987).
[45] Santos v. Orda, Jr., 481 Phil. 93, 105-106 (2004), citing Crespo v. Mogul, id.
[46] Santos v. Orda, Jr., id. at 106, citing Odin Security Agency, Inc. v. Sandiganbayan, 417 Phil. 73, 680 (2001).
[47] Id. at 105-108.
[48] Records, Volume I, pp. 189-190.
[49] Records, Volume II, pp. 303-305.
[50] Id. at 231-234.
[51] The Memorandum states:

In the REPLY-AFFIDAVIT of complainant, the SSS stated that sometime in 2004, it discovered that respondents failed to complete the installment payments and that the company remained in an active status. In fact, the SSS was able to secure a copy of a Franchise Verification from the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board is attached in the records. Hence, a billing statement was sent to respondents, but despite receipt of the same, they failed to settle their obligation with the SSS. Complainant further argued that R.A. 8282 does not distinguish what criminal action for violation of SSS Law should be filed. x x x (Id. at 233.)

[52] Diona v. Balangue,701 Phil. 19, 31 (2013).

[53] 760 Phil. 912, 921-922 (2015).

[54] 569 Phil. 137, 144 (2008).

Categories
2020 February

ROSELYN S. PARKS, COMPLAINANT, V. ATTY. JOAQUIN L. MISA, JR., RESPONDENT.

SECOND DIVISION
[ A.C. No. 11639, February 05, 2020 ]

ROSELYN S. PARKS, COMPLAINANT, V. ATTY. JOAQUIN L. MISA, JR., RESPONDENT.

R E S O L U T I O N

DELOS SANTOS, J.:

Antecedents

In her Complaint,[1] Roselyn S. Parks (Roselyn) alleged the following: (1) that on September 12, 2013 at about 7:45 in the evening, respondent Atty. Joaquin L. Misa, Jr. (Atty. Misa), acting as legal authority, allowed his client, Anthony Ting, to commit criminal offense of demolishing a portion of the concrete wall of the house of her father, Rosendo T. Suniega (Rosendo); (2) that the foregoing act was without lawful order from the court; (3) that the said Anthony Ting inflicted bodily harm against Rosendo in the presence of Atty. Misa; (4) that by the reason of the same incident, Rosendo filed a case for Malicious Mischief and Less Serious Physical Injuries against Anthony Ting, Atty. Misa and several others; (5) that Atty. Misa executed a counter-affidavit containing defamatory and libelous statement against her, even if she was not a party to the complaint filed by her father, Rosendo; and (6) that the said derogatory statements were essentially made public by submitting the counter-affidavit to Asst. Prosecutor Melania E. Cardillo Jr., which reads as follows:

  1. It was then that I noticed ROSELYN round the corner of Mindanao and Mindoro walking towards my direction, wildly clapping as if there was something to applaud about. I turned to her and said, “What do you think will happen if they (U.S. IMMIGRATION) find out about your fix marriage (in Las Vegas).” And THAT got her to join REYNOLD and the rest of them in yelling inanities, insults, hooting and taking pictures while I stood by quietly. Incidentally, copies of e-mail from ROSELYN’s cousin Mary Jane “JING” SUNIEGA to the undersigned with attached wedding photos are hereto enclosed as ANNEX “A”.

[x x x x]

  1. To their credit the police thoroughly investigated the antecedents x x x[.]
  2. They heard about the eviction of BEBOT x x x[.] They were told about ROSELYN’s fixed marriage and how her money has made bigger monsters out of them.

[x x x x]

  1. Since the complaint affidavit was probably prepared by ROSELYN, a known DRUG ADDICT and a FRAUD x x x it thought not to be given any credence whatsoever and fm1hwith dismissed.[2]

According to Roselyn, the defamatory remarks were not even relevant to the criminal case under investigation and apparently made to insult, dishonor, and humiliate her. She claimed that the remarks and conduct of Atty. Misa demonstrated lack of moral character, probity, and good behavior, in violation of his oath as a member of the bar and Section 20 (f), Rule 138 of the Rules of Court.[3]

In his Answer,[4] Atty. Misa denied that he acted as a legal authority during the time and place alleged by Roselyn. He admitted pendency of the criminal case filed against them, but denied that the said case was valid and/or makes out a prima facie case. Atty. Misa likewise admitted the filing of the counter-affidavit, but denied that it is a proof to show that he allowed any hostile acts.[5] As for his allegation that Roselyn was a drug addict and a fraud, Atty. Misa countered that it was Roselyn’s irrational behavior, “acting out” on the night in question, dousing fuel to fire, which drew attention to questions about what sort of person she is.[6] He denied allegations that questioned his integrity and fitness as a member of the law profession, because he claimed that however insulting, dishonoring, and humiliating the questioned allegations might have been, they were privileged, relevant, material, and “required by the justice of the cause with which [he was] charged.” Lastly, he averred that Section 20 (f), Rule 138 referred to by Roselyn should be read in its entirety and in conjunction with Section 51 (a) (3) of Rule 130 of the Rules of the Court.[7]

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP)

Report and Recommendation

Investigating Commissioner Suzette A. Mamon (Commissioner Mamon) agreed with Atty. Misa that the counter-affidavit and its contents can be categorized as a privileged communication. However, she ruled that the doctrine on privilege communication vis-a-vis the rule on libel or defamation is not absolute. She added that the pleading must yield to the rule on relevancy of the declarations or statements uttered or made relative to the subject matter or case in issue before the court or proceeding.[8] In this case, she found that the defamatory remarks stated in Atty. Joaquin’s counter-affidavit was not even relevant and material to the criminal case of Malicious Mischief under investigation, but apparently made for the purpose of insulting, dishonoring, and humiliating Roselyn.[9] Thus, in her Report and Recommendation[10] dated October 21, 2014, Commissioner Mamon ruled that there was a reasonable ground to conclude that Atty. Misa committed transgressions of the rules and Canon of Professional Responsibility and recommended that Atty. Misa be reprimanded and/or admonished to refrain from employing language unbecoming of a member of the bar. [11]

In its Resolution No. XXI-2015-132[12] dated January 31, 2015, the IBP Board of Governors resolved to adopt and approve with modification the report and recommendation of Commissioner Mamon, such that Atty. Misa be suspended from the practice of law for one (1) month. Atty. Misa sought for reconsideration,[13] whereby the IBP Board of Governors resolved[14] to reduce the penalty back to reprimand as recommended by Commissioner Mamon.

Issue

Did Atty. Misa violate the Code of Professional Responsibility by his use of derogatory and defamatory language against Roselyn in his counter-affidavit?

Ruling

After careful review of the records, the Court concurs with the findings of Commissioner Mamon that the language contained in Atty. Misa’s counter-affidavit, making reference to the personal behavior and circumstances of Roselyn run afoul to the precepts of the Code of Professional Responsibility.

In Gimeno v. Zaide,[15] it was held that the prohibition on the use of intemperate, offensive, and abusive language in a lawyer’s professional dealings, whether with the courts, his clients, or any other person, is based on the following canons and rules of the Code of Professional Responsibility:

Canon 8 — A lawyer shall conduct himself with courtesy, fairness and candor toward his professional colleagues, and shall avoid harassing tactics against opposing counsel.

Rule 8.01 — A lawyer shall not, in his professional dealings, use language which is abusive, offensive or otherwise improper.

Canon 11 — A lawyer shall observe and maintain the respect due to the courts and to judicial officers and should insist on similar conduct by others.

Rule 11.03 — A lawyer shall abstain from scandalous, offensive or menacing language or behavior before the Courts. (Emphases supplied)

It must be noted that Roselyn was not even a party to the subject criminal case under investigation by Asst. Prosecutor Melanio E. Cordillo, Jr. The statements made in the counter-affidavit that Roselyn was a known drug addict, a fraud, and making insinuation that her marriage was a “fixed marriage” were pointless and uncalled for, and thus only show that the clear intention of Atty. Misa was to humiliate or insult Roselyn.

All the foregoing leads the Court to conclude that Atty. Misa violated the canons and rules of the Code of Professional Responsibility for his use of derogatory and defamatory language in his affidavit. After all, “[t]hough a lawyer’s language may be forceful and emphatic, it should always be dignified and respectful, befitting the dignity of the legal profession. The use of intemperate language and unkind ascriptions has no place in the dignity of judicial forum.”[16]

WHEREFORE, respondent ATTY. JOAQUIN L. MISA, JR. (Atty. Misa) is found GUILTY of violating Rule 8.01, Canon 8 and Rule 11.03, Canon 11 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Atty. Misa is hereby ADMONISHED to refrain from using language that is abusive, offensive or otherwise improper in his pleadings, and is STERNLY WARNED that a repetition of the same or similar acts will be dealt with more severely.

Let copies of this Resolution be served on the Office of the Bar Confidant and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for their information and guidance and be attached to Atty. Misa’s personal record as attorney.

SO ORDERED.

Perlas-Bernabe (Chairperson), A. Reyes, Jr., and Inting, JJ., concur.
Hernando, J., on official leave.

[1] Rollo, pp. 2-6.
[2] Id. at 2-5.
[3] See id. at 5.
[4] Id. at 29-34.
[5] Id. at 31.
[6] Id. at 32.
[7] See id.
[8] Id. at 177.
[9] Id. at 178.
[10] Id. at 172-179.
[11] Id. at 179.
[12] Id. at 171.
[13] Id. at 164-166.
[14] Id. at 169; Resolution No. XXII-2016-333, May 28, 2016.
[15] 759 Phil. 10 (2015).
[16] Washington v. Dicen, A.C. No. 12137 (Resolution), July 9, 2018.

Categories
2020 February

RE: EXPENSES OF RETIREMENT OF COURT OF APPEALS JUSTICES.

EN BANC
[ A.M. No. 19-02-03-CA, February 11, 2020 ]

RE: EXPENSES OF RETIREMENT OF COURT OF APPEALS JUSTICES.

R E S O L U T I O N

HERNANDO, J.:

In its June 25, 2019 Resolution in the present Administrative Matter, the Court approved the increase in the allocated retirement program budget of the Court of Appeals, thus:

WHEREFORE, the Court resolves to GRANT, effective on July 1, 2019, the request of the Court of Appeals,

a) For a retiring Presiding Justice – not to exceed ONE MILLION FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND PESOS (P1,500,000.00); and

b) For a retiring Associate Justice – not to exceed ONE MILLION TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND PESOS (P1,200,000.00).

Thereafter, during a meeting held on September 3, 2019, the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) En Banc approved En Banc Resolution No. 4-2019, pertinent parts of which read:

WHEREAS, Section 1 of Republic Act No. 1125, as amended, provides that the Court of Tax Appeals shall be of the same level as the Court of Appeals and its Presiding Justice and Associate Justices shall have the same salary, emoluments and other privileges, and enjoy the same retirement and other benefits as those provided for under existing laws for the Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals;

WHEREAS, after considering the Court’s retirement program budget vis-a-vis the Resolution promulgated on June 25, 2019 in A.M. No. 19-02-03-CA, (Re: Expenses of Retirement of Court of Appeals Justices), the Court En Banc found it reasonable to seek the application of the afore­quoted policy on retirement program budget to the Court of Tax Appeals, being of the same level as the Court of Appeals;

NOW, THEREFORE, the Court En Banc RESOLVES, as it is hereby RESOLVED, to REQUEST the Honorable Supreme Court to apply the policy on retirement program budget laid down in the Resolution promulgated on June 25, 2019 in A.M. No. 19-02-03-CA (Re: Expenses of Retirement of Court of Appeals Justices) to the Court of Tax Appeals consistent with the aforementioned Section 1 of Republic Act No. 1125, as amended.[1]

Through a letter dated September 4, 2019, CTA Presiding Justice Roman G. Del Rosario (Del Rosario) transmitted a copy of CTA En Banc Resolution No. 4-2019, to this Court and expressed his and the CTA Associate Justices’ hope that their request will merit the kind consideration and approval of this Court En Banc.

The Court, in its September 24, 2019 Resolution, referred CTA Presiding Justice Del Rosario’s aforementioned letter, together with CTA En Banc Resolution No. 4-2019, to the Fiscal Management and Budget Office (FMBO) for comment.

In another letter dated January 8, 2020 to this Court, thru Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta, CTA Presiding Justice Del Rosario reiterated the CTA’s request for the application to the tax court of the policy on retirement program budget laid down in this Court’s June 25, 2019 Resolution. He also stressed in the same letter that CTA Associate Justices Cielito N. Mindaro­Grulla and Esperanza R. Fabon-Victorino will be retiring in June and August of this year, respectively; and to ensure timely procurement, the CTA needs to finalize their retirement programs based on the corresponding budgets therefor.

In the meantime, Atty. Corazon G. Ferrer-Flores (Ferrer-Flores), Deputy Clerk of Court and Chief, FMBO, submitted to the Court her Comment dated December 16, 2019 on CTA Presiding Justice Del Rosario’s letter dated September 4, 2019 and CTA En Banc Resolution No. 4-2019. Essentially, she reasoned that the CTA and the Sandiganbayan are now of the same level as the Court of Appeals, and for consistency and uniformity, it would be appropriate to apply the approved retirement program budget of the Court of Appeals to the CTA and the Sandiganbayan. Consequently, she made the following recommendations:

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, we respectfully recommend that the budget allocated for the retirement program of the Presiding Justice and Associate Justice of the Court of Appeals be applied to the Sandiganbayan and the Court of Tax Appeals, chargeable against their respective savings from their regular appropriations and subject further to availability of funds, as follows:

1) For a retiring Presiding Justice, or in case of vacancy, a retiring Acting Presiding Justice – not to exceed ONE MILLION FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND PESOS (P1,500,000.00); and

2) For a retiring Associate Justice – not to exceed ONE MILLION TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND PESOS (P1,200,000.00).[2]

After a judicious review of CTA En Banc Resolution No. 4-2019, together with Atty. Ferrer-Flores’ Comment, the Court finds no sufficient basis and merit to grant the increase in the retirement program budget of the CTA as well as of the Sandiganbayan.

It is conceded that the CTA and the Sandiganbayan are of the same rank and level as the Court of Appeals.

Initially, upon the creation of the CTA on June 16, 1954 by virtue of Republic Act (R.A.) No. 1125,[3] it was a specialized court of limited jurisdiction with the same rank as the Court of Industrial Relations (CIR), which, in turn, was of equal rank as the then Courts of First Instance4. As this Court had previously recounted:

The CTA was created by R.A. No. 1125 in 1954. The CTA’s standing in the hierarchy of courts in our jurisdiction, before its elevation to a collegiate tribunal by virtue of R.A. No. 9282, was that of a specialized court of limited jurisdiction. It was not at the same level as the [Court of Appeals], since its decisions may be appealed thereto, and it was not also a trial court. Under Section 1 of R.A. No. 1125, the Presiding Judge of the CTA had the same qualifications, rank, category and privileges as the Presiding Judge of the Court of Industrial Relations (CIR) while the Associate Judge of the CTA had the same qualifications, rank, category and privileges of a member of the CIR. In Kaisahan ng mga Manggagawa sa La Campana v. Hon. Caluag, the CIR was equal in rank with the Courts of First Instance. x x x[5]

With the enactment of R.A. No. 9282[6] on March 30, 2004, the CTA was elevated to a collegiate court with special jurisdiction and of the same level as the Court of Appeals. Section 1 of R.A. No. 1125, as amended by R.A. No. 9282, now provides:

SECTION 1. Court; Justices; Qualifications; Salary; Tenure. — There is hereby created a Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) which shall be of the same level as the Court of Appeals, possessing all the inherent powers of a Court of Justice, and shall consist of a Presiding Justice and five (5) Associate Justices. The incumbent Presiding Judge and Associate Judges shall continue in office and bear the new titles of Presiding Justice and Associate Justices. The Presiding Justice and the most Senior Associate Justice shall serve as chairmen of the two (2) Divisions. The additional three (3) Justices and succeeding members of the Court shall be appointed by the President upon nomination by the Judicial and Bar Council. The Presiding Justice shall be so designated in his appointment, and the Associate Justices shall have precedence according to the date of their respective appointments, or when the appointments of two (2) or more of them shall bear the same date, according to the order in which their appointments were issued by the President. They shall have the same qualifications, rank, category, salary, emoluments and other privileges, be subject to the same inhibitions and disqualifications, and enjoy the same retirement and other benefits as those provided for under existing laws for the Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals.

Whenever the salaries of the Presiding Justice and the Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals are increased, such increases in salaries shall be deemed correspondingly extended to and enjoyed by the Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the CTA.

The Presiding Justice and Associate Justices shall hold office during good behavior, until they reach the age of seventy (70), or become incapacitated to discharge the duties of their office, unless sooner removed for the same causes and in the same manner provided by law for members of the judiciary of equivalent rank.[7] (Emphases supplied.)

In the same way, when it was first created by virtue of Presidential Decree (P.D.) No. 1486[8] on June 11, 1978, the Sandiganbayan was a special court of equal rank as the CFIs. P.D. No. 1606[9] was issued shortly thereafter on December 10, 1978 which declared the Sandiganbayan as a special court of the same level as the Court of Appeals. For reference, Section 1 of said presidential issuance is reproduced in full hereunder:

SECTION 1. Sandiganbayan, Composition; Qualifications; Tenure; Removal and Composition. — A special court, of the same level as the Court of Appeals and possessing all the inherent powers of a court of justice, to be known as the Sandiganbayan is hereby created composed of a Presiding Justice and eight Associate Justices who shall be appointed by the President.

The Presiding Justice and the Associate Justices shall not be removed from office except on impeachment upon the grounds and in the manner provided for in Sections 2, 3 and 4 of Article XIII of the 1973 Constitution.

The Presiding Justice shall receive an annual compensation of P60,000.00 and each Associate Justice P55,000.00 which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office. They shall have the same rank, privileges and other emoluments, be subject to the same inhibitions and disqualifications, and enjoy the same retirement and other benefits as those provided for under existing laws of the Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals.

Whenever the salaries of the Presiding Justice and the Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals are increased, such increases in salaries shall be correspondingly extended to and enjoyed by the Presiding Justice and the Associate Justices of the Sandiganbayan.

They shall hold office until they reach the age of 65 years or become incapacitated to discharge the duties of their office. (Emphases supplied.)

While the composition and organization of the Sandiganbayan had been amended by legislation through the years,[10] it remains to be of the same level as the Court of Appeals.

Notably, the aforequoted statutory provisions expressly state that the Presiding Justices and Associate Justices of the CTA and the Sandiganbayan shall have the same rank, salary, privileges, and emoluments; be subject to the same inhibitions and disqualifications; and enjoy the same retirement and other benefits provided under existing laws as the Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals. They additionally prescribe that any increase in the salaries of the Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals shall be extended to and enjoyed by the Presiding Justices and Associate Justices of the CTA and the Sandiganbayan.

Nevertheless, it bears to point out that the retirement program budgets of retiring Justices of collegiate courts are not expressly provided under any law. They are not part of the “retirement and other benefits” to which the statutes pertain, viz., pensions, lump sums, and survivorship.[11] Such retirement program budgets are more in the nature of administrative expenses which are allotted by the collegiate courts, with the approval of this Court En Banc, to their respective retiring members in order to recognize and celebrate the latter’s service and contribution to the Judiciary, in particular, and the public, in general. There being no explicit statutory mandate that the Justices of the collegiate courts are entitled to retirement program budgets, then, there is also no basis for them to legally demand that such budgets be equal across collegiate courts of the same rank or level.

The retirement program budgets of Justices of collegiate courts are subject to the discretion and approval of this Court, as part of its constitutional power of administrative supervision over all courts and personnel thereof.[12] In the exercise of such discretion, the Court takes into consideration several factors, such as, but not limited to, the established or actual costs of the items and activities which are part of the retirement program, the number of employees of the collegiate court, the period of time since the last increase in the retirement program budget, and the availability of funds.

Based on Atty. Ferrer-Flores’ Comment, the current retirement program budgets of the various collegiate courts are as follows:

SUPREME
COURT
(Increased per
September 25, 2019
Resolution in A.M.
No. 18-09-13-SC)
COURT OF APPEALS
(Increased per June
25, 2019 Resolution
in A.M. No. 19-02-
03-CA)
CTA
SANDIGANBAYAN
Chief Justice
Presiding Justice
Presiding Justice
Presiding Justice
P2,200,000.00 (+
10% yearly
increase)
P1,500,000.00
P650,000.00
P450,000.00
Associate Justices
Associate Justices
Associate Justices
Associate Justices
P2,000,000.00 (+
10% yearly
increase)
P1,200,000.00
P650,000.00
P450,000.00

Atty. Ferrer-Flores further observed in her Comment that the retirement program budgets of the CTA and the Sandiganbayan are presently much lower than that of the Court of Appeals, following the significant increase in the latter granted by this Court in the June 25, 2019 Resolution.

Relevant herein is the following rationalization of the Court in the said June 25, 2019 Resolution granting the increase in the retirement program budgets of the retiring Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals:

Per the Chief of the Fiscal Management and Budget Division of the Court of Appeals, the increased retirement program budget for the retiring Presiding or Associate Justice will cover his/her (a) luncheon/dinner reception; (b) judicial tokens; (c) miscellaneous expenses of the En Banc Special Session; (d) souvenir for guests; and (e) food stubs for employees. Given that the Sandiganbayan, with 421 employees, has a retirement program budget of Four Hundred Fifty Thousand Pesos (PhP450,000.00) for each of its retiring Presiding or Associate Justice; and the CTA, with 271 employees, has a retirement program budget of Six Hundred Fifty Thousand Pesos (PhP650,000.00) for each of its retiring Presiding or Associate Justice, it is justifiable that the Court of Appeals, with 1,660 employees (four and six times more than those in the Sandiganbayan and the CTA, respectively) will need a higher retirement program budget for its retiring Presiding or Associate Justice compared to the two other courts.

It is apparent from the foregoing that the major reason as to why the Court granted the increase in the retirement program budgets of the retiring Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals is the number of employees of the said appellate court, which necessarily affects the total cost of the retirement program that includes “food stubs for employees.” Previous to the Court’s June 25, 2019 Resolution, the Justices of the CTA and the Sandiganbayan had significantly higher retirement program budgets than those of the Court of Appeals even though they had less number of employees than the latter. In fact, even with the increase in the retirement program budgets of the retiring Presiding Justice and Associate Justices of the Court of Appeals, these are still lower when computed on a per-employee basis when compared to those of the retiring Justices of the CTA and the Sandiganbayan, as the table below demonstrates:

COLLEGIATE
COURT
RETIREMENT
PROGRAM
BUDGET
NO. OF
EMPLOYEES
BUDGET PER
EMPLOYEE
Court of Appeals
(Presiding
Justice)
P1,500,000.00
1,660
P903.61
Court of Appeals
(Associate
Justices)
P1,200,000.00
1,660
P722.89
CTA
(Presiding and
Associate
Justices)
P650,000.00
271
P2,398.52
Sandiganbayan
(Presiding and
Associate
Justices)
P450,000.00
421
P1,068.88

It is also worthy to stress that the Sandiganbayan, which has a lower retirement program budget for its retiring Justices than the CTA despite having more employees than the tax court, has not actually requested for an increase of its said budget.

Moreover, other than invoking in its En Banc Resolution No. 4-2019 its equal level with the Court of Appeals, the CTA failed to present proof of any need for the increase in the retirement program budgets of its retiring Justices, as well as a certification from its appropriate fiscal officers on the availability of funds to cover the requested increase.

According to Atty. Ferrer-Flores, the retirement program budget of the CTA covers the retirement activities and expenses of its retiring Justices, which may include, but are not necessarily limited to the following:

1) Tokens like the Philippine flag, CTA flag, CTA ring, judicial robe, brass shingle, Book of Decisions, photobook, and portrait;
2) Catering services at the retirement ceremony;
3) Photo/video documentation for the retirement ceremony;
4) Light and sound system rental for the retirement ceremony;
5) Entertainers for the retirement ceremony;
6) Souvenirs; and
7) Testimonial breakfast/recognition.[13]

Granted that the costs for the aforementioned retirement items and activities had risen through the years due to inflation, there is no showing that these are substantial enough to warrant a corresponding 54% and 43% increases in the retirement program budgets of the CTA Presiding Justice and Associate Justices, respectively.

WHEREFORE, the Court resolves as follows:

(a) To NOTE Atty. Ferrer-Flores’ Comment dated December 16, 2019 on CTA Presiding Justice Del Rosario’s letter dated September 4, 2019 and CTA En Banc Resolution No. 4-2019;

(b) To NOTE CTA Presiding Justice Del Rosario’s letter dated January 8, 2020 reiterating the request of the CTA in its En Banc Resolution No. 4-2019; and

(c) To DENY for lack of merit the request of the CTA in its En Banc Resolution No. 4-2019 to extend and apply to the tax court the increased allocated retirement budget of the Court of Appeals in this Court’s June 25, 2019 Resolution.

SO ORDERED.

Peralta, C.J., Perlas-Bernabe, Leonen, Caguioa, Reyes, A., Jr., Gesmundo, Lazaro-Javier, Inting, Zalameda, Lopez, Delos Santos, and Gaerlan, JJ., concur.
Reyes, J., Jr., J., on leave.
Carandang, J., on special leave.

[1] Temporary rollo.
[2] Temporary rollo, Atty. Ferrer-Flores’ Comment dated December 16, 2019.
[3] An Act Creating the Court of Tax Appeals.
[4] Now the Regional Trial Courts.
[5] Re: (a) Request of Assistant Court Administrators for Upgrading of Their Rank, Salary and Privileges Upon Effectivity of Republic Act No. 9282 Elevating the Court of Tax Appeals and (b) Grant of Special Distortion Allowance to Positions in the Judiciary with Rank of Judges of Metropolitan Trial Courts, Assistant Clerk of Court of the Court of Appeals and Division Clerks of Court of the Court of Appeals, 528 Phil. 13, 25 (2006).
[6] An Act Expanding the Jurisdiction of the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA), Elevating Its Rank to the Level of a Collegiate Court with Special Jurisdiction and Enlarging Its Membership, Amending for the Purpose Certain Sections of Republic Act No. 1125, as Amended, Otherwise Known as the Law Creating the Court of Tax Appeals, and for Other Purposes.
[7] R.A. No. 9503 (An Act Enlarging the Organizational Structure of the Court of Tax Appeals, Amending for the Purpose Certain Sections of the Law Creating the Court of Tax Appeals, and for Other Purposes), subsequently enacted on June 12, 2008, increased the composition of the CTA to one Presiding Justice and eight Associate Justices to sit En Banc or in three Divisions with three Justices each.
[8] Creating a Special Court to Be Known as “Sandiganbayan” and for Other Purposes.
[9] Revising Presidential Decree No. 1486 Creating a Special Court to Be Known as “Sandiganbayan” and for Other Purposes.
[10] By virtue of R.A. No. 7975 (An Act to Strengthen the Functional and Structural Organization of the Sandiganbayan, Amending for that Purpose Presidential Decree No. 1606, as Amended) dated March 30, 1995 and R.A. No. 8249 (An Act Further Defining the Jurisdiction of the Sandiganbayan, Amending for the Purpose Presidential Decree No. 1606 as Amended, Providing Funds Therefor, and for Other Purposes) dated February 5, 1997, the composition of the anti-graft court was increased to one Presiding Justice and 14 Associate Justices who would sit in five Divisions of three Justices each. R.A. No. 7975 though provided that the first three Divisions would be stationed in Manila, the fourth Division would be in Cebu City for cases coming from Visayas, and the fifth Division would be in Cagayan De Oro City for cases coming from Mindanao. Eventually, R.A. No. 10660 (An Act Strengthening Further the Functional and Structural Organization of the Sandiganbayan, Further Amending Presidential Decree No. 1606, as Amended, and Appropriating Funds Therefor), enacted on April 16, 2015, indirectly increased the composition of the Sandiganbayan to one Presiding Justice and 20 Associate Justices by providing that it shall sit in seven Divisions of three Members each.
[11] See R.A. No. 910 (An Act to Provide for the Retirement of Justices of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, for the Enforcement of the Provisions Hereof by the Government Service Insurance System, and to Repeal Commonwealth Act Numbered Five Hundred and Thirty-Six); R.A. No. 2614 (An Act to Amend Sections One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six of Republic Act Numbered Nine Hundred and Ten as Amended by Republic Act Numbered One Thousand Fifty Seven, Entitled “An Act to Provide for the Retirement of Justices of the Supreme Court and of the Court of Appeals, for Enforcement of the Provisions Hereof by the Government Service Insurance System, and to Repeal Commonwealth Act Numbered Five Hundred and Thirty-Six,” to Make Its Provisions Applicable to Judges of the Courts of Agrarian Relations, Industrial Relations, Tax Appeals, First Instance, and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts, and for Other Purposes); R.A. No. 9227 (An Act Granting Additional Compensation in the Form of Special Allowances for Justices, Judges and All Other Positions in the Judiciary with the Equivalent Rank of Justices of the Court of Appeals and Judges of the Regional Trial Court, and for Other Purposes); and R.A. No. 9946 (An Act Granting Additional Retirement, Survivorship, and other Benefits to Members of the Judiciary, Amending for the Purpose Republic Act No. 910, as Amended, Providing Funds Therefor and for Other Purposes).
[12] Article VIII, Section 6 of the 1987 Constitution.
[13] Supra note 2.

Categories
2020 February

ENRIQUE JAVIER DE ZUZUARREGUI, COMPLAINANT, V. ANTHONY DE ZUZUARREGUI, RESPONDENT.

EN BANC
[ B.M. No. 2796, February 11, 2020 ]

ENRIQUE JAVIER DE ZUZUARREGUI, COMPLAINANT, V. ANTHONY DE ZUZUARREGUI, RESPONDENT.

R E S O L U T I O N

INTING, J.:

This bar matter refers to the complaint filed by Enrique Javier de Zuzuarregui (complainant) before the Office of the Bar Confidant (OBC) against Anthony de Zuzuarregui (respondent), his nephew and one of the bar applicants for the 2013 Bar Examinations.

The Antecedents

On October 2, 2013, the OBC received a Letter[1] dated September 15, 2013 from complainant, thru his counsel, Atty. Nicholas A. Aquino, informing the Court that he was filing a complaint against respondent, then an applicant for the 2013 Bar Examinations for being a person of questionable moral character given the four criminal charges that the latter was facing before the Office of the City Prosecutor of Quezon City, namely:

(1) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-13D-03569 – Enrique de Zuzuarregui v. Anthony de Zuzuarregui, et al., for Estafa under Article 315 of the Revised Penal Code (RPC);

(2) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-13F-05581 – Enrique de Zuzuarregui v. Anthony de Zuzuarregui, et al., for Estafa thru Falsification of Public Documents under Article 315 of the RPC;

(3) Criminal Case No. XV-INV-13G-06821 – Enrique de Zuzuarregui v. Anthony de Zuzuarregui, et al., for Falsification of Public Documents and Use of Falsified Documents under Article 172 of the RPC; and

(4) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-13F-06052 – Enrique de Zuzuarregui v. Anthony de Zuzuarregui, et al., for Falsification of Public Documents under Article 172 of the RPC.

It appears that respondent himself had disclosed in his Petition to Take the 2013 Bar Examinations[2] that there were four pending criminal cases against him at the time:

(1) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-13D-03569 – Enrique de Zuzuarregui v. Anthony de Zuzuarregui, et al., for Estafa;

(2) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-13E-04905 – Azucena Locsin Garcia v. Anthony de Zuzuarregui, et al., for violation of Article 312 (Occupation of Real Property or Usurpation of Real Rights in Property) and Article 313 (Altering Boundaries or Landmarks) of the RPC;

(3) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-13F-06052 – Enrique de Zuzuarregui v. Anthony de Zuzuarregui, et al., for Falsification of Public Documents; and

(4) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-13F-05581 – Enrique de Zuzuarregui v. Anthony de Zuzuarregui, et al., for Estafa thru Falsification of Public Documents.

In view of the pending criminal cases against respondent, the Court provisionally allowed him to take the 2013 Bar Examinations, subject to the condition that, should he pass, he shall not be allowed to take the Lawyer’s Oath and sign the Roll of Attorneys until he is cleared of the charges against him.[3]

Respondent thereafter passed the 2013 Bar Examinations. Consequently, he filed a Verified Petition to Take the Lawyer’s Oath[4] dated April 24, 2014 before the OBC. In his petition, he claimed that the pending criminal cases against him had already been dismissed by the Office of the City Prosecutor of Quezon City as evidenced by the Orders of Dismissal[5] attached thereto. To prove that he was morally fit to become a lawyer, respondent also submitted the following certifications of good moral character from:

(a) Atty. Ma Venarisse V. Verga of Lee Venturanza Verga Law Office;[6]

(b) Atty. Viviana Martin-Paguirigan, then Associate Dean of the Far Eastern University – Institute of Law;[7]

(c) Rev. Fr. Noel B. Magtaas, OSJ, then Provincial Superior of the Oblates of St. Joseph – Philippine Province;[8] and

(d) Attys. Gregorio S. Daproza and Voltaire P. Agas.[9]

In its Resolution[10] dated July 1, 2014, the Court required respondent to explain why he failed to disclose the pendency of Criminal Case No. XV-INV-13G-06821 in his application to take the 2013 Bar Examinations and to submit a certification of the status of the case, if still pending, or order of dismissal, if already dismissed.

On August 14, 2014, respondent submitted his Verified Compliance[11] wherein he explained that he was not able to declare Criminal Case No. XV-INV-13G-06821 in his application because, at the time of filing of his Petition to Take the 2013 Bar Examinations on July 12, 2013, he was not yet aware of the existence of the case. He further averred that he only received a copy of the subpoena[12] in relation to the case on August 15, 2013, or more than a month after he filed his application to take the bar examinations.[13]

Thus, in its Resolution[14] dated September 23, 2014, the Court required respondent to submit a copy of the order of dismissal in Criminal Case No. XV-­INV-13G-06821 as well as Prosecutor’s and Court’s clearances, and additional certifications of good moral character.

On November 14, 2014, the Court received respondent’s Second Verified Compliance[15] dated November 7, 2014 wherein respondent submitted the following documents:

(a) Order of Dismissal in Criminal Case No. XV-INV-13G-06821;[16]

(b) Clearance from the Quezon City Regional Trial Court dated October 22, 2014;[17]

(c) Clearance from the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court dated October 27, 2014;[18]

(d) Prosecutor’s Certifications[19] dated October 20, 2014 showing the dismissal of:

(1) XV-03-INV-13K-12145 to 46;
(2) XV-03-INV-13D-03569;
(3) XV-03-INV-13F-6059;[*]
(4) XV-03-INV-13F-05581;
(5) XV-03-INV-13E-04905;

(e) Certification of Good Moral Character dated November 13, 2014 issued by Pasig City Councilor Hon. Richard C. Eusebio; [20]

(f) Certification of Good Moral Character dated November 12, 2014 signed by Atty. Carlos G. Buendia; [21]

(g) Certification of Good Moral Character dated November 13, 2014 signed by Atty. Paul Nicomedes L. Roldan;[22]

(h) Certification of Good Moral Character dated April 25, 2014 signed by Atty. Ma. Venarisse V. Verga;[23]

(i) Certification of Good Moral Character dated April 25, 2014 signed by Associate Dean Viviana Martin-Paguirigan;[24]

(j) Certification of Good Moral Character dated April 26, 2014 signed by Rev. Fr. Noel B. Magtaas, OSJ; [25]

(k) Testimonial of Good Character dated April 29, 2014 signed by Atty. Gregorio S. Daproza, Jr.;[26] and

(l) Certification of Good Moral Character signed by Atty. Voltaire P. Agas.[27]

Per the Resolution[28] dated March 10, 2015, the Court referred respondent’s Second Verified Compliance to the OBC for evaluation, report, and recommendation. The OBC, however, recommended that respondent’s Petition to Take the Lawyer’s Oath be held in abeyance in view of the other criminal charges still pending against him before the Office of the City Prosecutor of Quezon City.[29] The Court adopted the OBC’s recommendation in its Resolution[30] dated November 16, 2015.

Three years later, respondent filed his Verified Second Motion most respectfully praying that [respondent] be allowed to take his Lawyer’s Oath and sign the Roll of [Attorneys][31] dated October 3, 2018 before the OBC wherein he notified the Court of the dismissal of all the criminal charges filed against him.[32] In his motion, he averred that while he was able to completely wipe out all the cases filed against him by complainant, he feared that a new round of fabricated criminal complaints will be forthcoming to further prevent him from becoming a full-fledged lawyer.[33]

Report and Recommendation of the OBC

In its Report[34] dated October 28, 2019, the OBC recommended that:

Hence, in view of the dismissal of the cases filed against him and finding the attestations made in his favor to be credible and sincere, we are inclined to recommend the granting of respondent’s prayer for admission to the Philippine Bar as we see no other cogent reason or ground to rule otherwise. In allowing respondent to take the lawyer’s oath, we recognize that respondent is not intrinsically of bad moral fiber. On a final note, we are also giving respondent the benefit of the doubt that he is morally fit to become a member of the Philippine Bar and that the certifications made in his favor truly reflect his good moral character. With that, we are convinced that he possesses the san1e as a pre­ requisite for admission to our noble profession.

WHEREFORE, premises considered, it is respectfully recommended that ANTHONY R DE ZUZUA[R]REGUI be ALLOWED to take the Lawyer’s Oath and Sign the Roll of Attorneys on a date set by the Court upon payment of the appropriate legal fees.[35]

Thus, the Court, in its Resolution[36] dated November 19, 2019, resolved, upon the OBC’s recommendation, to allow respondent to take the Lawyer’s Oath and sign the Roll of Attorneys.

Upon his payment of the required fees,[37] respondent’s oath-taking was scheduled on January 20, 2020, at 4:30 p.m., before Associate Justice Andres B. Reyes, Jr.[38] However, before respondent could take the Lawyer’s Oath, the Court received a Letter[39] dated January 8, 2020 from complainant stating his strong objection to allow respondent to take the oath “due to questionable moral integrity, honesty and uprightness,”[40] given the 10 criminal cases still pending against him before the Office of the City Prosecutor of Quezon City, viz.:

(a) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-14F-05666 for Falsification of Public Documents;

(b) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-14F-05667 for Falsification of Public Documents;

(c) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-15D-04249 for Estafa thru Falsification of Public Documents;

(d) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-16B-62233 for 59 counts of Estafa;

(e) Criminal Case No. XV-05-INV-16S-10647 for Estafa thru Falsification of Public Documents;

(f) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-16J-10252 for Estafa;

(g) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-16J-10509 for Falsification of Public Documents;

(h) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-17J-08273 for violation of Presidential Decree No. 1096, or the National Building Code of the Philippines;

(i) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-17G-06688 for Estafa; and

(j) Criminal Case No. XV-03-INV-19F-05312 for Estafa.

Consequently, the Court, thru Chief Justice Diosdado M. Peralta, suspended respondent’s scheduled oath-taking until the Court En Banc has decided on the matter.[41]

In his Letter[42] dated January 19, 2020 addressed to the Chief Justice, respondent explained that nine out of the 10 criminal cases mentioned in complainant’s Letter had already been dismissed tor lack of probable cause, but the 10th case is still pending as it was just recently filed in 2019.[43] He averred that the new case had been purposely instituted by complainant to further delay his oath-taking. He prays that he finally be allowed to take the Lawyer’s Oath and sign the Roll of Attorneys as the numerous criminal complaints filed by his uncle against him are mere harassment suits specifically designed to prevent him from becoming a full-fledged lawyer.[44]

The Court’s Ruling

Section 2 of Rule 138 of the Rules of Court provides:

SEC. 2. Requirements for all applicants for admission to the bar. — Every applicant for admission as a member of the bar must be a citizen of the Philippines, at least twenty-one years of age, of good moral character, and a resident of the Philippines; and must produce before the Supreme Court satisfactory evidence of good moral character, and that no charges against him, involving moral turpitude, have been filed or are pending in any court in the Philippines.

In this case, respondent’s admission to the Philippine Bar has long been held in abeyance due to the criminal cases pending against him before the Office of the City Prosecutor of Quezon City. Per the rollo, it appears that all criminal charges against him has been dismissed except for the most recent one filed in 2019. The timing of the filing of this case, however, is highly suspect as it came just as the other criminal charges against respondent were dismissed on June 28, 2018,[45] January 4, 2019,[46] and October 15, 2019.[47] Thus, it can no longer be denied that the manifest intention of complainant in successively filing these criminal cases against respondent is to prevent him from taking the Lawyer’s Oath and signing the Roll of Attorneys—the last two steps needed to be undertaken by respondent to become a full-fledged lawyer.

The dismissal of all the other criminal charges against respondent, coupled with the various certifications of good moral character in his favor, is sufficient for the Court to conclude that respondent possesses the moral qualifications required of lawyers. Though it is true that the practice of law is not a right but a privilege, the Court will not unjustifiably withhold this privilege from respondent, who has clearly shown that he is both intellectually and morally qualified to join the legal profession.[48] And so, after almost six years of waiting, the Court finally grants respondent’s prayer for admission to the Philippine Bar.

WHEREFORE, the Court resolves to:

(a) NOTE the Letter dated January 19, 2020 and the Report dated January 21, 2020 of the Office of the Bar Confidant; and

(b) ALLOW Anthony de Zuzuarregui to take the Lawyer’s Oath and sign the Roll of Attorneys on a date set by the Court and upon payment of the appropriate legal fees, if any.

Complainant Enrique Javier de Zuzuarregui and his counsel, Atty. Nicholas A. Aquino, are severely WARNED not to file any more frivolous criminal complaints against respondent under pain of contempt.

SO ORDERED.

Peralta (C.J.), Perlas-Bernabe, Leonen, Caguioa, A. Reyes, Jr., Gesmundo, Hernando, Lazaro-Javier, Zalameda, Lopez, Delos Santos, and Gaerlan, JJ., concur.
J. Reyes, Jr., J., on leave.
Carandang, J., on special leave.

[1] Rollo, pp. 2-3.
[2] Id. at 48.
[3] Id. at 6.
[4] Id. at 6-8.
[5] Id. at 9-11, 12-13, 14-15 and 16-19.
[6] Id. at 20.
[7] Id. at 21.
[8] Id. at 22.
[9] Id. at 23-24.
[10] Id. at 31-32.
[11] Id. at 34-37.
[12] Id. at 49.
[13] Id. at 34-35.
[14] Id. at 58.
[15] Id. at 65-67.
[16] Id. at 68.
[17] Id. at 69.
[18] Id. at 70.
[19] Id. at 71-73.
[*] It should be XV-03-INV-13F-06052, not 6050, per the Resolution dated November 25, 2013 issued by Assistant State Prosecutor Rolando G. Ramirez. Id. at 14-15.
[20] Id. at 74.
[21] Id. at 75.
[22] Id. at 76.
[23] Id. at 77.
[24] Id. at 78.
[25] Id. at 79.
[26] Id. at 80.
[27] Id. at 81.
[28] Id. at 85.
[29] Id. at 132-133.
[30] Id. at 134.
[31] Id. at. 152-156.
[32] Id. at 152-153.
[33] Id. at 153.
[34] Id. at 194-200.
[35] Id. at 199-200.
[36] Id. at 201-202.
[37] Id. at 204-205.
[38] Id. at 211.
[39] Id. at 212-214.
[40] Id. at 212.
[41] Id. at 218.
[42] Id. at 221-224.
[43] Id. at 222.
[44] Id. at 222-223.
[45] Id. at 225-236, 242-246, 254-259 and 260-265.
[46] Id. at 266-269.
[47] Id. at 248-253, 270-274, and 275-279.
[48] See In Re: Petition to Sign in the Roll of Attorneys, Michael A. Medado, 718 Phil. 286, 291 (2013).

Categories
2020 February

PROVINCIAL PROSECUTOR JORGE D. BACULI, COMPLAINANT, V. JUDGE MEDEL ARNALDO B. BELEN,[*] REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, BRANCH 36, CALAMBA CITY, LAGUNA, RESPONDENT.

FIRST DIVISION
[ A.M. No. RTJ-11-2286 (formerly OCA IPI No. 09-3291-RTJ), February 12, 2020 ]

PROVINCIAL PROSECUTOR JORGE D. BACULI, COMPLAINANT, V. JUDGE MEDEL ARNALDO B. BELEN,[*] REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, BRANCH 36, CALAMBA CITY, LAGUNA, RESPONDENT.

D E C I S I O N

LAZARO-JAVIER, J.:

Provincial Prosecutor of Zambales Jorge D. Baculi (Prosecutor Baculi) filed complaints against Judge Medel Arnaldo B. Belen (Judge Belen) of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 36, Calamba City, Laguna for (a) violation of Section 3(e) of Repubic Act No. 3019 (RA 3019) or the Anti­Graft and Corrupt Practices Act; (b) grave misconduct, and disrespect and disobedience to this Court’s Decision dated April 20, 2009 in A.M. No. RTJ-09-2176 (also captioned “Prosecutor Jorge D. Baculi vs. Judge Medel Arnaldo B. Belen”); (c) disbarment; (d) contempt of court; and (e) conduct grossly prejudicial to the interest of the government service.

The Complaints

In a verified complaint dated October 22, 2009, Prosecutor Baculi alleged that the Supreme Court suspended Judge Belen for six (6) months without salary or benefits for gross ignorance of the law in the aforementioned decision in A.M. No. RTJ-09-2176. Judge Belen was supposedly served a copy of the decision on or about May 25, 2009 and he thereafter moved for reconsideration of the same. The Court denied the motion for reconsideration by Resolution dated July 15, 2009. This notwithstanding, Judge Belen in bad faith still received his monthly allowance (honorarium) from the Office of the City Treasurer of Calamba City for the months of June and July 2009, as evidenced by a certification from that office.[1]

According to Prosecutor Baculi, Judge Belen’s receipt of honoraria from the local government was illegal, fraudulent and contrary to law, considering the latter’s suspension was immediately executory upon his receipt of the Court’s decision and on the principle of “no work, no pay.”[2] More, Judge Belen should be made accountable for his refusal to follow the rule of law as well as his repeated disregard and disobedience to the rulings of this Court.[3] Hence, Prosecutor Baculi wrote the mayor of Calamba City and then Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno to inform them of Judge Belen’s infractions.[4]

Subsequently, Prosecutor Baculi filed a verified “New/Additional Complaint” dated October 28, 2009 essentially re-pleading the allegations in the first complaint but including as attachments copies of the pertinent portion of the general payroll of the Office of the Provincial Governor of Laguna for the period April 1, 2009 to July 31, 2009, a special power of attorney in favor of one Eliodoro J. Logo who was authorized to receive the monthly allowance from the local government on Judge Belen’s behalf, and complainant’s correspondence with the Office of the Provincial Governor regarding the illegality of the payment of allowances to Judge Belen.[5]

The Comment

In response to the letters from the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) to comment on the charges against him, Judge Belen wrote[6] Court Administrator Jose Midas P. Marquez to issue a general denial of any and all allegations in the complaints. He maintained that he had not committed any illegal, unlawful or invalid acts nor was he guilty of behavior that was contrary to law, orders, rules and regulations or his oath as an RTC judge.[7]

The Report and Recommendation of the OCA

By its Memorandum[8] dated April 13, 2011, the OCA found that Prosecutor Baculi sufficiently proved Judge Belen’s illegal receipt of benefits from the local government units (LGUs) during the period of his suspension. When respondent received the decision suspending him, he should have refrained from accepting said allowances and if the offices concerned were not aware of his suspension without salary and benefits, he should have voluntarily refunded whatever he received. But he did not. If not for the timely letters of Prosecutor Baculi to the officials involved, Judge Belen could have defrauded the local government units of thousands of pesos of the people’s money. Thus, the OCA recommended, among others, that (a) the administrative complaints be re-docketed as a regular administrative matter; and (b) Judge Belen be found guilty of dishonesty and be dismissed from service with forfeiture of his retirement and all other benefits, except accrued leave credits, with prejudice to re-employment in any government agency, including government-owned and controlled corporations.

Further Proceedings before the Court

On June 13, 2011, the Court resolved to: (a) note the verified complaint, the new/additional complaint, and the comment of Judge Belen; (b) re-docket the administrative complaint as a regular administrative matter; and (c) require the parties to manifest if they are willing to submit the case for decision/resolution on the basis of the records/pleadings filed, within ten (10) days from notice.[9]

Prosecutor Baculi manifested his willingness to submit the matter for decision or resolution on the basis of the pleadings filed.[10]

Judge Belen, in turn, filed a manifestation and omnibus motion,[11] stating that he was not willing to submit the case for decision on the basis of the records and instead moved for consolidation of the present matter with the other pending administrative complaints/cases[12] filed by Prosecutor Baculi against him. Judge Belen further claimed that these cases involved similar causes of action and defenses and arose out of the same incidents and events. Thus, there was allegedly procedural and substantive necessity for consolidation to have clarity and judicious understanding of the matters involved.

Unsurprisingly, Prosecutor Baculi opposed the motion for consolidation and belied Judge Belen’s assertion that these cases/matters involved were similar or arose from the same incident. On the contrary, although the cases involved the same parties, the facts and issues here were different, distinct and independent from the other cases. Prosecutor Baculi averred that Judge Belen sought consolidation only to delay the resolution of these cases and that consolidation without good cause will prejudice complainant’s right to speedy justice and due process of law.[13]

By Resolution dated June 18, 2012, the Court denied Judge Belen’s manifestation and omnibus motion for lack of merit.[14]

Issue

Is respondent judge administratively liable for receiving allowances from the local government during the period of his suspension?

Ruling

We answer in the affirmative.

We have repeatedly held that although every office in the government service is a public trust, no position exacts a greater demand on moral righteousness and uprightness of an individual than a seat in the judiciary. Members of the judiciary should conduct themselves in such a manner as to be beyond reproach and suspicion, and free from any appearance of impropriety in their personal behavior, not only in the discharge of their official duties but also in their everyday life. They are strictly mandated to maintain good moral character at all times and to observe irreproachable behavior so as not to outrage public decency.[15]

Here, respondent judge is indeed guilty of dishonest conduct. Jurisprudence defines dishonesty as “a disposition to lie, cheat, deceive, or defraud; untrustworthiness; lack of integrity; lack of honesty, probity or integrity in principle; lack of fairness and straightforwardness; disposition to defraud, deceive or betray.”[16] In receiving his monthly allowances despite notice of his suspension by the Court, respondent judge knowingly received money not due to him and in effect defrauded the LGUs concerned of public funds that could have been used for a worthy governmental purpose.

Under civil service rules, a government employee is not entitled to all monetary benefits including leave credits during the period of suspension.[17] The seriousness of respondent’s offense lies in the fact that as a judge, he was “expected to exhibit more than just a cursory acquaintance with statutes and procedural rules and to apply them properly in all good faith.”[18] Worse, his act of receiving allowances was in clear contravention of this Court’s decision suspending him for six (6) months without salary or benefits. The amount (Php16,000.00) that respondent received may seem insubstantial but that is precisely why he should have foregone it or immediately refunded the same instead of risking disobeying a lawful order of this Court or tarnishing the dignity of his public position for so paltry a sum.

We approve the penalty recommended by the OCA since it is settled that “dishonesty, being in the nature of a grave offense, carries the extreme penalty of dismissal from the service with forfeiture of retirement benefits except accrued leave credits, and perpetual disqualification from reemployment in the government service.”[19]

The Court must take into account, however, that respondent was already dismissed from the service with forfeiture of his benefits, save his accrued leave credits, and with perpetual disqualification from re-employment in the government in our June 26, 2012 Decision in State Prosecutor Comilang v. Judge Belen.[20] In National Power Corporation v. Judge Adiong,[21] which likewise involved a grave offense punishable by dismissal but the respondent judge had been dismissed from the service in a previous case, we noted that Section 11, Rule 140 of the Rules of Court authorizes the imposition of any of the following sanctions for a serious offense:

  1. Dismissal from the service, forfeiture of all or part of the benefits as the Court may determine, and disqualification from reinstatement or appointment to any public office, including government-owned or controlled corporations. Provided, however, That the forfeiture of benefits shall in no case include accrued leave credits;
  2. Suspension from office without salary and other benefits for more than three (3) but not exceeding six (6) months; or
  3. A fine of more than P20,000[.00] but not exceeding P40,000.00.

Considering, however, the Court had already dismissed Judge Adiong and the imposition of the penalties of suspension from office without salary and dismissal from the service was no longer possible, we instead imposed the maximum fine in the amount of Php40,000.00 to be deducted from Judge Adiong’s accrued leave credits. This was also the penalty we imposed in other similar cases.[22]

Finally, Judge Belen should be directed to reimburse the local government units concerned the amount of Php16,000.00 which he unlawfully received during the period of his suspension.

WHEREFORE, respondent, former Judge Medel Arnaldo B. Belen, is hereby found GUILTY of dishonesty. He is ordered to pay a FINE in the amount of Forty Thousand Pesos (Php40,000.00), which shall be deducted from his accrued leave credits. He is further directed to REIMBURSE the local government units concerned the amount of Sixteen Thousand Pesos (Php16,000.00) which he received as allowance during the period of his suspension.

SO ORDERED.

Peralta, C.J., (Chairperson), Caguioa, and Lopez, JJ., concur.
J. Reyes, Jr., J., on leave.

[*] Sometimes referred to as “Judge Arnaldo Medel B. Belen” in some parts of the Rollo.
[1] Rollo, pp. 1-2; see also Annex B of the October 22, 2009 Complaint, rollo at p. 8.
[2] Id. at 3.
[3] Id. at 4.
[4] See Annexes C and D of the October 22, 2009 Complaint, id. at 9-12.
[5] Id. at 14-23.
[6] Judge Belen’s letter was dated April 28, 2010 but was only received by the OCA on June 17, 2010, rollo, p. 28.
[7] Id. at 28.
[8] Id. at 33-37.
[9] Id. at 38.
[10] Id. at 41.
[11] Id. at 48-49.
[12] These cases allegedly were: OCA IPI No. 06-2415 RTJ, OCA IPI No. 06-2438 RTJ, OCA IPI No. 06-2473 RTJ, OCA IPI No. 09-2872 RTJ, OCA IPI No. 09-2873 RTJ, OCA IPI No. 09-2878 RTJ, OCA IPI No. 09-2879 RTJ, OCA IPI No. 09-2904 RTJ, OCA IPI No. 09-3223 RTJ, A.M. (No.) RTJ-09-2176, and MISC. Nos. 3223, 3309, 3316, 3505, 3522, 3582, 3583, 3703 and 3833.
[13] Rollo at 50-52.
[14] Id. at 58.
[15] Legaspi v. Judge Garrete, 312 Phil. 783, 805 (1995).
[16] Office of the Court Administrator v. Judge Indar, 685 Phil. 272, 287-288 (2012).
[17] See, Section 56(d) of the old Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service (CSC Resolution No. 991936, September 14, 1999) in force at the time of the complaint. The same provision is still found in the 2017 Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service. See also Re: John B. Benedito, A.M. No. P-17-3740 (Resolution), September 19, 2018.
[18] Yu, Jr. v. Mupas, A.M. No. RTJ-17-2491, July 4, 2018.
[19] Office of the Court Administrator v. Adalim-White, A.M. No. RTJ-15-2440, September 4, 2018.
[20] 689 Phil. 134, 148 (2012).
[21] 670 Phil. 21, 34-35 (2011).
[22] See, for example, Cañada v. Judge Suerte, (Resolution), 570 Phil. 25, 36 & 38 (2008) and Office of the Court Administrator v. Judge Indar, 725 Phil. 164, 179-180 (2014).