Piercing the Corporate Veil for Labor Claims

Pantranco Employees Asso., et al. vs. NLRC, et al./Philippine National Bank Vs. Pantranco Employees Association Inc., et al., G.R. No. 170689/G.R. No. 170705, March 17, 2009, is an interesting case wherein former employees of a company sought to satisfy their unpaid labor claims against another company that eventually acquired, and then sold, the employer company.

The Gonzales family owned two corporations, namely, the Pantranco North Express, Inc. (PNEI) and Macris Realty Corporation (Macris). PNEI provided transportation services to the public, and had its bus terminal at the corner of Quezon and Roosevelt Avenues in Quezon City. The terminal stood on four valuable pieces of real estate (known as Pantranco properties) registered under the name of Macris. The Gonzales family later incurred huge financial losses despite attempts of rehabilitation and loan infusion. In March 1975, their creditors took over the management of PNEI and Macris. By 1978, full ownership was transferred to one of their creditors, the National Investment Development Corporation (NIDC), a subsidiary of the PNB.

Macris was later renamed as the National Realty Development Corporation (Naredeco) and eventually merged with the National Warehousing Corporation (Nawaco) to form the new PNB subsidiary, the PNB-Madecor.

In 1985, NIDC sold PNEI to North Express Transport, Inc. (NETI), a company owned by Gregorio Araneta III. In 1986, PNEI was among the several companies placed under sequestration by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) shortly after the historic events in EDSA. In January 1988, PCGG lifted the sequestration order to pave the way for the sale of PNEI back to the private sector through the Asset Privatization Trust (APT). APT thus took over the management of PNEI.

In 1992, PNEI applied with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for suspension of payments. A management committee was thereafter created which recommended to the SEC the sale of the company through privatization. As a cost-saving measure, the committee likewise suggested the retrenchment of several PNEI employees. Eventually, PNEI ceased its operation. Along with the cessation of business came the various labor claims commenced by the former employees of PNEI where the latter obtained favorable decisions.

On July 5, 2002, the Labor Arbiter issued the Sixth Alias Writ of Execution commanding the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) sheriffs to levy on the assets of PNEI in order to satisfy the P722,727,150.22 due its former employees, as full and final satisfaction of the judgment awards in the labor cases. The sheriffs were likewise instructed to proceed against PNB, PNB-Madecor and Mega Prime. In implementing the writ, the sheriffs levied upon the four valuable pieces of real estate located at the corner of Quezon and Roosevelt Avenues, on which the former Pantranco Bus Terminal stood. These properties were covered by Transfer Certificate of Title (TCT) Nos. 87881-87884, registered under the name of PNB-Madecor. Subsequently, Notice of Sale of the foregoing real properties was published in the newspaper and the sale was set on July 31, 2002.

Having been notified of the auction sale, motions to quash the writ were separately filed by PNB-Madecor and Mega Prime, and PNB. They likewise filed their Third-Party Claims. PNB-Madecor anchored its motion on its right as the registered owner of the Pantranco properties, and Mega Prime as the successor-in-interest. For its part, PNB sought the nullification of the writ on the ground that it was not a party to the labor case. In its Third-Party Claim, PNB alleged that PNB-Madecor was indebted to the former and that the Pantranco properties would answer for such debt.

On September 10, 2002, the Labor Arbiter declared that the subject Pantranco properties were owned by PNB-Madecor. It being a corporation with a distinct and separate personality, its assets could not answer for the liabilities of PNEI. Considering, however, that PNB-Madecor executed a promissory note in favor of PNEI for P7,884,000.00, the writ of execution to the extent of the said amount was concerned was considered valid. PNB’s third-party claim – to nullify the writ on the ground that it has an interest in the Pantranco properties being a creditor of PNB-Madecor, – on the other hand, was denied because it only had an inchoate interest in the properties.

 The NLRC affirmed the Labor Arbiter’s decision. The CA also affirmed the NLRC’s decision. The appellate court pointed out that PNB, PNB-Madecor and Mega Prime are corporations with personalities separate and distinct from PNEI. As such, there being no cogent reason to pierce the veil of corporate fiction, the separate personalities of the above corporations should be maintained. The CA added that the Pantranco properties were never owned by PNEI; rather, their titles were registered under the name of PNB-Madecor. If PNB and PNB-Madecor could not answer for the liabilities of PNEI, with more reason should Mega Prime not be held liable being a mere successor-in-interest of PNB-Madecor.

The former PNEI employees argued before the Supreme Court that PNB, through PNB-Madecor, directly benefited from the operation of PNEI and had complete control over the funds of PNEI. Hence, they are solidarily answerable with PNEI for the unpaid money claims of the employees. Citing A.C. Ransom Labor Union-CCLU v. NLRC, the employees insist that where the employer corporation ceases to exist and is no longer able to satisfy the judgment awards in favor of its employees, the owner of the employer corporation should be made jointly and severally liable. The Supreme Court ruled that the former PNEI employees cannot attach the properties (specifically the Pantranco properties) of PNB, PNB-Madecor and Mega Prime to satisfy their unpaid labor claims against PNEI.  According to the Supreme Court:

“First, the subject property is not owned by the judgment debtor, that is, PNEI. Nowhere in the records was it shown that PNEI owned the Pantranco properties. Petitioners, in fact, never alleged in any of their pleadings the fact of such ownership. What was established, instead, in PNB MADECOR v. Uy and PNB v. Mega Prime Realty and Holdings Corporation/Mega Prime Realty and Holdings Corporation v. PNB was that the properties were owned by Macris, the predecessor of PNB-Madecor. Hence, they cannot be pursued against by the creditors of PNEI. We would like to stress the settled rule that the power of the court in executing judgments extends only to properties unquestionably belonging to the judgment debtor alone. To be sure, one man’s goods shall not be sold for another man’s debts. A sheriff is not authorized to attach or levy on property not belonging to the judgment debtor, and even incurs liability if he wrongfully levies upon the property of a third person.

Second, PNB, PNB-Madecor and Mega Prime are corporations with personalities separate and distinct from that of PNEI. PNB is sought to be held liable because it acquired PNEI through NIDC at the time when PNEI was suffering financial reverses. PNB-Madecor is being made to answer for petitioners’ labor claims as the owner of the subject Pantranco properties and as a subsidiary of PNB. Mega Prime is also included for having acquired PNB’s shares over PNB-Madecor.

The general rule is that a corporation has a personality separate and distinct from those of its stockholders and other corporations to which it may be connected. This is a fiction created by law for convenience and to prevent injustice. Obviously, PNB, PNB-Madecor, Mega Prime, and PNEI are corporations with their own personalities. The “separate personalities” of the first three corporations had been recognized by this Court in PNB v. Mega Prime Realty and Holdings Corporation/Mega Prime Realty and Holdings Corporation v. PNB where we stated that PNB was only a stockholder of PNB-Madecor which later sold its shares to Mega Prime; and that PNB-Madecor was the owner of the Pantranco properties. Moreover, these corporations are registered as separate entities and, absent any valid reason, we maintain their separate identities and we cannot treat them as one.

Neither can we merge the personality of PNEI with PNB simply because the latter acquired the former. Settled is the rule that where one corporation sells or otherwise transfers all its assets to another corporation for value, the latter is not, by that fact alone, liable for the debts and liabilities of the transferor.

 Lastly, while we recognize that there are peculiar circumstances or valid grounds that may exist to warrant the piercing of the corporate veil, none applies in the present case whether between PNB and PNEI; or PNB and PNB-Madecor.

Under the doctrine of “piercing the veil of corporate fiction,” the court looks at the corporation as a mere collection of individuals or an aggregation of persons undertaking business as a group, disregarding the separate juridical personality of the corporation unifying the group. Another formulation of this doctrine is that when two business enterprises are owned, conducted and controlled by the same parties, both law and equity will, when necessary to protect the rights of third parties, disregard the legal fiction that two corporations are distinct entities and treat them as identical or as one and the same.

Whether the separate personality of the corporation should be pierced hinges on obtaining facts appropriately pleaded or proved. However, any piercing of the corporate veil has to be done with caution, albeit the Court will not hesitate to disregard the corporate veil when it is misused or when necessary in the interest of justice. After all, the concept of corporate entity was not meant to promote unfair objectives.

As between PNB and PNEI, petitioners want us to disregard their separate personalities, and insist that because the company, PNEI, has already ceased operations and there is no other way by which the judgment in favor of the employees can be satisfied, corporate officers can be held jointly and severally liable with the company. Petitioners rely on the pronouncement of this Court in A.C. Ransom Labor Union-CCLU v. NLRC and subsequent cases.

This reliance fails to persuade. We find the aforesaid decisions inapplicable to the instant case.

For one, in the said cases, the persons made liable after the company’s cessation of operations were the officers and agents of the corporation. The rationale is that, since the corporation is an artificial person, it must have an officer who can be presumed to be the employer, being the person acting in the interest of the employer. The corporation, only in the technical sense, is the employer. In the instant case, what is being made liable is another corporation (PNB) which acquired the debtor corporation (PNEI).

Moreover, in the recent cases Carag v. National Labor Relations Commission and McLeod v. National Labor Relations Commission, the Court explained the doctrine laid down in AC Ransom relative to the personal liability of the officers and agents of the employer for the debts of the latter. In AC Ransom, the Court imputed liability to the officers of the corporation on the strength of the definition of an employer in Article 212(c) (now Article 212[e]) of the Labor Code. Under the said provision, employer includes any person acting in the interest of an employer, directly or indirectly, but does not include any labor organization or any of its officers or agents except when acting as employer. It was clarified in Carag and McLeod that Article 212(e) of the Labor Code, by itself, does not make a corporate officer personally liable for the debts of the corporation. It added that the governing law on personal liability of directors or officers for debts of the corporation is still Section 31 of the Corporation Code.

More importantly, as aptly observed by this Court in AC Ransom, it appears that Ransom, foreseeing the possibility or probability of payment of backwages to its employees, organized Rosario to replace Ransom, with the latter to be eventually phased out if the strikers win their case. The execution could not be implemented against Ransom because of the disposition posthaste of its leviable assets evidently in order to evade its just and due obligations. Hence, the Court sustained the piercing of the corporate veil and made the officers of Ransom personally liable for the debts of the latter.

Clearly, what can be inferred from the earlier cases is that the doctrine of piercing the corporate veil applies only in three (3) basic areas, namely: 1) defeat of public convenience as when the corporate fiction is used as a vehicle for the evasion of an existing obligation; 2) fraud cases or when the corporate entity is used to justify a wrong, protect fraud, or defend a crime; or 3) alter ego cases, where a corporation is merely a farce since it is a mere alter ego or business conduit of a person, or where the corporation is so organized and controlled and its affairs are so conducted as to make it merely an instrumentality, agency, conduit or adjunct of another corporation. In the absence of malice, bad faith, or a specific provision of law making a corporate officer liable, such corporate officer cannot be made personally liable for corporate liabilities.

The Court ruled that assuming, for the sake of argument, that PNB may be held liable for the debts of PNEI, petitioners still cannot proceed against the Pantranco properties, the same being owned by PNB-Madecor, notwithstanding the fact that PNB-Madecor was a subsidiary of PNB. The general rule remains that PNB-Madecor has a personality separate and distinct from PNB. The mere fact that a corporation owns all of the stocks of another corporation, taken alone, is not sufficient to justify their being treated as one entity. If used to perform legitimate functions, a subsidiary’s separate existence shall be respected, and the liability of the parent corporation as well as the subsidiary will be confined to those arising in their respective businesses.

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