February 2010 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are selected February 2010 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Court personnel; administrative complaint; effect of resignation. Respondent Nuñez has filed his resignation on September 5, 2008, which was subsequently accepted by the Court, subject to the usual clearance requirements and without prejudice to the continuation of the proceedings in the instant administrative case.  Nonetheless, the fact of his resignation and our approval thereof does not render moot the complaint against him.  Our jurisdiction over him is not lost by the mere fact that he resigned during the pendency of the case.  To deprive the Court of authority to pronounce his innocence or guilt of the charges is undoubtedly fraught with injustices and pregnant with dreadful and dangerous implications. What would prevent a corrupt and unscrupulous government employee from committing abuses and other condemnable acts knowing fully well that he would soon be beyond the pale of the law and immune to all administrative penalties?  Resignation should be used neither as an escape nor as an easy way out to evade administrative liability by court personnel facing administrative sanction. If only for reasons of public policy, the Court must assert and maintain its jurisdiction over members of the judiciary and other officials under its supervision and control for acts performed in office which are inimical to the service and prejudicial to the interests of litigants and the general public. If innocent, respondent official merits vindication of his name and integrity as he leaves the government which he served well and faithfully; if guilty, he deserves to receive the corresponding censure and a penalty proper and imposable under the situation.  Judge Delia P. Noel-Bertulfo, Municipal Trial Court, Palompon, Leyte vs. Fyndee P. Nuñez, Court Aide, Municipal Trial Court, Palompon, Leyte, A.M. No. P-10-2758, February 2, 2010.

Court personnel; conduct prejudicial to best interest of service. Sheriffs are officers of the court who serve and execute writs addressed to them by the court, and who prepare and submit returns on their proceedings. As officers of the court, they must discharge their duties with great care and diligence. They have to perform faithfully and accurately what is incumbent upon them and show at all times a high degree of professionalism in the performance of their duties. Despite being exposed to hazards that come with the implementation of the judgment, sheriffs must perform their duties by the book.

When the judgment obligee is not present at the time the judgment obligor makes the payment, the sheriff is authorized to receive it.  However, the money received must be remitted to the clerk of court within the same day or, if not practicable, deposited in a fiduciary account with the nearest government depository bank.  Evidently, sheriffs are not permitted to retain the money in their possession beyond the day when the payment was made or to deliver the money collected directly to the judgment obligee.

Good faith on the part of respondent, or lack of it, in proceeding to properly execute his mandate would be of no moment, for he is chargeable with the knowledge that being an officer of the court tasked thereto, it behooves him to make due compliance. As implementing officers of the court, sheriffs should set the example by faithfully observing and not brazenly disregarding the Rules of Court. Incredibly, respondent even blatantly admitted that he followed the same procedure in some of the other writs of execution that he enforced. Domingo Peña, Jr. vs. Achilles Andrew V. Ragalado II, etc., A.M. No. P-10-2772, February 16, 2010.

Court personnel; dishonesty. Respondents are indeed guilty of dishonesty, defined as “the 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.” Dishonesty, which is a grave offense, is punishable by dismissal even for the first offense.

Respondents are guilty too of violation of reasonable office rules and procedures. In Estardo-Teodoro v. Segismundo where the therein respondent court personnel failed to secure permission for his travel to Manila to obtain summons in a civil case in a court and visited the residence of the defendants in that civil case, in violation of an office memorandum issued by the clerk of court and noted by the executive judge, the Court held that the therein respondent violated “reasonable office rules and procedures.” Such violation is classified as a light offense.

While respondents committed two offenses ─ leaving the court premises without any travel order, which is a light offense, and dishonesty for fraudulently punching in their bundy cards, which is a grave offense – the mitigating circumstances considered by the OCA (affliction of Stage 2 Breast Cancer and first time offenders) justify the imposition of the recommended penalty of six-month suspension for each respondent. Re: Irregularity in the use of bundy clock by Sophia M. Castro and Babylin V. Tayag, Social Welfare Officers II, both the Regional Trial Court, Office of the Clerk of Court, Angeles City, A.M. No. P-10-2763, February 10, 2010.

Court personnel; dishonesty Respondent Nuñez is charged with Gross Dishonesty for allegedly taking money from the complainant.  Based on the evidence submitted, the Court finds that there is more than substantial evidence to prove that respondent Nuñez is guilty of dishonesty.  Ma. Irene R. Legaspi narrated that respondent admitted his culpability.  The NBI agent, Allan Tubi, likewise testified that respondent admitted stealing the money of Judge Bertulfo.

Under Section 23, Rule XIV of the Omnibus Civil Service Rules and Regulations, dishonesty is considered a grave offense for which the penalty of dismissal is prescribed even at the first instance.  In this case, dismissal can no longer be imposed in view of respondent’s resignation.  Thus, in lieu thereof, we hereby order the forfeiture of whatever benefits still due him from the government, except for the accrued leave credits, if any, that he had earned, and his disqualification from further employment in any branch or instrumentality of the government, including government-owned or controlled corporations. Judge Delia P. Noel-Bertulfo, Municipal Trial Court, Palompon, Leyte vs. Fyndee P. Nuñez, Court Aide, Municipal Trial Court, Palompon, Leyte, A.M. No. P-10-2758, February 2, 2010.

Court personnel; simple neglect of duty. The attachment to the journal entry voucher of what to Ilagan was an “unfamiliar” remittance voucher, as well as his awareness of previous “series of” experiences of the Accounting Division regarding misdelivered “zero-balance” vouchers, should have put him on guard in processing Judge Tan’s remittance voucher.  He should not have merely “assumed,” to use his word, that such unfamiliar voucher was a mere duplicate.

Given Judge Tan’s contributory negligence, the Court sees it fit to only obligate Ilagan to reimburse the amount paid by Judge Tan for the interest and surcharges on the unremitted P88,666.00 as of October 8, 2002, or the date the GSIS actually informed Judge Tan of her outstanding obligation.

Ilagan is thus administratively liable for simple neglect of duty, defined as failure to give proper attention to a task expected of an employee resulting from either carelessness or indifference. Re: Complaint of Judge Rowena Nieves A. Tan for late remittance by the Supreme Court of her terminal leave pay to GSIS to apply for payment of her salary load to said agency, A.M. No. 2007-02-SC, February 10, 2010.

Judges; delay in rendering decisions. The Constitution provides that all lower courts must decide all cases filed within three months.  Further, the Code of Judicial Conduct states that a judge shall dispose of the court’s business promptly and decide the cases within the required periods.

Delay in the disposition of cases erodes the faith and confidence of the people in the judiciary, lowers its standards, and brings it to disrepute. Judges should not abuse the grant of an extension to decide a case, and strive to decide the case within the extended period granted by the Court.

Under Sec. 9, Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, undue delay in rendering a decision or order is classified as a less serious charge punishable with suspension from office without salary and other benefits for not less than one (1) nor more than three (3) months; or a fine of more than P10,000.00, but not exceeding P20,000.00.

In this case, Judge Batingana decided Civil Case No. 2063 four years after the first extension granted to him by the Court, and two years after the Court denied his seventh request for extension and directed him to submit a copy of   his decision through the OCA, but  he failed to decide Civil Case No. 1759 despite the  numerous extensions granted to him. Request of Judge Niño A. Batingana Regional Trial Court, Brach 6, Mati, Davao Oriental for extension of time to decide Criminal Cases Nos. 2063 and 1756, A.M. No. 05-8-463RTC, February 17, 2010.

Judges; gross inefficiency. With respect to cases reported by the OCA which remain undecided even beyond the reglementary period, it appears that in most of these cases, thirty (30) days had elapsed from the date of submission of the case for decision.  Respondent insists that the reckoning period should be ninety (90) days as provided under the Constitution. However, the cases enumerated by the OCA appear to fall under the Rules on Summary Procedure, where the required period to decide the same is thirty (30) days. Otherwise, the OCA would not have reported that the decisions in these cases are already overdue.

In her desperate attempt to vindicate herself with respect to supposed decisions of cases which were found to have gone beyond the ninety (90) day reglementary period, respondent tried to mislead the Court in her Comment and Supplemental Comment by arguing that since she has not yet issued an Order declaring the cases as submitted for decision, the same are not yet ready for judicial determination such that the ninety (90) day reglementary period in deciding the said cases does not yet run. She also contended that in determining the period for the decision in the subject cases to become due, the OCA “failed to show whether other pleadings have yet to be filed by the parties after the cases were deemed submitted for decision.”

Respondent’s arguments have again exposed her gross ignorance of the law and mires her even more into a deeper hole from which there was neither reprieve nor escape.  Respondent should be aware of the basic rule that once a case is submitted for decision, no further pleadings are required to be filed. Moreover, there is no need to issue an order declaring a case to be submitted for decision in order that the ninety (90) day period in deciding the same shall begin to run.

Failure to promptly decide cases in accordance with the Constitution or the Rules of Court constitutes gross inefficiency. Judge Dolores L. Español, etc. vs. Judge Lorinda B. Toledo-Mupas, etc., A.M. No. MTJ-03-1462, February 11, 2010.

Judges; undue delay in rendering decision. Section 15 (1), Article VIII of the Constitution provides that all lower courts must decide or resolve all cases or matters filed within three months. Moreover, Rule 3.05 of the Code of Judicial Conduct states that a judge shall dispose of the court’s business promptly and decide the cases within the required periods.

The Court granted Judge Batingana an extension of 90 days, or until February 11, 2008, to decide Criminal Case No. 4645-05. However, he decided the case only on July 8, 2009, or after one year and almost five months from the extension granted.

As oft stated, justice delayed is justice denied. The honor and integrity of the judiciary is measured not only by the fairness and correctness of decisions rendered, but also by the efficiency with which the disputes are resolved. Judges are therefore mandated to perform their duties with utmost diligence in order to preserve the confidence of the public in the judiciary.

Under Section 9, Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, undue delay in rendering a decision or order is classified as a less serious charge punishable with suspension from office without salary and other benefits for not less than one (1) nor more than three (3) months; or a fine of more than P10,000.00 but not exceeding P20,000.00. Request of Judge Niño A. Batingana Regional Trial Court, Branch 6, Mati, Davao Oriental, for extension of time to decide Criminal Case No. 4745-05, A.M. No. 08-2-107-RTC, February 1, 2010.

Lawyers; disbarment case; unavailability of procedural defenses. Laws dealing with double jeopardy or with procedure – such as the verification of pleadings and prejudicial questions, or in this case, prescription of offenses or the filing of affidavits of desistance by the complainant – do not apply in the determination of a lawyer’s qualifications and fitness for membership in the Bar. First, admission to the practice of law is a component of the administration of justice and is a matter of public interest because it involves service to the public. The admission qualifications are also qualifications for the continued enjoyment of the privilege to practice law.  Second, lack of qualifications or the violation of the standards for the practice of law, like criminal cases, is a matter of public concern that the State may inquire into through the Court. In this sense, the complainant in a disbarment case is not a direct party whose interest in the outcome of the charge is wholly his or her own; effectively, his or her participation is that of a witness who brought the matter to the attention of the Court.  Maelotisea S. Garrido vs. Atty. Angel E. Garrido and Romana P. Valencia, A.C. No. 6593, February 4, 2010.

Lawyers; disbarment; gross immorality.  Immoral conduct involves acts that are willful, flagrant, or shameless, and that show a moral indifference to the opinion of the upright and respectable members of the community. Immoral conduct is gross when it is so corrupt as to constitute a criminal act, or so unprincipled as to be reprehensible to a high degree, or when committed under such scandalous or revolting circumstances as to shock the community’s sense of decency. We make these distinctions as the supreme penalty of disbarment arising from conduct requires grossly immoral, not simply immoral, conduct.

By his actions, Garrido committed multiple violations relating to the legal profession, specifically, violations of the bar admission rules, of his lawyer’s oath, and of the ethical rules of the profession. He did not possess the good moral character required of a lawyer at the time of his admission to the Bar. As a lawyer, he violated his lawyer’s oath, Section 20(a) of Rule 138 of the Rules of Court, and Canon 1 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, all of which commonly require him to obey the laws of the land.  In marrying Maelotisea, he committed the crime of bigamy, as he entered this second marriage while his first marriage with Constancia was subsisting.  He openly admitted his bigamy when he filed his petition to nullify his marriage to Maelotisea.

He violated ethical rules of the profession, specifically, Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, which commands that he “shall not engage in unlawful, dishonest, immoral or deceitful conduct”; Canon 7 of the same Code, which demands that “[a] lawyer shall at all times uphold the integrity and dignity of the legal profession”; Rule 7.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, which provides that, “[a] lawyer shall not engage in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law, nor should he, whether in public or private life, behave in a scandalous manner to the discredit of the legal profession.”

Moral character is not a subjective term but one that corresponds to objective reality. To have good moral character, a person must have the personal characteristics of being good.  It is not enough that he or she has a good reputation, i.e., the opinion generally entertained about a person or the estimate in which he or she is held by the public in the place where she is known. The requirement of good moral character has four general purposes, namely: (1) to protect the public; (2) to protect the public image of lawyers; (3) to protect prospective clients; and (4) to protect errant lawyers from themselves. Each purpose is as important as the other.  Maelotisea S. Garrido vs. Atty. Angel E. Garrido and Romana P. Valencia, A.C. No. 6593, February 4, 2010

Lawyer’s fees. A client has an undoubted right to settle a suit without the intervention of his lawyer, for he is generally conceded to have the exclusive control over the subject-matter of the litigation and may, at any time before judgment, if acting in good faith, compromise, settle, and adjust his cause of action out of court without his attorney’s intervention, knowledge, or consent, even though he has agreed with his attorney not to do so.  Hence, a claim for attorney’s fees does not void the compromise agreement and is no obstacle to a court approval.

However, counsel is not without remedy.  As the validity of a compromise agreement cannot be prejudiced, so should not be the payment of a lawyer’s adequate and reasonable compensation for his services should the suit end by reason of the settlement.  The terms of the compromise subscribed to by the client should not be such that will amount to an entire deprivation of his lawyer’s fees, especially when the contract is on a contingent fee basis.  In this sense, the compromise settlement cannot bind the lawyer as a third party.  A lawyer is as much entitled to judicial protection against injustice or imposition of fraud on the part of his client as the client is against abuse on the part of his counsel.  The duty of the court is not only to ensure that a lawyer acts in a proper and lawful manner, but also to see to it that a lawyer is paid his just fees.

Even if the compensation of a counsel is dependent only upon winning a case he himself secured for his client, the subsequent withdrawal of the case on the client’s own volition should never completely deprive counsel of any legitimate compensation for his professional services.  In all cases, a client is bound to pay his lawyer for his services.  The determination of bad faith only becomes significant and relevant if the adverse party will likewise be held liable in shouldering the attorney’s fees. Atty. Mangontawar M. Gubat vs. National Power Corporation, G.R. No. 167415. February 26, 2010.

Lawyers; negligence. Rule 18.03, Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility provides for the rule on negligence and states:

Rule 18.03 – A lawyer shall not neglect a legal matter entrusted to him and his negligence in connection therewith shall render him liable.

The Court has consistently held, in construing this Rule, that the mere failure of the lawyer to perform the obligations due to the client is considered per se a violation.  The circumstance that the client was also at fault does not exonerate a lawyer from liability for his negligence in handling a case.

All court rulings drive home the fiduciary nature of a lawyer’s duty to his client once an engagement for legal services is accepted. A lawyer so engaged to represent a client bears the responsibility of protecting the latter’s interest with utmost diligence. The lawyer bears the duty to serve his client with competence and diligence, and to exert his best efforts to protect, within the bounds of the law, the interest of his or her client. Accordingly, competence, not only in the knowledge of law, but also in the management of the cases by giving these cases appropriate attention and due preparation, is expected from a lawyer.

In addition to the above finding of negligence, the Court also finds Atty. Macalalad guilty of violating Rule 16.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility which requires a lawyer to account for all the money received from the client.  In this case, Atty. Macalalad did not immediately account for and promptly return the money he received from Atty. Solidon even after he failed to render any legal service within the contracted time of the engagement. Atty. Elmer C. Solidon vs. Atty. Ramil E. Macalalad, A.C. No. 8158, February 24, 2010.

(Mon thanks  Bhong P.A. Macasaet for his help in preparing this post.)