April 2010 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

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

Court personnel; grave misconduct.  In grave misconduct, as distinguished from simple misconduct, the elements of corruption, clear intent to violate the law, or flagrant disregard of established rule must be manifest.  Corruption as an element of grave misconduct consists in the act of an official or employee who unlawfully or wrongfully uses his station or character to procure some benefit for himself or for another, contrary to the rights of others.

Medrano knowingly and corruptly submitted spurious or irregular bail bonds for the approval of the judge.  He categorically admitted his offense, giving the simple explanation of having thereby accommodated ill-intentioned people.  His anomalies for a consideration appeared to be not isolated, but repeated many times.  He thereby converted his employment in the court into an income-generating activity.  His grave misconduct was, therefore, a grave offense that deserved the penalty of dismissal for the first offense pursuant to Sec. 52-A of the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service.  Re: Anonymous Letter-Complaint against Hon. Marilou Runes-Tamang, Presiding Judge, MeTC Pateros, Manila and Presiding Judge, MeTC San Juan, Metro Manila, A.M. No. MTJ-04-1558, April 7, 2010.

Court personnel; grave misconduct. No less than the Constitution mandates that “public office is a public trust.”  Service with loyalty, integrity and efficiency is required of all public officers and employees, who must, at all times, be accountable to the people.

The outright admission of Clerk IV Aranzazu Baltazar to committing malversation of funds shows her blatant disregard for these principles she had sworn to uphold, thereby eroding public trust.  When asked to explain, Ms. Baltazar readily confessed her shortage and willingly executed an affidavit, dated April 5, 2004, wherein she admitted that she had committed grave negligence and malversation of funds when she allowed other court employees to borrow from the court funds in her custody, causing the shortage as discovered by the audit team.

Ms. Baltazar was grossly inefficient in handling the finances of the court. Her bare admission that she had indeed allowed other employees to borrow from the court funds shows her extensive participation in the irregularities reported by the audit team.  There is no doubt that these acts constitute a grave offense.  Office of the Court Administrator vs. Atty. Fermin M. Ofilas, et al., A.M. No. P-05-1935, April 23, 2010.

Court personnel; gross dishonesty. Contrary to the P400,000.00 assessment made by respondent, the complainant should have been assessed legal fees only amounting to P75,525.00, based on SC Amended Administrative Circular No. 35-2004, which was issued by the Court to serve as reference for Clerks of Court in the assessment of the legal fees to avoid any confusion.  Respondent also violated SC Circular No. 26-97 dated May 5, 1997 for failing to issue the original receipts and merely furnishing complainant with photocopies of receipts.

Respondent’s case is not simply non-abidance with court circulars and directives. Complainant in good faith trusted respondent’s word when the latter made an assessment of the fees he must pay.  Unfortunately, respondent abused this trust and confidence reposed on her and used her position to extract exorbitant amounts from complainant under the guise of legal fees for her personal gain.  A very obvious indication of respondent’s dishonest motive is the huge difference in the amounts, P324,475.00 to be exact, which eliminates any possibility that respondent may have only made the wrong assessment in good faith. Worse, respondent is nowhere to be found and thus the amounts collected are still unaccounted for.

Under the circumstances, respondent is clearly guilty of gross dishonesty and grave misconduct which the Court cannot countenance. The Court will not tolerate any conduct, act or omission by any court employee violating the norm of public accountability and diminishing or tending to diminish the faith of the people in the Judiciary.  Jonathan A. Rebong vs. Elizabeth R. Tengco, et al., A.M. No. P-07-2338, April 7, 2010.

Court personnel; gross neglect of duty.  The 2002 Revised Manual for Clerks of Court requires that all applications for bail and judicial bonds shall be coursed, before their approval by the Judge concerned, through the Clerk of Court or his duly authorized personnel, who shall see to it that the bonds are in order.  As the Branch Clerk of Court of the MeTC in San Juan, Sorio was the administrative officer of the branch, who had the control and supervision of all court records, properties and supplies. With her responsibilities as such, Sorio should have ensured that all bail bonds and their supporting documents were in order before endorsing them to Judge Tamang for approval.  Sorio should have rejected the bail bonds of Covenant due to the latter’s blacklisting and its lack of clearance from the Supreme Court to issue such bail bonds.  She cannot now simply feign ignorance and escape liability upon the implausible pretext that some bail bonds did not pass through her.

Likewise, Sorio did not explain the non-transmittal of some approved bail bonds and their supporting documents to the courts, before which the criminal cases of the accused concerned had been filed and pending. Based on the record, Judge Tamang had given instructions to Sorio and Medrano to immediately release the bail bonds upon her approval of them.  However, during the hearing before the Investigating Judge, Sorio admitted her failure to see to their immediate release, although such was her primary responsibility as the Branch Clerk of Court.  It must be remembered that her obligation does not end with the initial verification and signing of the documents, but extends until the bail bonds and their supporting documents are transmitted to the courts concerned for appropriate action.

Thus, Sorio was remiss in the performance of her duties. She fell short of the task of effective supervision of the court staff. The recommendation of the OCA that Sorio be administratively sanctioned for gross negligence of duty was, therefore, proper.  Re: Anonymous Letter-Complaint against Hon. Marilou Runes-Tamang, Presiding Judge, MeTC Pateros, Manila and Presiding Judge, MeTC San Juan, Metro Manila, A.M. No. MTJ-04-1558, April 7, 2010.

Court personnel; incompetence.  It is clear that Velasco failed to exercise due diligence in the performance of his duties.  The writ of demolition covered only Lot Nos. 80-A and 81-A.  He was informed beforehand that complainant’s house was constructed on Lot No. 81-B.  He relied on the representative of the plaintiff in Spl. Civil Case No. 645 who told him that complainant’s house should be included in the demolition instead of conducting a relocation survey on the areas involved in the case.

We reiterate that sheriffs, as public officers, are repositories of public trust and are under obligation to perform the duties of their office honestly, faithfully, and to the best of their abilities.  Sheriffs are bound to use reasonable skill and diligence in the performance of their official duties, particularly where the rights of individuals might be jeopardized by their neglect.  In this case, Velasco failed to act with caution in the implementation of the writ of demolition, which resulted to damage to complainant.  Dalamacio Z. Tomboc, et al. vs. Sheriff Liborio M. Velasco, Jr., et al., A.M. No. P-07-2322, April 23, 2010.

Court personnel; misconduct.  As a clerk of court, Sorio is specifically mandated to safeguard the integrity of the court and its proceedings, and to maintain the authenticity and correctness of court records.  For the substantial alterations made on exhibits 12, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, and 31; and for the loss of the 17 February 1999 TSN in the records of Criminal Case No. 44739, which significantly affected the very integrity and authenticity of the court records, Sorio does not deserve to remain clerk of court one day longer. We have no choice but to dismiss her from the service.  Her failure to obey this mandate constituted grave misconduct and conduct highly prejudicial to the best interest of the service based on our ruling in Almario v. Resus [318 SCRA 742 (1999)].  Had Sorio performed her duty to properly supervise the transmittal of all the records of Criminal Case No. 44739 – including the pagination, marking, and indexing of the exhibits – the alterations in the exhibits and the loss of the 17 February 1999 TSN in the records of Criminal Case No. 44739 would not have taken place.  Rufina Chua vs. Eleanor A. Sorio, et al., A.M. No. P-07-2409, April 7, 2010.

Court personnel; usurpation of authority. A review of the records shows that no evidence was presented during the investigation to prove that the acts of respondents amounted to usurpation of authority. It is apparent that the issuance of the Writ of Execution was within the scope of duties of Jamora as Branch Clerk of Court. It was also proven that the Writ of Execution was indeed issued on June 29, 2005. Significantly, Reyes failed to show proof that there was no writ of execution yet at the time he filed his petition for relief from judgment.

As to the liability of Alejo in the alleged hasty implementation of the writ of execution, we find the same to be unmeritorious. When a writ is placed in the hands of a sheriff, it becomes his ministerial duty to proceed with reasonable celerity and promptness to implement it in accordance with its mandate. This duty, in the proper execution of a valid writ, is not just directory, but mandatory. He has no discretion whether to execute the writ or not. He is mandated to uphold the majesty of the law as embodied in the decision. In the instant case, respondent Sheriff was merely performing his ministerial duty when he implemented the writ of execution issued by the court. Alejo, however, should be reminded that it is required of him to pay the required fees before the implementation of the writ of execution. Atty. Alberto III Borbon Reyes vs. Clerk of Court V Richard C. Jamora, et al., A.M. No. P-06-2224, April 30, 2010.

Judges; gross ignorance of the law. Respondent Judge Arcaya-Chua is guilty of gross ignorance of the law for issuing a Temporary Protection Order (TPO) in favor of petitioner Albert Chang Tan in SP Case No. M-6373, since a TPO cannot be issued in favor of a man against his wife under R.A. No. 9262, the Anti–Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004. Indeed, as a family court judge, Judge Arcaya-Chua is expected to know the correct implementation of R.A. No. 9262. Francisco P. Ocampo vs. Judge Evelyn S. Arcaya-Chua/Office of the Court Administrator vs. Judge Evelyn S. Arcaya-Chua/Office of the Court Administrator vs. Judge Evelyn S. Arcaya-Chua, et al./Sylvia Santos vs. Judge Evelyn S. Arcaya-Chua, A.M. OCA IPI No. 07-2630-RTJ/A.M. No. RTJ-07-2049/A.M. No. RTJ-08-2141/A.M. No. RTJ-2093, April 23, 2010.

Judges; gross ignorance of the law. When the law or procedure is so elementary, such as the provisions of the Rules of Court, not to know, or to act as if one does not know the same, constitutes gross ignorance of the law, even without the complainant having to prove malice or bad faith.

Section 7 of Rule 71 of the Rules of Court is plain and simple: it limits the imposable penalty for contempt committed against a lower court to a fine not exceeding P5,000 or imprisonment of one month, or both.  In this case, respondent Judge issued an Order finding complainants guilty of contempt committed against the Municipal Trial Court and sentencing them to suffer imprisonment of four months to be served in the Municipal Jail of Himamaylan, and issued on even date warrants for their arrest.  Respondent is thus liable for gross ignorance of the law.  Maria Panco, et al. vs. Judge Y Aguirre, et al., A.M. No. RTJ-09-2196, April 7, 2010.

Judges; gross ignorance of the law.  While a judge may not be held liable for gross ignorance of the law for every erroneous order that he renders, it is also axiomatic that when the legal principle involved is sufficiently basic, lack of conversance with it constitutes gross ignorance of the law.  Indeed, even though a judge may not always be subjected to disciplinary action for every erroneous order or decision he renders, that relative immunity is not a license to be negligent or abusive and arbitrary in performing his adjudicatory prerogatives.  It does not mean that a judge need not observe propriety, discreetness and due care in the performance of his official functions. This is because if judges wantonly misuse the powers vested on them by the law, there will not only be confusion in the administration of justice but also oppressive disregard of the basic requirements of due process.

The rule is very explicit as to when admission to bail is discretionary on the part of the respondent Judge.  In offenses punishable by reclusion perpetua or death, the accused has no right to bail when the evidence of guilt is strong.  Thus, as the accused in Criminal Case No. 3620-01 had been sentenced to reclusion perpetua, the bail should have been cancelled, instead of increasing it as respondent Judge did.

Clearly, in the instant case, the act of Mangotara in increasing the bail bond of the accused instead of canceling it is not a mere deficiency in prudence, discretion and judgment on the part of respondent Judge, but a patent disregard of well-known rules.  When an error is so gross and patent, such error produces an inference of bad faith, making the judge liable for gross ignorance of the law.  It is a pressing responsibility of judges to keep abreast with the law and changes therein, as well as with the latest decisions of the Supreme Court. One cannot seek refuge in a mere cursory acquaintance with the statute and procedural rules.  Ignorance of the law, which everyone is bound to know, excuses no one – not even judges.  Hadja Sohurah Dipatuan vs. Presiding Judge Mamindiara P. Mangotara, A.M. No. RTJ-09-2190, April 23, 2010.

Judges; simple neglect of duty.  Judge Tamang admittedly approved not only the bail bonds issued by Covenant, a blacklisted bonding company, but also the bail bonds in some instances for accused persons charged in criminal cases pending outside her territorial jurisdiction.  Yet, she insisted that she did not thereby transgress the Code of Judicial Conduct, because she had relied on the representation of her duly authorized personnel that the bail bonds were in order.

Judge Tamang’s excuse of simply relying on the representation of the court personnel who unfortunately took advantage of her leniency and kindness betrayed a deficiency in that requisite degree of circumspection demanded of all those who don the judicial robe. She cannot now thereby exculpate herself, for, in fact, such reliance was actually her admission of being neglectful and of lacking the diligent care in paying attention to the judicial matters brought to her for signature. A carelessness of that kind and degree ran contrary to the competence expected of her as a dispenser of justice and as a visible representation of the law.

She was thereby guilty of a neglect of duty, for, according to Judicial Audit and Physical Inventory of Confiscated Cash, Surety and Property Bonds at RTC, Tarlac City, Brs. 63, 64 & 65 (A.M. No. 04-7-358-RTC, July 22, 2005, 464 SCRA 21), the judge is still bound to review the supporting documents before approving the bail bonds, even if it is the Clerk of Court who has the duty to ascertain that the bail bonds are in order, and that all requisites for approval have been complied with.  We thus find her guilty of simple neglect of duty, a light charge under Section 10, Rule 140, Rules of Court, for we are all too aware of the pitfalls that a judge like her frequently stumbles into when detailed in another station. She became an unwitting victim of the continuing illegal activities of Medrano, who took advantage of her being too busy with her judicial and administrative duties and tasks to have noticed and prevented his illegal activities.  Re: Anonymous Letter-Complaint against Hon. Marilou Runes-Tamang, Presiding Judge, MeTC Pateros, Manila and Presiding Judge, MeTC San Juan, Metro Manila, A.M. No. MTJ-04-1558, April 7, 2010.

Judges; simple negligence. Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, as amended by A.M. No. 01-8-10-SC, which pertains to the Discipline of Justices and Judges, does not provide any penalty for simple negligence.  The Court, though, deems simple negligence as falling within the ambit of simple misconduct.

Misconduct means intentional wrongdoing or deliberate violation of a rule of law or standard of behavior, especially by a government official. To constitute an administrative offense, misconduct should relate to or be connected with the performance of the official functions and duties of a public officer.

In this case, there was ostensible legal basis for Judge Paderanga to dismiss an action for failure of the plaintiff to attend the mediation conference.  However, Judge Paderanga’s Order dated November 9, 2005, dismissing Civil Case No. 2005-160, was improperly and prematurely issued.  Judge Paderanga failed to take into consideration that Bacalzo, the plaintiff, could not have attended the mediation conference scheduled on November 4, 2005 because the said date had been declared a regular holiday under Presidential Proclamation No. 933.  The declaration of November 4, 2005 as a holiday was a development totally outside Bacalzo’s control for which she should not be sanctioned with the dismissal of the case.  Evidently, Judge Paderanga failed to exercise the necessary diligence before issuing the Order dismissing the case, to the prejudice of Bacalzo.  This, however, makes Judge Paderanga liable for simple negligence, and not gross ignorance of the law and grave abuse of authority, as charged by Senarlo. Cecilia Gadrinab Senarlo vs. Judge Maximo G.W. Paderanga, et al., A.M. No. RTJ-06-2025, April 5, 2010.

Judges; violation of Code of Judicial Conduct; penalty.  Before this Court is the Motion For Reconsideration, filed by respondent Judge, of the Decision finding him guilty of violating Rule 2.03 of the Code of Judicial Conduct and ordering him to pay a fine of P5,000.00.  In his Motion, respondent Judge alleged that the penalty of fine of P5,000.00 was too severe, considering that he is a first-time offender.

While this Court is duty-bound to sternly wield a corrective hand to discipline its errant employees and to weed out those who are undesirable, this Court also has the discretion to temper the harshness of its judgment with mercy.  Thus, in the interest of fair play and compassionate justice, considering that this was respondent Judge’s first offense, we resolve to grant the instant motion for reconsideration.  In lieu of fine, Judge Cesar O. Untalan of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 149, Makati City, is ADMONISHED to be more circumspect in his official and personal deportment, with a WARNING that a repetition of the same or similar acts in the future shall be dealt with more severely.  Alfredo Favor vs. Judge Cesar O. Untalan, et al, A.M. No. RTJ-08-2158, April 13, 2010.

Lawyers; gross misconduct.  A lawyer who obtains possession of the funds and properties of his client in the course of his professional employment shall deliver the same to his client (a) when they become due, or (b) upon demand.  In the instant case, respondent failed to account for and return the P300,000.00 despite complainant’s repeated demands.

Atty. Alvero cannot take refuge in his claim that there existed no attorney-client relationship between him and Barcenas. Even if it were true that no attorney-client relationship existed between them, case law has it that an attorney may be removed, or otherwise disciplined, not only for malpractice and dishonesty in the profession, but also for gross misconduct not connected with his professional duties, making him unfit for the office and unworthy of the privileges which his license and the law confer upon him.

Atty. Alvero’s failure to immediately account for and return the money when due and upon demand violated the trust reposed in him, demonstrated his lack of integrity and moral soundness, and warranted the imposition of disciplinary action. It gave rise to the presumption that he converted the money for his own use, and this act constituted a gross violation of professional ethics and a betrayal of public confidence in the legal profession.  They constitute gross misconduct and gross unethical behavior for which he may be suspended.  Reynaria Barcenas vs. Atty. Anorlito A. Alvero, A.C. No. 8159, April 23, 2010.

Lawyers; misconduct.  Rule 1.01, Canon 1 of the Code of Professional Responsibility provides, “A lawyer shall not engage in unlawful, dishonest, immoral, or deceitful conduct.”  Conduct, as used in the Rule, is not confined to the performance of a lawyer’s professional duties. A lawyer may be disciplined for misconduct committed either in his professional or private capacity. The test is whether his conduct shows him to be wanting in moral character, honesty, probity, and good demeanor, or whether it renders him unworthy to continue as an officer of the court.

In the present case, respondent acted in his private capacity. He misrepresented that he owned the lot he sold to complainant. He refused to return the amount paid by complainant. His refusal to return the money paid for the lot is unbecoming a member of the bar and an officer of the court. By his conduct, respondent failed to live up to the strict standard of professionalism required by the Code of Professional Responsibility. Respondent’s acts violated the trust and respect complainant reposed in him as a member of the Bar and an officer of the court.  As a final blow, he denied having any transaction with complainant. It is crystal-clear in the mind of the Court that he fell short of his duty under Rule 1.01, Canon 1 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. We cannot, and we should not, let respondent’s dishonest and deceitful conduct go unpunished. We consider a penalty of two-year suspension more appropriate considering the circumstances of this case. Alfredo Roa vs. Atty. Juan Moreno, A.C. No. 8382, April 21, 2010.

(Mon thanks Joyce Melcar T.Tan for her help in preparing this post.)