August 2010 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

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

Attorney; gross discourtesy. When Milagros finally met respondent on September 30, 2008 [in order to collect on his debt to her], respondent, in the presence of several others, told her “Eh kung sabihin ko na sugar mommy kita,” adding that “Nagpapakantot ka naman sa akin.” The Court finds that respondent is indeed guilty of gross discourtesy amounting to conduct unbecoming of a court employee.  By such violation, respondent failed to live up to his oath of office as member of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and violated Rule 7.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. The Court has consistently been reminding officials and employees of the Judiciary that their conduct or behavior is circumscribed with a heavy burden of responsibility which, at all times, should be characterized by, among other things, strict propriety and decorum. As such, they should not use abusive, offensive, scandalous, menacing and improper language. Their every act or word should be marked by prudence, restraint, courtesy and dignity. Aside from violating Rule 7.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, respondent appears to have also violated Rule 8.01 of the same Code. Complaints of Mrs. Milagros Lee & Samantha Lee against Atty. Gil Luisito R. Capito, A.M. No. 2008-19-SC. August 18, 2010

Attorney; mistake binding on client. A client is generally bound by the mistakes of his lawyer; otherwise, there would never be an end to a litigation as long as a new counsel could be employed, and who could then allege and show that the preceding counsel had not been sufficiently diligent or experienced or learned. The legal profession demands of a lawyer that degree of vigilance and attention expected of a good father of a family; such lawyer should adopt the norm of practice expected of men of good intentions.  Moreover, a lawyer owes it to himself and to his clients to adopt an efficient and orderly system of keeping track of the developments in his cases, and should be knowledgeable of the remedies appropriate to his cases. National Tobacco Administration vs. Daniel Castillo, G.R. No. 154124,August 13, 2010.

Attorney; mistake of counsel. Granting that their counsel made a mistake in entering into such stipulations, such procedural error unfortunately bound them.  The Court has consistently held that the mistake or negligence of a counsel in the area of procedural technique binds the client unless such mistake or negligence of counsel is so gross or palpable that would require the courts to step in and accord relief to the client who suffered thereby.  Without this doctrinal rule, there would never be an end to a suit so long as a new counsel could be employed to allege and show that the prior counsel had not been sufficiently diligent, experienced, or learned. Gilbert Urma, et al. vs. Hon. Orlando Beltran, et al., G.R. No. 180836, August 8, 2010.

Attorney; notarization of falsified deed, We cannot overemphasize the important role a notary public performs.  In Gonzales v. Ramos, we stressed that notarization is not an empty, meaningless routinary act but one invested with substantive public interest.  The notarization by a notary public converts a private document into a public document, making it admissible in evidence without further proof of its authenticity.  A notarized document is, by law, entitled to full faith and credit upon its face. It is for this reason that a notary public must observe with utmost care the basic requirements in the performance of his duties; otherwise, the public’s confidence in the integrity of a notarized document would be undermined. The records undeniably show the gross negligence exhibited by the respondent in discharging his duties as a notary public. He failed to ascertain the identities of the affiants before him and failed to comply with the most basic function that a notary public must do, i.e., to require the parties’ presentation of their residence certificates or any other document to prove their identities. Given the respondent’s admission in his pleading that the donors were already dead when he notarized the Deed of Donation, we have no doubt that he failed in his duty to ascertain the identities of the persons who appeared before him as donors in the Deed of Donation. Under the circumstances, we find that the respondent should be made liable not only as a notary public but also as a lawyer. He not only violated the Notarial Law (Public Act No. 2103), but also Canon 1 and Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Luzviminda R. Lustestica vs. Atty. Sergio E. Bernabe, A.C. No. 6258. August 24, 2010.

Attorney; reinstatement.      The Court, in the recent case of Ligaya Maniago v. Atty. Lourdes I. De Dios, issued the guidelines on the lifting of orders of suspension, and has advised strict observance thereof.  However, the Court will not hesitate to withhold the privilege of the practice of law if it is shown that respondent, as an officer of the Court, is still not worthy of the trust and confidence of his clients and of the public. Thus, applying the guidelines in Maniago, the Court Resolved to GRANT Respondent’s Petition for Reinstatement, effective upon his submission to the Court of a Sworn Statement attesting to the fact: 1)  that he has completely served the four (4) suspensions imposed on him successively;2) that he had desisted from the practice of law, and has not appeared as counsel in any court during the periods of suspension; and 3) that he has returned the sums of money to the complainants as  ordered by the Court,  attaching proofs thereof. Carlos Reyes vs. Atty. Jeremias R. Vitan/Celia Arroyo-Posidio vs. Atty. Jeremias R. Vitan/Violeta Tahaw vs. Atty. Jeremias R. Vitan/Mark Yuson vs. Atty. Jeremias R. Vitan, A.C. No. 5835/A.C. No. 6051/A.C. No. 6441/A.C. No. 6955, August 18, 2010.

Attorney; violation of rules on forum shopping and abuse of judicial processes. A lawyer owes fidelity to the cause of his client, but not at the expense of truth and the administration of justice. The filing of multiple petitions constitutes abuse of the court’s processes and improper conduct that tends to impede, obstruct and degrade the administration of justice and will be punished as contempt of court. Needless to state, the lawyer who files such multiple or repetitious petitions (which obviously delays the execution of a final and executory judgment) subjects himself to disciplinary action for incompetence (for not knowing any better) or for willful violation of his duties as an attorney to act with all good fidelity to the courts, and to maintain only such actions as appear to him to be just and are consistent with truth and honor. The filing of another action concerning the same subject matter, in violation of the doctrine of res judicata, runs contrary to Canon 12 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, which requires a lawyer to exert every effort and consider it his duty to assist in the speedy and efficient administration of justice.  By his actuations, respondent also violated Rule 12.02 and Rule 12.04 of the Code, as well as a lawyer’s mandate “to delay no man for money or malice.” Atty. Josabeth V. Alonso, et al. vs. Atty. Ibaro B. Relaminda, Jr., A.C. No. 8481, August 3, 2010.

Court personnel; grave misconduct and dishonesty. Respondent was found wanting, and her admission to tampering the duplicate and triplicate copies of the court’s official receipts shows her blatant disregard for her responsibilities as an officer of the court. The fact that respondent is willing to pay her shortages does not free her from the consequences of her wrongdoing. As Clerk of Court, respondent is entrusted with delicate functions in the collection of legal fees.  She acts as cashier and disbursement officer of the court; and is tasked to collect and receive all monies paid as legal fees, deposits, fines and dues, and controls the disbursement of the same.  She is designated as custodian of the court’s funds and revenues, records, properties and premises, and shall be liable for any loss or shortage thereof.  Hence, even when there is restitution of funds, unwarranted failure to fulfill these responsibilities deserves administrative sanction, and not even the full payment of the collection shortages will exempt the accountable officer from liability. Her failure to account for the shortage in the funds she was handling, to turn over money deposited with her, and to explain and present evidence thereon constitute gross neglect of duty, dishonesty and grave misconduct. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Marina Garcia Pacheco, COC, MCTC, Paete, Laguna, A.M. No. P-02-1625, August 4, 2010.

Court personnel; misconduct; lack of evidence. We find Judge Manalastas’ recommendation to be in order.  Indeed, PO2 Gabriel failed to prove his complaint against Sheriff Ramos. WHEREFORE, premises considered, the Complaint for Grave Misconduct filed by PO2 Patrick Mejia Gabriel against Sheriff IV William Jose R. Ramos, RTC, Branch 166, Pasig City, is hereby DISMISSED for lack of evidence. PO2 Patrick Mejia Gabriel vs. William Jose R. Ramos, A.M. No.P-10-2837, August 25, 2010.

Judge; conduct unbecoming. Verily, we hold that respondent Judge Belen should be more circumspect in his language in the discharge of his duties.  A judge is the visible representation of the law. Thus, he must behave, at all times, in such a manner that his conduct, official or otherwise, can withstand the most searching public scrutiny. The ethical principles and sense of propriety of a judge are essential to the preservation of the people’s faith in the judicial system. A judge must consistently be temperate in words and in actions.  Respondent Judge Belen’s insulting statements, tending to project complainant’s ignorance of the laws and procedure, coming from his inconsiderate belief that the latter mishandled the cause of his client is obviously and clearly insensitive, distasteful, and inexcusable.  Such abuse of power and authority could only invite disrespect from counsels and from the public.  Patience is one virtue that members of the bench should practice at all times, and courtesy to everyone is always called for. Atty. Raul L. Correa vs. Judge Medel Arnaldo B. Belen, Regional Trial Court, Branch 36 Calamba City, A.M. No. RTJ-10-2242, August 6, 2010.

Judge; delay in rendering decision. To ensure the strict observance of the constitutional mandate for all lower courts to decide or resolve cases or matters within the reglementary period, the Court issued Administrative Circular No. 13-87. And the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary which took effect on June 1, 2004 expressly requires judges to perform all judicial duties, “including the delivery of reserved decisions, efficiently, fairly and with reasonable promptness.” Rule 3.05 of the Code of Judicial Conduct also echoes the mandate to decide or resolve cases or matters within the reglementary period by requiring judges to dispose of the court’s business promptly and decide or resolve cases or matters within the required periods. Heavy workload per se is not an excuse in not observing the reglementary period of deciding cases.  An appointment to the Judiciary is an honor burdened with a heavy responsibility. When respondent accepted the appointment, he also accepted the heavy workload that comes with it. Re: Request of Judge Salvador Ibarreta, Jr., RTC, Br. 8, Davao City, for extension of time to decide, A.M. No. 07-1-05-RTC, August 23, 2010.

Judges; inhibition. The rule on compulsory disqualification and voluntary inhibition of judges is provided under Section 1, Rule 137 of the Rules of Court. While the second paragraph does not expressly enumerate the specific grounds for inhibition and leaves it to the sound discretion of the judge, such should be based on just or valid reasons.  The import of the rule on the voluntary inhibition of judges is that the decision on whether to inhibit is left to the sound discretion and conscience of the judge based on his rational and logical assessment of the circumstances prevailing in the case brought before him.  It makes clear to the occupants of the Bench that outside of pecuniary interest, relationship or previous participation in the matter that calls for adjudication, there might be other causes that could conceivably erode the trait of objectivity, thus calling for inhibition.  That is to betray a sense of realism, for the factors that lead to preferences and predilections are many and varied. The issue of voluntary inhibition is primarily a matter of conscience and sound discretion on the part of the judge.  It is a subjective test, the result of which the reviewing tribunal will not disturb in the absence of any manifest finding of arbitrariness and whimsicality.  The discretion given to trial judges is an acknowledgment of the fact that they are in a better position to determine the issue of inhibition, as they are the ones who directly deal with the parties-litigants in their courtrooms. Inhibition is not allowed at every instance that a schoolmate or classmate appears before the judge as counsel for one of the parties, however.  In one case, the Court ruled that organizational affiliation per se is not a ground for inhibition. Kilosbayan Foundation, et al. vs.  Leoncio M. Janolo, Jr., etc., et al., G.R. No. 180543, August 18, 2010.

Judge; simple misconduct, etc. Respondent Justices cannot lightly regard the legal requirement for all of them to sit together as members of the Fourth Division “in the trial and determination of a case or cases assigned thereto.” It is simply not enough that the three members of the Fourth Division were within hearing and communicating distance of one another at the hearings in question, as they explained in hindsight, because even in those circumstances not all of them sat together in session. It is of no consequence, then, that no malice or corrupt motive impelled respondent Justices into adopting the flawed procedure. As responsible judicial officers, they ought to have been well aware of the indispensability of collegiality to the valid conduct of their trial proceedings. For this reason alone, respondent Justices’ adoption of the irregular procedure cannot be dismissed as a mere deficiency in prudence or as a lapse in judgment on their part, but should be treated as simple misconduct, which is to be distinguished from either gross misconduct or gross ignorance of the law. Justice Ong and Justice Hernandez admitted randomly asking the counsels appearing before them from which law schools they had graduated, and their engaging during the hearings in casual conversation about their respective law schools. They thereby publicized their professional qualifications and manifested a lack of the requisite humility demanded of public magistrates. Their doing so reflected a vice of self-conceit. We point out that publicizing professional qualifications or boasting of having studied in and graduated from certain law schools, no matter how prestigious, might have even revealed, on the part of Justice Ong and Justice Hernandez, their bias for or against some lawyers. Their conduct was impermissible, consequently, for Section 3, Canon 4 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary, demands that judges avoid situations that may reasonably give rise to the suspicion or appearance of favoritism or partiality in their personal relations with individual members of the legal profession who practice regularly in their courts. In this regard, Section 3, Canon 5 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary, mandates judges to carry out judicial duties with appropriate consideration for all persons, such as the parties, witnesses, lawyers, court staff, and judicial colleagues, without differentiation on any irrelevant ground, immaterial to the proper performance of such duties. Assistant Special Prosecutor III Rohermia J. Jamsani-Rodriguez vs. Justice Gregory S. Ong, et al., A.M. No. 08-19-SB-J, August 24, 2010.

Judge; undue delay in rendering decision. It bears stressing that ejectment cases must be resolved with great dispatch.  Their nature calls for it.  That explains why Section 10 of the Revised Rules on Summary Procedure which applies to an ejectment complaint, among others, directs that within 30 days after the receipt of the last affidavits and position papers, or the expiration of the period for filing the same, the trial court should render judgment on the case.  Without any order of extension granted by this Court, the failure to decide even a single case within the required period constitutes gross inefficiency. Rule 3.08 of the Code of Judicial Conduct requires that a judge should be diligent in discharging administrative responsibilities and should maintain professional competence in court management, hence, it is incumbent upon him to devise an efficient recording and filing system so that no disorderliness can affect the flow of cases and their speedy disposition. Josephine Sarmiento, et al. vs. Hon. Aznar D. Lindayag, et al., A.M. No. MTJ-09-1743, August 3, 2010.

Judge; violation of Code of Judicial Conduct. In Ladignon v. Garong, respondent judge’s act of using the official letterhead of his court and signing the same using the word “judge” in his letter-complaint to the First United Methodist Church in Michigan, USA, was held to be violative of Canon 2 of the Code of Judicial Ethics and Rule 2.03 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.  In view of the foregoing, we find respondent judge guilty of violation of  Section  4 of Canon 1 and Section 1 of Canon 4 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary [for committing a similar act].  Michael B. Belen vs. Judge Medel Arnaldo B. Belen, Regional Trial Court, Branch 36 Calamba City, A.M. No. RTJ-08-2139, August 6, 2010.

(Mon thanks Barbara Anne A. Gandionco for her help in preparing this post.)