December 2010 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

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

Administrative proceeding; settlement does not render case moot. The fact that the complainant manifested that he is no longer interested to pursue the administrative case against the respondent since he and the latter have already agreed to settle their dispute amicably would not render the case moot.  The withdrawal of complaints cannot divest the Court of its jurisdiction nor strip it of its power to determine the veracity of the charges made and to discipline, such as the results of its investigation may warrant, an erring respondent.  Administrative actions cannot depend on the will or pleasure of the complainant who may, for reasons of his own, condone what may be destestable.  Neither can the Court be bound by the unilateral act of the complainant in a matter relating to its disciplinary power.  The Court’s interest in the affairs of the judiciary is of paramount concern.  For sure, public interest is at stake in the conduct and actuations of officials and employees of the judiciary, inasmuch as the various programs and efforts of this Court in improving the delivery of justice to the people should not be frustrated and put to naught by private arrangements between the parties.  Fernando P. Chan vs. Joven T. Olegario, Process Server, Regional Trial Court, Branch 6, Iligan City, A.M. No. P-09-2714, December 6, 2010.

Attorney; negligence. Respondent Atty. Elayda failed to inform his clients, petitioners herein, of the dates of hearing and the adverse decision against them, which eventually became final and executory as no appeal was filed therefrom, to the prejudice of his clients. A lawyer is duty bound to uphold and safeguard the interests of his clients.  He should be conscientious, competent and diligent in handling his clients’ cases.  Atty. Elayda should give adequate attention, care, and time to all the cases he is handling.  As the petitioners’ counsel, Atty. Elayda is expected to monitor the progress of said spouses’ case and is obligated to exert all efforts to present every remedy or defense authorized by law to protect the cause espoused by the petitioners. Respondent is guilty of gross negligence. Spouses Virgilio and Angelina Aranda vs. Atty. Emmanuel F. Elayda, A.C. No. 7907. December 15, 2010

Court personnel; conduct unbecoming of court employee. Respondent Olegario, a court process server, evaded the payment of his debt for seven (7) years. Respondent Olegario is guilty of conduct unbecoming of court employee. The Court stressed the need for circumspect and proper behavior on the part of court employees. While it may be just for an individual to incur indebtedness unrestrained by the fact that he is a public officer or employee, caution should be taken to prevent the occurrence of dubious circumstances that might inevitably impair the image of the public office. Employees of the court should always keep in mind that the court is regarded by the public with respect. Certainly, to preserve decency within the judiciary, court personnel must comply with just contractual obligations, act fairly and adhere to high ethical standards. Like all other court personnel, Olegario is expected to be a paragon of uprightness, fairness and honesty not only in all his official conduct but also in his personal actuations, including business and commercial transactions, so as to avoid becoming his court’s albatross of infamy. The penalty imposed by the law is not directed at Olegario’s private life, but at his actuation unbecoming a public official.  Fernando P. Chan vs. Joven T. Olegario, Process Server, Regional Trial Court, Branch 6, Iligan City, A.M. No. P-09-2714, December 6, 2010.

Court personnel; dishonesty. Respondent Genabe, a court staff, continued to render service despite her 30-day suspension and has quarrelsome deportment. Respondent is guilty of conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service and conduct unbecoming of a court employee. The conduct and behavior of everyone connected with the dispensation of justice, from the presiding judge to the lowliest clerk must be characterized with propriety and decorum. Also, every “official and employee of an agency involved in the administration of justice, like the Court of Appeals, from the Presiding Justice to the most junior clerk, should be circumscribed with the heavy burden of responsibility. Atty. Jonna M. Escabarte, et al. vs. Ms. Loida Marcelina J. Genabe / Ms. Loida Marcelina J. Genabe vs. Judge Bonifacio Sanz Maceda, et al., A.M. No. P-09-2602, December 1, 2010.

Court personnel; dishonesty. Respondent Manubag falsified her Personal Data Sheet (PDS) in connection with her application for the position of clerk of court by stating therein that she was a Bachelor of Science in Commerce graduate when in fact she was not. Dishonesty means 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. The significance of accomplishing PDS with utmost honesty cannot be overemphasized. It is a requirement under Civil Service Rules and Regulations in connection with one’s employment in the government.  Thus, the making of false statements in completing the PDS is intimately connected with such employment. Making erroneous entries to accomplish the PDS amounts to dishonesty and falsification of an official document. Dishonesty and falsification are considered grave offenses for which the extreme penalty of dismissal from the service of employees found guilty of such offenses is prescribed even for the first offense. Retired employee, MTC, Sibonga, Cebu vs. Merlyn G. Manubag, Clerk of Court II, MTC, A.M. No. P-10-2833. December 14, 2010.

Court personnel; dishonesty and gross misconduct. Respondents, clerks of court, failed to deposit collections and tampered deposit slips. Respondents are guilty of dishonesty and gross misconduct, which are grave offenses punishable by dismissal. The Clerk of Court performs a very delicate function.  He or she is the custodian of the court’s funds and revenues, records, property and premises.  Being the custodian thereof, the Clerk of Court is liable for any loss, shortage, destruction or impairment of said funds and property.  Hence, Clerks of Court have always been reminded of their duty to immediately deposit the various funds received by them to the authorized government depositories, for they are not supposed to keep the funds in their custody.  The same should be deposited immediately upon receipt thereof with the City, Municipal or Provincial Treasurer where the court is located. Delayed remittance of cash collections by Clerks of Court and cash clerks constitutes gross neglect of duty.  The failure of a public officer to remit funds upon demand by an authorized officer shall be prima facie evidence that the public officer has put such missing funds or property to personal use. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Juliet C. Banag, Clerk of Court and Ms. Evelyn R. Galvez, Interpreter etc., A.M. No. P-09-2638, December 7, 2010.

Court personnel; simple misconduct. Respondent sheriff levied upon a personal property not belonging to the judgment debtor. He was found guilty of simple misconduct. The sheriff cannot and should not be the one to determine which property to levy if the judgment obligor cannot immediately pay because it is the judgment obligor who is given the option to choose which property or part thereof may be levied upon to satisfy the judgment. It was improper for respondent to have enforced the writ of execution on a property that did not belong to the judgment debtor/obligor. Respondent evidently failed to perform his duty with utmost diligence. “Misconduct” is defined as any unlawful conduct, on the part of a person concerned in the administration of justice, prejudicial to the rights of parties or to the right determination of the cause. It generally means wrongful, improper, unlawful conduct motivated by a premeditated, obstinate or intentional purpose. Crispin Sarmiento vs. Luisito P. Mendiola, Sheriff III, Metropolitan Trial Court, Branch 20, Manila, A.M. No. P-07-2383. December 15, 2010

Court personnel; simple neglect. A sheriff’s duty in the execution of a writ issued by a court is purely ministerial.  When a writ is placed in the hands of a sheriff, it is his duty, in the absence of instructions, to proceed with reasonable celerity and promptness to execute it according to its mandate.  Sheriff’s must exert every effort to see to it that the final stage in the litigation process – the execution of a judgment – is carried out in order to ensure a speedy and efficient administration of justice.  A decision left unexecuted or indefinitely delayed due to their inefficiency renders it useless.  Worse, parties prejudiced by the inaction tend to condemn the entire judicial system for the lapse.

Respondent Deputy Sheriff Velasco failed to implement the writ of execution and submit period report as required by Section 14, Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. His acts show his lack of diligence and zeal in the performance of his duties. By his actuations, he displayed conduct short of the stringent standards required of Court employees.  The Court found him liable for simple neglect of duty, which has been defined as the failure of an employee to give one’s attention to a task expected of him, signifying a disregard of duty resulting from carelessness or indifference. German Agunday vs. Lemuel B. Velasco, A.M. No. P-05-2003, December 6, 2010.

Government lawyers; prohibition against private practice. As a rule, government lawyers are not allowed to engage in the private practice of their profession during their incumbency.  By way of exception, a government lawyer can engage in the practice of his or her profession under the following conditions: first, the private practice is authorized by the Constitution or by the law; and second, the practice will not conflict or tend to conflict with his or her official functions.  The last paragraph of Section 7 of RA 6713 provides an exception to the exception.  In case of lawyers separated from the government service who are covered under subparagraph (b) (2) of Section 7 of R.A. No. 6713, a one-year prohibition is imposed to practice law in connection with any matter before the office he used to be with.

Rule 6.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility echoes this restriction and prohibits lawyers, after leaving the government service, to accept engagement or employment in connection with any matter in which he had intervened while in the said service.  The keyword in Rule 6.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility is the term “intervene” which we previously interpreted to include an act of a person who has the power to influence the proceedings.  Otherwise stated, to fall within the ambit of Rule 6.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, the respondent must have accepted engagement or employment in a matter which, by virtue of his public office, he had previously exercised power to  influence the outcome of the proceedings.

As the records show, no evidence exists showing that the respondent previously interfered with the sales application covering Manuel’s land when the former was still a member of the Committee on Awards.  The complainant, too, failed to sufficiently establish that the respondent was engaged in the practice of law.  At face value, the legal service rendered by the respondent was limited only in the preparation of a single document and private practice of law contemplates a succession of acts of the same nature habitually or customarily holding one’s self to the public as a lawyer. Jovito S. Olazo vs. Justice Dante O. Tinga (Ret.), A.M. No. 10-5-7-SC. December 7, 2010.

Government lawyers; promoting private interests. Rule 6.02 of the Code of Professional Responsibility prohibits a lawyer in the government service from using his or her public position to: (1) promote private interests; (2) advance private interests; or (3) allow private interest to interfere with his or her public duties. The restriction extends to all government lawyers who use their public offices to promote their private interests.  Promotion of private interest includes soliciting gifts or anything of monetary value in any transaction requiring the approval of his or her office, or may be affected by the functions of his or her office.  Private interest is not limited to direct interest, but extends to advancing the interest of relatives.  We also ruled that private interest interferes with public duty when the respondent uses the office and his or her knowledge of the intricacies of the law to benefit relatives.

Applying these legal precepts to the facts of the case, we find the absence of any concrete proof that the respondent (retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Dante O. Tinga) abused his position as a Congressman and as a member of the Committee on Awards in the manner defined under Rule 6.02 of the Code of Professional Responsibility.  Jovito S. Olazo vs. Justice Dante O. Tinga (Ret.), A.M. No. 10-5-7-SC. December 7, 2010.

Judge; making untruthful statements. Respondent Judge failed to indicate in his Certificates of Service for May and June 2005 his absences. Canon 3 generally mandates that a judge should perform official duties honestly, and with impartiality and diligence.  Rule 3.01 requires that a judge be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence, while Rule 3.09 commands a judge to observe high standards of public service and fidelity at all times. A judge’s submission of false certificates of service seriously undermines and reflects on the honesty and integrity expected of an officer of the court.  This is so because a certificate of service is not merely a means to one’s paycheck but is an instrument by which the Court can fulfill the constitutional mandate of the people’ s right to a speedy disposition of cases. Respondent Judge is guilty of making untruthful statements in his Certificates of Service. Atty. Norlinda R. Amante-Descallar vs. Judge Reinerio [Abraham] B. Ramas, A.M. No. RTJ-06-2015. December 15, 2010.

Judge; misconduct. Judge Maceda was accused of mishandling the court’s training fund obtained from the local government because of lack of liquidation report. Judge cannot be held liable. Nevertheless, in view of the nature of the fund, which required no liquidation and is not an accountable judicial fund), the Court believed that the Judge should have taken steps—such as informing the court staff or filing of a report with the Office of Court Administrator—on how the fund was handled. This precautionary move would have placed the Judge above any suspicion of impropriety. Judges shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all their activities. Atty. Jonna M. Escabarte, et al. vs. Ms. Loida Marcelina J. Genabe / Ms. Loida Marcelina J. Genabe vs. Judge Bonifacio Sanz Maceda, et al., A.M. No. P-09-2602, December 1, 2010.

Judge; undue delay in rendering decision. Respondent Judge Asdala violated the 90-day reglementary period for rendering decisions. Respondent judge is guilty of undue delay in rendering a decision. Section 15, Article VIII of the Constitution requires judges to decide all cases within three (3) months from the date of submission. This Constitutional policy is reiterated in Rule 1.02, Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct which states that a judge should administer justice impartially and without delay; and Rule 3.05, Canon 3 of the same Code provides that a judge shall dispose of the court’s business promptly and decide cases within the required periods. The 90-day period is mandatory. Failure to decide cases within the reglementary period constitutes a ground for administrative liability except when there are valid reasons for the delay. The raison d’etre behind the rule on mandatory compliance with the constitutionally prescribed periods is that the honor and integrity of the judiciary is measured not only by the fairness and correctness of the decisions rendered, but also by the efficiency with which disputes are resolved. Thus, judges must perform their official duties with utmost diligence if public confidence in the judiciary is to be preserved. There is no excuse for mediocrity in the performance of judicial functions. The position of judge exacts nothing less than faithful observance of the law and the Constitution in the discharge of official duties.  Carmen Edaño vs. G. Asdala, A.M. No. RTJ-06-2007. December 6, 2010.

(Mon thanks Rachel T. Uy for her help in preparing this post.)