April 2011 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are selected April 2011 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Attorney; negligence. A complaint for disciplinary action was filed against Atty. Macario Ga due to his failure to reconstitute or turn over to his client the records of the case in his possession. The Code of Professional Responsibility mandates lawyers to serve their clients with competence and diligence.  Rule 18.03 and Rule 18.04 state:  Rule 18.03.  A lawyer shall not neglect a legal matter entrusted to him, and his negligence in connection therewith shall render him liable; Rule 18.04.  A lawyer shall keep the client informed of the status of his case and shall respond within a reasonable time to the client’s request for information.  Respondent Atty. Ga breached these duties when he failed to reconstitute or turn over the records of the case to his client, herein complainant Gone. His negligence manifests lack of competence and diligence required of every lawyer.  His failure to comply with the request of his client was a gross betrayal of his fiduciary duty and a breach of the trust reposed upon him by his client.  Respondent’s sentiments against complainant Gone is not a valid reason for him to renege on his obligation as a lawyer.  The moment he agreed to handle the case, he was bound to give it his utmost attention, skill and competence.  Public interest requires that he exert his best efforts and all his learning and ability in defense of his client’s cause.  Those who perform that duty with diligence and candor not only safeguard the interests of the client, but also serve the ends of justice.  They do honor to the bar and help maintain the community’s respect for the legal profession.  Patricio Gone v. Atty. Macario Ga, A.C. No. 7771, April 6, 2011.

Court personnel; conduct unbecoming.  Sheriff Villarosa’s failure to comply with Section 9 of Rule 39 by delaying the deposit of the final amount he received (from a judgment debtor pursuant to a writ of execution) and not delivering the other amounts to the Clerk of Court; and to faithfully account for the amounts he received thru his failure to deliver the exact amounts, are clear manifestation of conduct unbecoming of a government employee, tantamount to grave abuse of authority and dishonesty.  The Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees enunciates the state policy to promote a high standard of ethics in public service, and enjoins public officials and employees to discharge their duties with utmost responsibility, integrity and competence. Section 4 of the Code lays down the norms of conduct which every public official and employee shall observe in the discharge and execution of their official duties, specifically providing that they shall at all times respect the rights of others, and refrain from doing acts contrary to law, good morals, good customs, public policy, public order, and public interest. Thus, any conduct contrary to these standards would qualify as conduct unbecoming of a government employee.   Ma. Chedna Romero v. Pacifico B. Villarosa, Jr., Sheriff IV, RTC, Br 17 Palompon, Leyte, A.M. No. P-11-2913, April 12, 2011.

Court personnel; falsification of public records. Respondent misrepresented in his Personal Data Sheet his educational attainment and civil service eligibility for appointment as Clerk of Court III of the RTC of Cebu City.  Section 52, Rule XIV of the Omnibus Rules Implementing Book V of Executive Order No. 292 (Administrative Code of 1987) and other pertinent Civil Service Laws classify dishonesty and falsification of a public document as grave offenses such that even the first offense of this nature is already punishable by dismissal from the service.  Apropos is this Court’s counsel in Aldecoa-Delorino v. Remigio-Versoza on how it views, and intends to deal with such acts of dishonesty, thus:  Let this case serve as a warning to all court personnel that the Court, in the exercise of its administrative supervision over all lower courts and their personnel, will not hesitate to enforce the full extent of the law in disciplining and purging from the Judiciary all those who are not befitting the integrity and dignity of the institution, even if it would mean their dismissal from the service despite their length of service. Any act of dishonesty, misrepresentation, or falsification done by a court employee that may lead to moral decadence shall be dealt with severely. Respondent Clerk of Court is found guilty of gross dishonesty and falsification of public records, and is dismissed from the service.  Antonio Exequiel A. Momongan v. Primitivo A. Sumayo, Clerk III and Ariel A. Momongan, Process Server, A.M. No. P-10-2767, April 12, 2011.

Court personnel; gross dishonesty. Respondent misrepresented in his Personal Data Sheet his educational attainment and civil service eligibility for appointment as Clerk of Court III of the RTC of Cebu City. This misrepresentation amounts to plain and simple dishonesty which, in this case, refers to the act of intentionally making a false statement on any material fact in securing one’s appointment.  It is a serious offense reflective of a person’s character and the moral decay he suffers from, virtually destroying all honor, virtue and integrity. It is a malevolent act that has no place in the judiciary.  No other office in the government service exacts a greater demand for moral righteousness from an employee than a position in the judiciary.  Respondent’s insistence that any deficiency arising from the lack of a college diploma was cured by his satisfactory performance ratings arising from his many years in public service deserves scant consideration. But even assuming arguendo that respondent’s ratings mirror his performance, the core issue here is his fitness to continue serving in a sensitive post.  Antonio Exequiel A. Momongan v. Primitivo A. Sumayo, Clerk III and Ariel A. Momongan, Process Server, A.M. No. P-10-2767, April 12, 2011.

Court personnel; gross negligence. We agree with the OCA finding that Atty. Fabro was guilty of gross negligence of duty as branch clerk of court for being remiss in his duty to transmit to the CA the records of civil cases within the required period (the records were elevated to the Court of Appeals after six years from issuance of the RTC Order requiring him to do so).  Judge Renato A. Fuentes v. Atty. Rogelio F. Fabro, A.M. No. P-10-2791. April 6, 2011.

Court personnel; immoral conduct.  This case involves an administrative complaint filed against a court stenographer for Disgraceful and Immoral Conduct.  The Court defined immoral conduct as conduct that is willful, flagrant or shameless, and that shows a moral indifference to the opinion of the good and respectable members of the community.  To justify suspension or disbarment, the act complained of must not only be immoral, but grossly immoral. A grossly immoral act is one that is so corrupt and false as to constitute a criminal act or an act so unprincipled or disgraceful as to be reprehensible to a high degree. Mere sexual relations between two unmmaried and consenting adults is not enough to warrant administrative sanction for illicit behavior. The Court has repeatedly held that voluntary intimacy between a man and a woman who are not married, where both are not under any impediment to marry and where no deceit exists, is neither a criminal nor an unprincipled act that would warrant disbarment or disciplinary action.  While the Court has the power to regulate official conduct and, to a certain extent, private conduct, it is not within our authority to decide on matters touching on employees’ personal lives, especially those that will affect their and their family’s future. We cannot intrude into the question of whether they should or should not marry. However, we take this occasion to remind judiciary employees to be more circumspect in their adherence to their obligations under the Code of Professional Responsibility. The conduct of court personnel must be free from any taint of impropriety or scandal, not only with respect to their official duties but also in their behavior outside the Court as private individuals. This is the best way to preserve and protect the integrity and the good name of our courts. In this case, the acts complained of cannot be considered as disgraceful or grossly immoral conduct.  Mary Jane Abanag v. Nicolas B. Mabute, A.M. No. P-11-2922, April 4, 2011.

Judge; disciplinary action.  Assuming for the sake of argument that respondent judge erred in issuing the questioned order, he cannot be held liable for his official acts, no matter how erroneous, for as long as he acted in good faith. A judge is not required to be faultless because to demand otherwise would make the judicial office untenable for no one called upon to try the facts or interpret the law in the administration of justice can be infallible. As a matter of policy, a judge cannot be subject to disciplinary action for his erroneous actions, unless it can be shown that they were accompanied by bad faith, malice, corrupt motives, or improper considerations. In the absence of such proof, the decision or order in question is presumed to have been issued in good faith by respondent judge.  This was emphasized in the case of Balsamo v. Judge Suan, where the Court explained:  “The Court has to be shown acts or conduct of the judge clearly indicative of arbitrariness or prejudice before the latter can be branded the stigma of being biased and partial.  Thus, not every error or mistake that a judge commits in the performance of his duties renders him liable, unless he is shown to have acted in bad faith or with deliberate intent to do an injustice.  Good faith and absence of malice, corrupt motives or improper considerations are sufficient defenses in which a judge charged with ignorance of the law can find refuge.”  Antonio Monticalbo v. Judge Cresente F. Maraya, Jr., RTC, Br. 11, Calubian, Leyte, A.M. No. RTJ-09-2197, April 13, 2011.

Judge; gross ignorance of law. Complainant insists that respondent judge erred in ruling that his counterclaim for attorney’s fees and litigation expenses was covered by the Rules on Summary Procedure and points out that his claim exceeds the P10,000.00 limit set in the Rule on Summary Procedure. Complainant is mistaken.  The rule now has placed the ceiling at P100,000.00.   A judge can be held liable for gross ignorance of the law if it can be shown that he committed an error so gross and patent as to produce an inference of bad faith.  In addition to this, the acts complained of must not only be contrary to existing law and jurisprudence, but should also be motivated by bad faith, fraud, dishonesty, and corruption. Antonio Monticalbo v. Judge Cresente F. Maraya, Jr., RTC, Br. 11, Calubian, Leyte, A.M. No. RTJ-09-2197, April 13, 2011.

Judge; misconduct. We pass upon the unsigned letter complaint for administrative action and disbarment against Justice Inting for gross neglect of judicial duties in deciding a case.  In administrative proceedings, the complainant has the burden of proving the allegations in the complaint with substantial evidence, i.e., that amount of relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to justify a conclusion.  We set the applicable standard in deciding cases involving accusations of misconduct leveled at judges in Concerned Lawyers of Bulacan v. Villalon-Pornillos, where we said:  “The burden of substantiating the charges in an administrative proceeding against court officials and employees falls on the complainant, who must be able to prove the allegations in the complaint with substantial evidence. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the presumption that respondent regularly performed her duties will prevail. Moreover, in the absence of cogent proof, bare allegations of misconduct cannot prevail over the presumption of regularity in the performance of official functions. In fact, an administrative complaint leveled against a judge must always be examined with a discriminating eye, for its consequential effects are, by their nature, highly penal, such that the respondent stands to face the sanction of dismissal and/or disbarment. The Court does not thus give credence to charges based on mere suspicion and speculation.” Given the lack of any evidence to prove that Justice Inting acted with any bad faith or ill-motive, we dismiss the complaint against her.  Re: Complaint of Concerned Members of Chinese Grocers Association Against Justice Socorro B. Inting of the Court of Appeals, A.M. OCA IPI No. 10-177-CA-J, April 12, 2011.

Judge; presumption of good faith.  In cases where a judge is charged with bribery or grave misconduct, bias or partiality cannot be presumed. Neither can bad faith or malice be inferred just because the judgment or order rendered by respondent is adverse to complainant.  In order to merit disciplinary action, it must be established that respondent’s actions were motivated by bad faith, dishonesty or hatred or were attended by fraud, dishonesty or corruption.  In the absence of such proof, the decision or order in question is presumed to have been issued in good faith by respondent judge.  This was emphasized in the case of Balsamo v. Judge Suan, where the Court explained:  “The Court has to be shown acts or conduct of the judge clearly indicative of arbitrariness or prejudice before the latter can be branded the stigma of being biased and partial.  Thus, not every error or mistake that a judge commits in the performance of his duties renders him liable, unless he is shown to have acted in bad faith or with deliberate intent to do an injustice.  Good faith and absence of malice, corrupt motives or improper considerations are sufficient defenses in which a judge charged with ignorance of the law can find refuge.” Antonio Monticalbo v. Judge Cresente F. Maraya, Jr., RTC, Br. 11, Calubian, Leyte, A.M. No. RTJ-09-2197, April 13, 2011.  

Justice; conduct unbecoming. 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.  Judges should be dignified in demeanor, and refined in speech. In performing their judicial duties, they should not manifest bias or prejudice by word or conduct towards any person or group on irrelevant grounds. Their language must be guarded and measured, lest the best of intentions be misconstrued. 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.  In view of the foregoing, Justice Ong and Justice Hernandez were guilty of unbecoming conduct, which is defined as improper performance. Unbecoming conduct “applies to a broader range of transgressions of rules not only of social behavior but of ethical practice or logical procedure or prescribed method.”  Assistant Special Prosecutor III Rohermina J. Jamsani-Rodriguez v. Justices Gregory S. Ong, et al., A.M. No. 08-19-SB-J, April 12, 2011.

Justice; simple misconduct. The procedure adopted by respondent Justices for their provincial hearings was in blatant disregard of PD 1606, as amended, the Rules of Court, and the Revised Internal Rules of the Sandiganbayan. Even worse, their adoption of the procedure arbitrarily denied the benefit of a hearing before a duly constituted Division of the Sandiganbayan to all the affected litigants, including the State, thereby rendering the integrity and efficacy of their proceedings open to serious challenge.    Judges are not common individuals whose gross errors men forgive and time forgets. They are expected to have more than just a modicum acquaintance with the statutes and procedural rules. 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. The respondent Justices were not liable for gross misconduct – defined as the transgression of some established or definite rule of action, more particularly, unlawful behavior or gross negligence, or the corrupt or persistent violation of the law or disregard of well-known legal rules – considering that the explanations they have offered herein, which the complainant did not refute, revealed that they strove to maintain their collegiality by holding their separate hearings within sight and hearing distance of one another. Neither were they liable for gross ignorance of the law, which must be based on reliable evidence to show that the act complained of was ill-motivated, corrupt, or inspired by an intention to violate the law, or in persistent disregard of well-known legal rules; on the contrary, none of these circumstances was attendant herein, for the respondent Justices have convincingly shown that they had not been ill-motivated or inspired by an intention to violate any law or legal rule in adopting the erroneous procedure, but had been seeking, instead, to thereby expedite their disposition of cases in the provinces.  Assistant Special Prosecutor III Rohermina J. Jamsani-Rodriguez v. Justices Gregory S. Ong, et al., A.M. No. 08-19-SB-J, April 12, 2011.

(Mon thanks Angela de Guzman for her help in preparing this post.  This post will be updated when the remaining April 2011 cases are published.)

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