Dissension in the Court: September 2011

The following is a summary of a recent decision on an administrative matter promulgated by the High Court in September 2011 where one Justice felt compelled to express his dissent from the decision penned by the ponente-who-must-not-be-named.

1.         Respect Thy Co-Equals (“Per Curiam” vs. Abad)

On November 29, 1997, the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Iligan City rendered a decision, holding the Mindanao State University (MSU) liable for damages amounting to P2,726,189.90 on account of a vehicular accident that resulted in one death and several physical injuries. The Court of Appeals (CA) affirmed the Iligan City RTC decision and the CA decision subsequently lapsed to finality. Eventually, on January 19, 2009, an Entry of Judgment was made.

On March 10, 2009, the Iligan City RTC issued a writ of execution.  Having failed to comply with the writ, on March 24, 2009, Sheriff Gerard Peter Gaje served a Notice of Garnishment on the MSU’s depository bank, the Marawi City Branch of the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP), garnishing the amount of the judgment.

Acting on behalf of the MSU, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) opposed the motion for execution, albeit belatedly. The opposition was denied, however, by the Iligan City RTC. The MSU responded to the denial by subsequently filing a petition with the Marawi City RTC which was eventually raffled to Judge Rasad G. Balindong, for prohibition and mandamus with an application for the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) and/or preliminary injunction against the LBP and Sheriff Gaje.  The petition essentially asserted that the funds being garnished were government funds which thus required certain procedures involving the Commission on Audit (COA) before they could be garnished and that the act of garnishment would disrupt the MSU’s operations. The petition of MSU was raffled to the RTC, Marawi City, Branch 8, presided by respondent Judge.

Judge Balindong set the application for the issuance of a TRO for hearing following which he issued a TRO restraining Sheriff Gaje from garnishing P2,726,189.90 from the MSU’s LBP-Marawi City Branch account.

Thereafter, the respondent Judge conducted a hearing on the application for the issuance of a writ of preliminary injunction.  Sheriff Gaje moved to dismiss the case on the ground of lack of jurisdiction and Judge Balindong granted the motion and dismissed the case.

Atty. Tomas Ong Cabili, counsel of the private plaintiffs in the Iligan City RTC case filed a complaint charging Judge Balindong with Gross Ignorance of the Law, Grave Abuse of Authority, Abuse of Discretion, and/or Grave Misconduct Prejudicial to the Interest of the Judicial Service for interfering with the order of a co-equal court, Branch 6 of the Iligan City RTC, by issuing the TRO to enjoin Sheriff Gaje from garnishing P2,726,189.90 from the MSU’s LBP-Marawi City Branch account.  The Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) found Judge Balindong guilty of gross ignorance of the law for violating the elementary rule of non-interference with the proceedings of a court of co-equal jurisdiction and recommended a P40,000 fine.

The majority, speaking through the enigmatic Justice Per Curiam, agreed with the findings of the OCA that Judge Balindong was grossly ignorant of the law.

The majority reiterated that “the doctrine of judicial stability or non-interference in the regular orders or judgments of a co-equal court is an elementary principle in the administration of justice: no court can interfere by injunction with the judgments or orders of another court of concurrent jurisdiction having the power to grant the relief sought by the injunction. The rationale for the rule is founded on the concept of jurisdiction: a court that acquires jurisdiction over the case and renders judgment therein has jurisdiction over its judgment, to the exclusion of all other coordinate courts, for its execution and over all its incidents, and to control, in furtherance of justice, the conduct of ministerial officers acting in connection with this judgment.

Justice Per Curiam reminded the parties that a case where an execution order has been issued is considered as still pending, so that all the proceedings on the execution are still proceedings in the suit.

According to the Court, “Section 16, Rule 39 of the Rules of Court finds no application to this case since this provision applies to claims made by a third person, other than the judgment obligor or his agent…If Sheriff Gaje committed any irregularity or exceeded his authority in the enforcement of the writ, the proper recourse for the MSU was to file a motion with, or an application for relief from, the same court which issued the decision, not from any other court, or to elevate the matter to the CA on a petition for certiorari.

Thus, the majority confirmed the findings of the OCA but, in an act of leniency (the basis for which was not described), the fine was reduced to P30,000.

Justice Roberto A. Abad, the lone dissenter, pointed out that there were real legal issues involved here in connection with the manner by which the Sheriff was implementing the writ of execution over government funds.  He reasons that what Judge Balindong sought to restrain by his TRO was not the Iligan City RTC’s judgment per se, but merely restricted Sheriff Gaje’s discretion in determining what assets of the MSU he can validly execute upon.  Per Justice Abad, from these circumstances, it is clear that Sheriff Gaje actually exceeded his authority in serving the notice of garnishment against the Congress-appropriated funds of MSU that were deposited with Land Bank.

What had occurred in this case, per the dissenter, is commonplace:

Actually the issuance by one court of a TRO or writ of preliminary injunction against the sheriff of another court who attempts to enforce a judgment against properties that do not belong to the judgment debtor is common place, is authorized by the rules, and is not regarded as interference with the authority of a co-equal body. The party prejudiced by the execution has an option to raise the matter before the court that rendered the judgment or before some other appropriate court.

But, Justice Abad adds, the problem here is that the OSG had already filed an opposition to the issuance of the writ of execution against MSU before the Iligan City RTC which was denied. Consequently, the proper remedy for the MSU was a special civil action with the CA assailing such denial.

In defense of Judge Balindong, the dissenter believes he cannot be regarded as incorrigibly incompetent and if at all, only incurred an error of judgment. In fact, he declined to issue a writ of preliminary injunction and instead dismissed the action for lack of jurisdiction. He, therefore, acted reasonably, prudently, and appropriately.

While Justice Abad expresses that Judge Balindong does not deserve either the finding that he was guilty of gross ignorance of the law or the harsh penalty that the majority prescribes for him, he says that his vote is to reduce the penalty to P20,000.

(Atty. Tomas Ong Cabili vs. Judge Rasad G. Balindong, Acting Pres. Judge, RTC, Br 8 Marawi City  September 6, 2011 A.M. No. RTJ-10-2225 See dissenting opinion here.)

(author’s note: to the mind of this author, there are several thoughts arising from this case that has piqued his interest: (i) first of all, why is it a per curiam decision?  This does not seem to fit into the mold of the typical per curiam decisions.  The penalty imposed is only P30,000.  Could it be perhaps because the Judge might be from Marawi City? (ii) while this author does not question the ability of the Court to supervise and discipline members of the judiciary, Judges probably wish that the legal counsels that caused such unfortunate incidents in the first place should publicly share in the incrimination (if not the fine)—e.g., the OSG for a belated opposition to the implementation of the writ of execution and the counsel of the MSU—was it still the OSG?—who opted for the course of action that the High Court found so reprehensible. (iii) While the dissenter appeared to be more compassionate towards Judge Balindong, in truth, he actually has a more stringent standard for judicial conduct than the rest of his brethren.  For acting in a manner that he has described as reasonable, prudent and appropriate, Justice Abad feels a fine of P20,000 is justified.)

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