February 2012 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are select February 2012 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Administrative cases against lawyers; prescriptive period.  The two-year prescriptive period for initiating a complaint against a lawyer for disbarment or suspension provided under Section 1, Rule VIII of the Rules of Procedure of the IBP Commission on Bar Discipline should be construed to mean two years from the date of discovery of the professional misconduct.  Nesa Isenhardt vs. Atty. Leonardo M. Real, A.C. No. 8254, February 15, 2012.

Attorney; disqualification as notary public. A notary public should not notarize a document unless the person who signs it is the same person who executed it, personally appearing before him to attest to the contents and the truth of what are stated therein. This is to enable the notary public to verify the genuineness of the signature of the acknowledging party and to ascertain that the document is the party’s free act. The duties of a notary public is dictated by public policy and impressed with public interest. It is not a meaningless ministerial act of acknowledging documents executed by parties who are willing to pay the fees for notarization.  It is of no moment that the subject SPA was not utilized by the grantee for the purpose it was intended because the property was allegedly transferred from complainant to her brother by virtue of a deed of sale consummated between them. What is being penalized is respondent’s act of notarizing a document despite the absence of one of the parties. A notarized document is by law entitled to full credit upon its face and it is for this reason that notaries public must observe the basic requirements in notarizing documents.  Otherwise, the confidence of the public in notarized documents will be undermined.  Nesa Isenhardt vs. Atty. Leonardo M. Real, A.C. No. 8254, February 15, 2012.

Attorney; government service; applicability of Code of Professional Responsibility.  The Code of Professional Responsibility does not cease to apply to a lawyer simply because he has joined the government service. Where a lawyer’s misconduct as a government official is of such nature as to affect his qualification as a lawyer or to show moral delinquency, then he may be disciplined as a member of the bar on such grounds.  Martin Lahn III and James P. Concepcion vs. Labor Arbiter Jovencio Li. Mayor, Jr.,  A.C. No. 7430,  February 15, 2012.

Attorney; gross ignorance of the law.  The respondent labor arbiter, being part of the quasi-judicial system of our government, performs official functions that are akin to those of judges. Accordingly, the present controversy may be approximated to administrative cases of judges whose decisions, including the manner of rendering the same, were made subject of administrative cases. While a judge may not always be held liable for 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.  The unfounded insistence of the respondent on his supposed authority to issue writs of preliminary injunction and/or temporary restraining order, taken together with the delay in the resolution of the said motion for reconsideration, would clearly show that the respondent deliberately intended to cause prejudice to the complainants. Martin Lahn III and James P. Concepcion vs. Labor Arbiter Jovencio Li. Mayor, Jr., A.C. No. 7430,  February 15, 2012.

Court personnel; dishonesty. Dishonesty has been defined as the 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. Dishonesty, being in the nature of a grave offense, carries the extreme penalty of dismissal from the service with forfeiture of retirement benefits except accrued leave credits, and perpetual disqualification for reemployment in government service. Given the total absence of evidence to the contrary, the presumption that respondent clerk of court punched his DTR to make it appear he was at the office on February 26, 2010 when he was in fact absent still prevails. Dishonesty is a malevolent act that has no place in the judiciary.  Public service requires utmost integrity and discipline.  A public servant must exhibit at all times the highest sense of honesty and integrity, for no less than the Constitution declares that a public office is a public trust, and all public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, and serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency.  Leave Division, Office of the Adrministrative Services, Office of the Court Administrator vs. Leoncio K. Gutierrez III, Clerk III, Regional Trial Court, Branch 116, Pasay City. A.M. No. P-11-2951, February 15, 2012.

Court personnel; dishonesty, misrepresentation. OCA Circular No. 49-2003 provides that court personnel who wish to travel abroad must secure a travel authority from the Office of the Court Administrator. Section 67 of the Omnibus Rules on Leave provides that any violation of the leave laws, rules or regulations, or any misrepresentation or deception in connection with an application for leave shall be a ground for disciplinary action. The respondent court stenographer traveled without securing a travel authority and did not state her foreign travel in her leave application. She is guilty of violating at least two office rules and regulations. This shows deception amounting to dishonesty.

Dishonesty means the concealment of truth in a matter of fact relevant to one’s office or connected with the performance of his duties. It is an absence of integrity, a disposition to betray, cheat, deceive or defraud, bad faith. The discrepancy in the respondent’s date of birth in her records does not amount to dishonesty, as she made no false statement. No deliberate intent to mislead, deceive or defraud appears from the cited circumstances of this case. The respondent’s date of birth is not a fact directly relevant to her functions or qualification to office or connected with the performance of her duties. Sheila G. Del Rosario, Court Stenographer III, RTC, Br. 36, Santiago City, Isabela vs. Mary Anne C. Pascua, Court Stenographer III, same court. A.M. No. P-11-2999. February 27, 2012.

Court personnel; habitual absenteeism.  Administrative Circular No. 14-2002 provides that an employee is considered habitually absent if the employee incurred unauthorized absences exceeding the 2.5 days allowed per month for three months in a semester or at least three consecutive months during the year. In imposing penalty of habitual absenteeism in administrative cases, however, the court may take into consideration mitigating circumstances. The presence of factors such as length of service in the judiciary, acknowledgment of infractions and feeling of remorse, and family circumstances, among other things, play an important role in the imposition of penalties. Judge Lucina Alpez Dayaon, etc. vs. Jesusa V. De Leon. A.M. No. P-11-2926, February 1, 2012

Judge; gross ignorance of law and undue delay. Well- settled is the rule that an injunction cannot be issued to transfer possession or control of a property to another when the legal title is in dispute between the parties and the legal title has not been clearly established.  In this case, respondent judge evidently disregarded this established doctrine when he granted the preliminary injunction in favor of Pagels whose legal title is disputed.  When the law involved is simple and elementary, lack of conversance with it constitutes gross ignorance of the law.  Gross ignorance of the law is the disregard of basic rules and settled jurisprudence. When the inefficiency springs from a failure to consider so basic and elemental a rule, a law or a principle in the discharge of his functions, a judge is either too incompetent and undeserving of the position and title he holds or he is too vicious that the oversight or omission was deliberately done in bad faith and in grave abuse of judicial authority. A judge may also be administratively liable if shown to have been motivated by bad faith, fraud, dishonesty or corruption in ignoring, contradicting or failing to apply settled law and jurisprudence. Atty. Rene Medina, et al. vs. Judge Victor Canoy, et al. A.M. RTJ-11-2298, February 22, 2012.

Judges; delay in conducting summary hearing to extend the 72-hr TRO; gross ignorance of law; requirement of bad faith, fraud, dishonesty, or corruption. Judges are not administratively responsible for what they may do in the exercise of their judicial functions when acting within their legal powers and jurisdiction. 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. To hold otherwise would be to render judicial office untenable, for no one called upon to try the facts or interpret the law in the process of administering justice can be infallible in his judgment. To constitute gross ignorance of the law, it is not enough that the subject decision, order or actuation of the respondent judge in the performance of his official duties is contrary to existing law and jurisprudence but, most importantly, he must be moved by bad faith, fraud, dishonesty or corruption. Complainants failed to adduce proof to show that respondent judge was motivated by bad faith, ill will or malicious motive when he granted the TRO and preliminary injunction. In addition, respondent judge should not be penalized for failing to conduct the required summary hearing within 72 hours from the issuance of the original TRO. Though the Rules require the presiding judge to conduct a summary hearing before the expiration of the 72 hours, it could not be complied with because of the remoteness and inaccessibility of the trial court from the parties’ addresses. Sps. Democrito and Olivia Lago vs. Judge Godofredo B. Abul, Jr. RTC, Br. 43, Gingoog City. A.M. No. RTJ-10-2255, February 8, 2012.

Judges; immorality vs. simple misconduct. The New Code of Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary provides that, as a subject of constant public scrutiny, judges must accept personal restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen. In particular, judges must conduct themselves in a way that is consistent with the dignity of the judicial office. Occupying as he does an exalted position in the administration of justice, a judge must pay a high price for the honor bestowed upon him. Thus, the judge must comport himself at all times in such a manner that his conduct, official or otherwise, can bear the most searching scrutiny of the public that looks up to him as the epitome of integrity and justice. There was no evidence that respondent judge engaged in scandalous conduct that would warrant the imposition of disciplinary action against him. His admission of homosexuality does not make him automatically immoral. However, respondent judge is guilty of simple misconduct in causing the registration of title in his son’s name with the intention of defrauding a possible judgment-obligee. Simple misconduct is a transgression of some established rule of action, an unlawful behavior, or negligence committed by a public officer. Aida R. Campos, et al. vs. Judge Eliseo M. Campos, MTC, Bayugan, Agusan del Sur. A.M. No. MTJ-10-1761, February 8, 2012.

Judges; undue delay in rendering a decision. Judges must resolve matters pending before them promptly and expeditiously within the constitutionally mandated three-month period. If they cannot comply with the same, they should ask for an extension from the Supreme Court upon meritorious grounds. The rule is that the reglementary period for deciding cases should be observed by all judges, unless they have been granted additional time. Judges must dispose of the court’s business promptly. Delay in the disposition of cases erodes the faith and confidence of our people in the judiciary, lowers its standards, and brings it to disrepute. Hence, judges are enjoined to decide cases with dispatch. Their failure to do so constitutes gross inefficiency and warrants the imposition of administrative sanctions on them.

Although there are no promulgated rules on the conduct of judicial audit, the absence of such rules should not serve as license to recommend the imposition of penalties to retired judges who, during their incumbency, were never given a chance to explain the circumstances behind the results of the judicial audit. Judicial audit reports and the memoranda which follow them should state not only recommended penalties and plans of action for the violations of audited courts, but also give commendations when they are due. To avoid similar scenarios, manual judicial audits may be conducted at least six months before a judge’s compulsory retirement. Office of the Court Administrator vs. Judge Celso L. Mantua, Regional Trial Court, Branch 17, Palompon, Leyte. A.M. No. RTJ-11-2291. February 8, 2012.

(Mon thanks Leanne Herschel C. Que for assisting in the preparation of this post.)