February 2013 Philippines Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are select February 2013 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on legal and judicial ethics:

Attorney; confidentiality of proceedings against attorneys; exception. Atty. Fortun filed a petition for contempt against respondents for publicizing the disbarment case against him in media.

Section 18, Rule 139-B of the Rules of Court states that “proceedings against attorneys shall be private and confidential. However, the final order of the Supreme Court shall be published like its decisions in other cases.” The purpose of the rule is not only to enable the Court to make its investigations free from any extraneous influence or interference, but also to protect the personal and professional reputation of attorneys and judges from the baseless charges of disgruntled, vindictive, and irresponsible clients and litigants; it is also to deter the press from publishing administrative cases or portions thereto without authority. Malicious and unauthorized publication or verbatim reproduction of administrative complaints against lawyers in newspapers by editors and/or reporters may be actionable. Such premature publication constitutes a contempt of court, punishable by either a fine or imprisonment or both at the discretion of the Court. However, Section 18, Rule 139-B of the Rules of Court is not a restriction on the freedom of the press. If there is a legitimate public interest, media is not prohibited from making a fair, true, and accurate news report of a disbarment complaint. In the absence of a legitimate public interest in a disbarment complaint, members of the media must preserve the confidentiality of disbarment proceedings during its pendency.

In this case, the filing of a disbarment complaint against Atty. Fortun is itself a matter of public concern considering that it arose from the Maguindanao Massacre case. The interest of the public is not on Atty. Fortun himself but primarily on his involvement and participation as defense counsel in the Maguindanao Massacre case. Thus, since the disbarment complaint is a matter of public interest, media had a right to publish such fact under freedom of the press. Philip Sigrid A. Fortun vs. Prima Jesusa B. Quinsayas, et al., G.R. No. 194578. February 13, 2013.

Attorney; full discharge of duties to client; limitations. Atty. Villarin is expected to champion the cause of his client with wholehearted fidelity, care, and devotion. This simply means that his client is entitled to the benefit of any and every remedy and defense – including the institution of an ejectment case – that is recognized by our property laws. In Legarda v. Court of Appeals, the court held that in the full discharge of their duties to the client, lawyers shall not be afraid of the possibility that they may displease the general public.

Nevertheless, the Code of Professional Responsibility provides the limitation that lawyers shall perform their duty to the client within the bounds of law. They should only make such defense when they believe it to be honestly debatable under the law. In this case, Atty. Villarin’s act of issuing demand letters, moved by the understanding of a void HLURB Decision, is legally sanctioned. If his theory holds water, the notice to vacate becomes necessary in order to file an action for ejectment. Hence, he did not resort to any fraud or chicanery prohibited by the Code just to maintain his client’s disputed ownership over the subdivision lots.

However, the facts show that Atty. Villarin brazenly typified one of the complainants as an illegal occupant when the final and executory HLURB Decision had already recognized her as a subdivision lot buyer. Given that he knew such falsity, he thus advances the interest of his client through means that are not in keeping with fairness and honesty. This is proscribed by Rule 19.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, which requires that a lawyer shall employ only fair and honest means to attain lawful objectives. Lawyers must not present and offer in evidence any document that they know is false. Verleen Trinidad, Florentina Lander, Wally Casubuan, Minerva Mendoza, Celedonio Alojado, et al. vs. Atty. Angelito Villarin, A.C. No. 9310. February 27, 2013.

Attorney; notarial practice; necessity of affiant’s personal appearance; nature of notarization; penalties when a notary public fails to discharge his duties. A notary public should not notarize a document unless the person who signed the same is the very same person who executed and personally appeared before him to attest to the contents and the truth of what are stated therein. Without the personal appearance of the person who actually executed the document, the notary public would be unable to verify the genuineness of the signature of the acknowledging party and to ascertain that the document is the party’s free act or deed.

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

Respondent’s failure to perform his duty as a notary public resulted not only damage to those directly affected by the notarized document but also in undermining the integrity of a notary public and in degrading the function of notarization. He should, thus, be held liable for such negligence not only as a notary public but also as a lawyer. The responsibility to faithfully observe and respect the legal solemnity of the oath in an acknowledgment or jurat is more pronounced when the notary public is a lawyer because of his solemn oath under the Code of Professional Responsibility to obey the laws and to do no falsehood or consent to the doing of any. Lawyers commissioned as notaries public are mandated to discharge with fidelity the duties of their offices, such duties being dictated by public policy and impressed with public interest.

Based on existing jurisprudence, when a lawyer commissioned as a notary public fails to discharge his duties as such, he is meted the penalties of revocation of his notarial commission, disqualification from being commissioned as a notary public for a period of two years, and suspension from the practice of law for one year. Patrocinio V. Agbulos vs. Atty. Roseller A. Viray, A.C. No. 7350. February 18, 2013.

Court personnel; discourteous acts. Section 1 of Article XI of the Constitution states that a public office is a public trust. “It enjoins public officers and employees to serve with the highest degree of responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency and to, at all times, remain accountable to the people.” As front liners of the justice system, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs must always strive to maintain public trust in the performance of their duties. As agents of the law, they are “called upon to discharge their duties with due care and utmost diligence because in serving the court’s writs and processes and implementing the orders of the court, they cannot afford to err without affecting the integrity of their office and the efficient administration of justice.”

Sheriff Gelbolingo’s failure to properly respond to the letters is tantamount to discourtesy. A simple note as to where their personal effects were temporarily stored could have assured Sasing that their belongings were not confiscated but merely stored for safekeeping. The Court is fully aware that a sheriff’s schedule can be hectic, but she could have easily relayed the information to the other court staff to address Sasing’s concerns.

The administrative offense committed by Sheriff Gelbolingo is discourtesy in the course of official duties which, under the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, Rule IV, Section 52(C)(1), is a light offense. The penalty imposable for such an offense is either a reprimand for the first offense, a suspension from 1 day to 30 days for the second offense, and dismissal from public service for the third offense. In this case, the court admonished Sheriff Gelbolingo considering there was an effort on her part to meet with Sasing twice, but the latter did not appear on the second scheduled meeting. Ray Antonio C. Sasing vs. Celestial Venus G. Gelbolingo, Sheriff IV, RTC, Branch 20, Cagayan de Oro City, A.M. No. P-12-3032. February 20, 2013.

Court personnel; public office is a public trust; simple neglect of duty. No less than the Constitution itself mandates that all public officers and employees should serve with responsibility, integrity and efficiency, for public office is a public trust. The Court has repeatedly reminded those who work in the Judiciary to be examples of responsibility, competence and efficiency; they must discharge their duties with due care and utmost diligence, since they are officers of the Court and agents of the law. “Indeed, any conduct, act or omission on the part of those who would violate the norm[s] of public accountability and diminish or even just tend to diminish the faith of the people in the judiciary shall not be countenanced.”

In this case, Mendoza charged Esguerra, a process server in the RTC, with Negligence and Dereliction of Duty. The court held that Esguerra was guilty of simple neglect of duty. Esguerra cannot blame the Civil Docket Clerk for the delay in the service of the July 7, 2008 Order. If indeed a copy of the July 7, 2008 Order had been handed to Esguerra only on August 8, 2008, a Friday, “he should not have proceeded to mail the same; but instead, should have served the Order personally to the parties, particularly to the herein complainant.” Even the Notice of Dismissal dated August 21, 2008 was mailed only on September 19, 2008, three (3) weeks after it was endorsed to him sometime on August 22 or 25, 2008. These acts clearly demonstrate lack of sufficient or reasonable diligence on the part of the respondent. Section 1, Canon IV of the Code of Conduct for Court Personnel mandates that “Court personnel shall at all times perform official duties properly and with diligence.” Clearly, Esguerra had been remiss in the performance of his duties and has shown lack of dedication to the functions of his office. Esguerra’s acts displayed a conduct falling short of the stringent standards required of court employees. Erlinda C. Mendoza vs. Pedro S. Esguerra, Process Server, RTC, Br. 89, Sto. Domingo, Nueva Ecija, A.M. No. P-11-2967. February 13, 2013.

Internal Rules of the CA (IRCA); preliminary injunction; requirement of a hearing. Section 4 of Rule VI of the 2009 IRCA provides that “[T]he requirement of a hearing for preliminary injunction is satisfied with the issuance of a resolution served upon the party sought to be enjoined requiring him to comment on the said application within the period of not more than ten (10) days from notice.”

In this case, the CA was justified in dispensing with the requisite hearing on the application for injunctive writ, since the so-called “new and substantial matters” raised in the third urgent motion in CA-G.R. SP No. 122784 and in the supplement thereto were in fact not previously unknown to respondents Ricafort, and they had already been previously ordered to comment on the said application, at the time when the said “subsequent” matters were already obtaining. Ethelwoldo E. Fernandez, Antonio A. Henson & Angel S. Ong vs. Court of Appeals Asso. Justices Ramon M. Bato, Jr., Isaias P. Dicdican, A.M. OCA IPI No. 12-201-CA-J. February 19, 2013.

Judge; anonymous complaints against judges must be supported by public records of indubitable integrity; unbecoming conduct. Under Section 1 of Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, anonymous complaints may be filed against judges, but they must be supported by public records of indubitable integrity. Courts have acted in such instances needing no corroboration by evidence to be offered by the complainant.

Thus, for anonymous complaints, the burden of proof in administrative proceedings which usually rests with the complainant, must be buttressed by indubitable public records and by what is sufficiently proven during the investigation. If the burden of proof is not overcome, the respondent is under no obligation to prove his defense.

In this case, no evidence was attached to the letter-complaint. The complainant never appeared, and no public records were brought forth during the investigation. Judge Achas denied all the charges made against him, only admitting that he was separated de facto from his wife and that he reared fighting cocks.

For going out in public with a woman not his wife, Judge Achas has clearly failed to abide by Canons of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for Philippine Judiciary. Regarding his involvement in cockfighting, however, there is no clear evidence. Although Judge Achas denied engaging in cockfighting and betting, he admitted rearing fighting cocks for leisure. While rearing fighting cocks is not illegal, Judge Achas should avoid mingling with a crowd of cockfighting enthusiasts and bettors as it undoubtedly impairs the respect due him. As a judge, he must impose upon himself personal restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly.

No position demands greater moral righteousness and uprightness from its occupant than does the judicial office. Judges in particular must be individuals of competence, honesty and probity, charged as they are with safeguarding the integrity of the court and its proceedings. He should behave at all times so as to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all his activities. His personal behavior outside the court, and not only while in the performance of his official duties, must be beyond reproach, for he is perceived to be the personification of law and justice. Thus, any demeaning act of a judge degrades the institution he represents. Anonymous vs. Judge Rio C. Achas, MTCC Branch 2, Ozamiz City, Misamis Occidental, A.M. No. MTJ-11-1801. February 27, 2013.

Judge; definition of ponencia; ponente if present can act upon an urgent motion alone or with another member present. There is nothing in the Internal Rules of the CA (IRCA) which would have required the Division Clerk of Court to transmit the urgent motion for action only to the two present regular members of the 14th Division, as the complainants seem to believe. The complainants would have been correct if the absent member of the Division was not the ponente herself but either of the other members. This implies that the ponente if present can act upon the urgent motion alone or with another member present, provided that the action or resolution “is submitted on the next working day to the absent member or members of the Division for ratification, modification or recall.”

A preliminary injunction is not a ponencia but an order granted at any stage of an action prior to final judgment, requiring a person to refrain from a particular act. It is settled that as an ancillary or preventive remedy, a writ of preliminary injunction may be resorted to by a party to protect or preserve his rights and for no other purpose during the pendency of the principal action. Its object is to preserve the status quo until the merits of the case are passed upon. It is not a cause of action in itself but merely a provisional remedy, an adjunct to a main suit. On the other hand, ponencia refers to the rendition of a decision in a case on the merits, which disposes of the main controversy. The writ of preliminary injunction issued by the 14th Division in CA-G.R. SP No. 122784 did not settle the controversy therein, but is a mere interlocutory order to restore the status quo ante, that is, the state of things prior to the RTC’s Order of December 21, 2011. Ethelwoldo E. Fernandez, Antonio A. Henson & Angel S. Ong vs. Court of Appeals Asso. Justices Ramon M. Bato, Jr., Isaias P. Dicdican, A.M. OCA IPI No. 12-201-CA-J. February 19, 2013.

Judge; government employee vis-à-vis government officer; liberal treatment upon retirement claims of judges and justices. In a letter, former Chief Justice Panganiban requested that the government service which he rendered from January 1962 to December 1965 in the Department of Education, its Secretary, and the Board of National Education, be creditable so that he can meet the present service requirement of fifteen (15) years for entitlement to retirement benefits.

Under the old Administrative Code (Act No. 2657), a government “employee” includes any person in the service of the Government or any branch thereof of whatever grade or class. A government “officer,” on the other hand, refers to officials whose duties involve the exercise of discretion in the performance of the functions of government, whether such duties are precisely defined or not. Clearly, the law, then and now, did not require a specific job description and job specification. Thus, the absence of a specific position in a governmental structure is not a hindrance for the Court to give weight to CJ Panganiban’s government service as legal counsel and consultant.

The Supreme Court has unquestionably followed the practice of liberal treatment in passing upon retirement claims of judges and justices, thus: (1) waiving the lack of required length of service in cases of disability or death while in actual service19 or distinctive service; (2) adding accumulated leave credits to the actual length of government service in order to qualify one for retirement; (3) tacking post-retirement service in order to complete the years of government service required; (4) extending the full benefits of retirement upon compassionate and humanitarian considerations; and (5) considering legal counseling work for a government body or institution as creditable government service. Re: Request of (Ret.) Chief Justice Artemio V. Panganiban for Re-Computation of his Creditable Service for the Purpose of Re-Computing his Retirement Benefits, A.M. No. 10-9-15-SC. February 12, 2013.

Judge; gross ignorance of the law; mandatory inhibition; no liability for damages in the exercise of judicial functions. The court held that Judge Dinopol is guilty of gross ignorance of the law. To be held administratively liable for gross ignorance of the law, the acts complained of must not only be contrary to existing law and jurisprudence, but must have also been motivated by bad faith, fraud, dishonesty, and corruption. Gross ignorance of the law is considered as a serious offense under Rule 140, Section 8, and is punishable under Section 11.

Moreover, one of the plaintiffs in the Civil Case assigned to the judge, is a relative by affinity within the sixth degree, Judge Dinopol should have inhibited himself from taking cognizance of the case as mandated by Section 1, Rule 137 of the Rules of Court.

However, Judge Dinopol is not liable for damages. In Alzua v. Johnson, the court explained that in civil actions for damages, judges of superior and general jurisdiction are not liable to answer for what they do in the exercise of their judicial functions, provided they are acting within their legal powers and jurisdiction. Eduardo Panes, Jr. et al. vs. Judge Oscar E. Dinopol, RTC, Branch 24, Koronadal City/Joewe Palad vs. Judge Oscar E. Dinopol, RTC, Branch 24, Koronadal City/Roque C. Facura, et al. vs. Judge Oscar E. Dinopol, RTC, Branch 24, Koronadal City/Eden V. Castro vs. Judge Oscar E. Dinopol, RTC, Branch 24, Koronadal City/Rosalinda G. Farofaldane vs. Judge Oscar E. Dinopol, RTC, Branch 24, Koronadal City/Engr. Roque C. Facura, et al. vs. Judge Oscar E. Dinopol, RTC, Branch 24, Koronadal City, A.M. OCA-IPI No. 07-2618-RTJ/A.M. No. OCA-IPI No. 07-2619-RTJ/A.M. No. OCA-IPI No. 07-2652-RTJ/A.M. No. OCA-IPI No. 07-2720-RTJ/A.M. No. OCA-IPI No. 07-2721-RTJ/A.M. No. OCA-IPI No. 08-2808-RTJ. February 12, 2013.

Judge; instituting administrative proceedings against justices. Under Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, there are three ways by which administrative proceedings may be instituted against justices of the CA and the Sandiganbayan and judges of regular and special courts: (1) motu proprio by the Supreme Court; (2) upon verified complaint (as in this complaint) with affidavits of persons having personal knowledge of the facts alleged therein or by documents which may substantiate said allegations; or (3) upon an anonymous complaint supported by public records of indubitable integrity.

In this case, complainants have no personality to assail the writ of preliminary injunction issued by the CA’s former Special 14th Division since they were not parties in the lower court. Thus, they are not permitted to harass the CA Justices who issued the same. For even granting that the issuance of the writ was erroneous, as a matter of public policy a magistrate cannot be held administratively liable for every discretionary but erroneous order he issues. The settled rule is that “a Judge cannot be held to account civilly, criminally or administratively for an erroneous decision rendered by him in good faith.” The issuance of the writ of preliminary injunction in the consolidated CA petitions was discretionary, interlocutory and preservative in nature, and equally importantly, it was a collective and deliberated action of the former Special 14th Division. Moreover, as an established rule, an administrative, civil or criminal action against a judge cannot be a substitute for an appeal. Ethelwoldo E. Fernandez, Antonio A. Henson & Angel S. Ong vs. Court of Appeals Asso. Justices Ramon M. Bato, Jr., Isaias P. Dicdican, A.M. OCA IPI No. 12-201-CA-J. February 19, 2013.

Judge; judicial conduct; definition of just debts; willful failure to pay a just debt is a ground for disciplinary action against judges. Manlapaz charged Judge Sabillo with serious and gross misconduct for failure to return an amount arising from a transaction.

The Court has repeatedly stressed that it is not a collection agency for the unpaid debts of its officials and employees, but has nevertheless provided for Section 8, Rule 140 of the Rules of Court that holds its officials and employees administratively liable in unpaid debt situations. This Section provides that willful failure to pay a just debt is a ground for disciplinary action against judges and justices. Just debts, as defined in Section 23, Rule XIV of the Omnibus Rules Implementing Book V of E.O. No. 292, refer to (1) claims adjudicated by a court of law; or (2) claims, the existence and justness of which are admitted by the debtor. Section 8, Rule 140 of the Rules of Court classifies willful failure to pay a just debt as a serious charge.

While reference to a debt necessarily implies a transaction that is private and outside of official transactions, the rules do not thereby intrude into public officials’ private lives; they simply look at their actions from the prism of public service and consider these acts unbecoming of a public official. These rules take into account that these are actions of officials who are entrusted with public duties and who, even in their private capacities, should continually act to reflect their status as public servants. Employees of the judiciary should be living examples of uprightness not only in the performance of official duties but also in their personal and private dealings with others so as to preserve at all times the good name and standing of the courts in the community. Here, the complainant’s claim is a just debt. The willfulness of Judge Sabillo in not paying is shown by his continuous failure to settle despite demand letters sent to him. Thus, the court imposed the penalty of fine. Victoriano G. Manlapaz vs. Judge Manuel T. Sabillo, MCTC, Lamitan, Basilan, A.M. No. MTJ-10-1771. February 13, 2013.

Judge; judicial audit; court’s jurisdiction over an administrative case; presumption of regularity. The OCA submitted its memorandum to then Acting Chief Justice Antonio T. Carpio on 10 July 2012 — more than two years and seven months after Judge Grageda compulsorily retired. During his incumbency, Judge Grageda was never given the chance to explain the alleged violation of Supreme Court rules, directives and circulars. Up to the present, the OCA has not commenced any formal investigation or asked Judge Grageda to comment on the matter. Thus, the complaint against Judge Grageda must be dismissed.

In Office of the Court Administrator v. Mantua, the court held that “this Court concedes that there are no promulgated rules on the conduct of judicial audit. However, 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. We recognize that effective monitoring of a judge’s observance of the time limits required in the disposition of cases is hampered by limited resources.

These limitations, however, should not be used to violate Judge Mantua’s right to due process.”

For the Court to acquire jurisdiction over an administrative case, the complaint must be filed during the incumbency of the respondent. Once jurisdiction is acquired, it is not lost by reason of respondent’s cessation from office. In this case, Judge Grageda’s compulsory retirement divested the OCA of its right to institute a new administrative case against him after his compulsory retirement. The Court can no longer acquire administrative jurisdiction over him by filing a new administrative case against him after he has ceased to be a public official. The remedy is to file the appropriate civil or criminal case against him for the alleged transgression.

Moreover, to hold Judge Grageda liable, there must be substantial evidence that he committed an offense. Otherwise, the presumption is that he regularly performed his duties. In Go v. Judge Achas, the Court held that, “In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the presumption that the respondent has regularly performed his duties will prevail. Even in administrative cases, if a court employee or magistrate is to be disciplined for a grave offense, the evidence against him should be competent.” Missing Exhibits and Court Properties in Regional Trial Court, Br. 4, Panabo City, Davao del Norte, A.M. No. 10-2-41-RTC. February 27, 2013.

Judge; undue delay. The court held that Judge Amdengan committed undue delay in rendering a Decision in the ejectment case. An action for ejectment is governed by the Rules of Summary Procedure, Section 10 which provides that “within thirty (30) days after receipt of the last affidavits and position papers, or the expiration of the period for filing the same, the court shall render judgment.” This provision is mandatory, considering the nature of an ejectment case.

Under Section 9, Rule 140 of the Rules of Court, undue delay in rendering a decision or an order is classified as a less serious charge, punishable by either suspension from office without salary and other benefits for not less than one (1) nor more than three (3) months, or a fine of more than P10,000 but not exceeding P20,000. The court considered his candid admission and acceptance of his infraction as factors in imposing only a fine. Atty. Manuel J. Jimenez, Jr. vs. Presiding Judge Michael M. Amdengan, Municipal Trail Court, Angono Rizal, A.M. No. MTJ-12-1818. February 13, 2013.

(Mon thanks Roselle Nonato for assisting in the preparation of this post.)