March 2013 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Commercial Law

Here are select March 2013 rulings of the Supreme Court of the Philippines on commercial law:

Corporation; separate personality. A corporation is an artificial entity created by operation of law. It possesses the right of succession and such powers, attributes, and properties expressly authorized by law or incident to its existence. It has a personality separate and distinct from that of its stockholders and from that of other corporations to which it may be connected. As a consequence of its status as a distinct legal entity and as a result of a conscious policy decision to promote capital formation, a corporation incurs its own liabilities and is legally responsible for payment of its obligations. In other words, by virtue of the separate juridical personality of a corporation, the corporate debt or credit is not the debt or credit of the stockholder. This protection from liability for shareholders is the principle of limited liability. Phil. National Bank vs. Hydro Resources Contractors Corp., .G.R. Nos. 167530, 167561, 16760311. March 13, 2013

Corporation; piercing the corporate veil. Equally well-settled is the principle that the corporate mask may be removed or the corporate veil pierced when the corporation is just an alter ego of a person or of another corporation. For reasons of public policy and in the interest of justice, the corporate veil will justifiably be impaled only when it becomes a shield for fraud, illegality or inequity committed against third persons.

However, the rule is that a court should be careful in assessing the milieu where the doctrine of the corporate veil may be applied. Otherwise an injustice, although unintended, may result from its erroneous application. Thus, cutting through the corporate cover requires an approach characterized by due care and caution:

Hence, any application of the doctrine of piercing the corporate veil should be done with caution. A court should be mindful of the milieu where it is to be applied. It must be certain that the corporate fiction was misused to such an extent that injustice, fraud, or crime was committed against another, in disregard of its rights. The wrongdoing must be clearly and convincingly established; it cannot be presumed. x x x.

Sarona v. National Labor Relations Commission has defined the scope of application of the doctrine of piercing the corporate veil:

The doctrine of piercing the corporate veil applies only in three (3) basic areas, namely: 1) defeat of public convenience as when the corporate fiction is used as a vehicle for the evasion of an existing obligation; 2) fraud cases or when the corporate entity is used to justify a wrong, protect fraud, or defend a crime; or 3) alter ego cases, where a corporation is merely a farce since it is a mere alter ego or business conduit of a person, or where the corporation is so organized and controlled and its affairs are so conducted as to make it merely an instrumentality, agency, conduit or adjunct of another corporation. (Citation omitted.)

Phil. National Bank vs. Hydro Resources Contractors Corp., .G.R. Nos. 167530, 167561, 16760311. March 13, 2013

Corporation; piercing the corporate veil; alter ego theory. In this connection, case law lays down a three-pronged test to determine the application of the alter ego theory, which is also known as the instrumentality theory, namely:

(1) Control, not mere majority or complete stock control, but complete domination, not only of finances but of policy and business practice in respect to the transaction attacked so that the corporate entity as to this transaction had at the time no separate mind, will or existence of its own;

(2) Such control must have been used by the defendant to commit fraud or wrong, to perpetuate the violation of a statutory or other positive legal duty, or dishonest and unjust act in contravention of plaintiff’s legal right; and

(3) The aforesaid control and breach of duty must have proximately caused the injury or unjust loss complained of.

The first prong is the “instrumentality” or “control” test. This test requires that the subsidiary be completely under the control and domination of the parent. It examines the parent corporation’s relationship with the subsidiary. It inquires whether a subsidiary corporation is so organized and controlled and its affairs are so conducted as to make it a mere instrumentality or agent of the parent corporation such that its separate existence as a distinct corporate entity will be ignored. It seeks to establish whether the subsidiary corporation has no autonomy and the parent corporation, though acting through the subsidiary in form and appearance, “is operating the business directly for itself.”

The second prong is the “fraud” test. This test requires that the parent corporation’s conduct in using the subsidiary corporation be unjust, fraudulent or wrongful. It examines the relationship of the plaintiff to the corporation. It recognizes that piercing is appropriate only if the parent corporation uses the subsidiary in a way that harms the plaintiff creditor. As such, it requires a showing of “an element of injustice or fundamental unfairness.”

The third prong is the “harm” test. This test requires the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s control, exerted in a fraudulent, illegal or otherwise unfair manner toward it, caused the harm suffered. A causal connection between the fraudulent conduct committed through the instrumentality of the subsidiary and the injury suffered or the damage incurred by the plaintiff should be established. The plaintiff must prove that, unless the corporate veil is pierced, it will have been treated unjustly by the defendant’s exercise of control and improper use of the corporate form and, thereby, suffer damages.

To summarize, piercing the corporate veil based on the alter ego theory requires the concurrence of three elements: control of the corporation by the stockholder or parent corporation, fraud or fundamental unfairness imposed on the plaintiff, and harm or damage caused to the plaintiff by the fraudulent or unfair act of the corporation. The absence of any of these elements prevents piercing the corporate veil.

This Court finds that none of the tests has been satisfactorily met in this case.

In applying the alter ego doctrine, the courts are concerned with reality and not form, with how the corporation operated and the individual defendant’s relationship to that operation. With respect to the control element, it refers not to paper or formal control by majority or even complete stock control but actual control which amounts to “such domination of finances, policies and practices that the controlled corporation has, so to speak, no separate mind, will or existence of its own, and is but a conduit for its principal.” In addition, the control must be shown to have been exercised at the time the acts complained of took place. Phil. National Bank vs. Hydro Resources Contractors Corp., .G.R. Nos. 167530, 167561, 16760311. March 13, 2013

Corporation; piercing the corporate veil; ownership of shares. While ownership by one corporation of all or a great majority of stocks of another corporation and their interlocking directorates may serve as indicia of control, by themselves and without more, however, these circumstances are insufficient to establish an alter ego relationship or connection between DBP and PNB on the one hand and NMIC on the other hand, that will justify the puncturing of the latter’s corporate cover. This Court has declared that “mere ownership by a single stockholder or by another corporation of all or nearly all of the capital stock of a corporation is not of itself sufficient ground for disregarding the separate corporate personality.” This Court has likewise ruled that the “existence of interlocking directors, corporate officers and shareholders is not enough justification to pierce the veil of corporate fiction in the absence of fraud or other public policy considerations.” Phil. National Bank vs. Hydro Resources Contractors Corp., .G.R. Nos. 167530, 167561, 16760311. March 13, 2013

(Hector thanks Austin Claude S. Alcantara for his assistance to Lexoterica.)