June 2013 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

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

Attorney; the failure to file a brief resulting in the dismissal of an appeal constitutes inexcusable negligence. In Dalisay Capili v. Atty. Alfredo L. Bentulan, the Court held that the failure to file a brief resulting in the dismissal of an appeal constitutes inexcusable negligence.  In this case, the Court cannot accept as an excuse the alleged lapse committed by his client in failing to provide him a copy of the case records.

In the first place, securing a copy of the case records was within Atty. San Juan’s control and is a task that the lawyer undertakes.

Second, Atty. San Juan, unlike his client, knows or should have known, that filing an appellant’s brief within the reglementary period is critical in the perfection of an appeal. The preparation and the filing of the appellant’s brief are matters of procedure that fully fell within the exclusive control and responsibility of Atty. San Juan. It was incumbent upon him to execute all acts and procedures necessary and incidental to the perfection of his client’s appeal.

Third, Atty. San Juan lacked candor in dealing with his client. He omitted to inform Tomas of the progress of his appeal with the Court of Appeals. Worse, he did not disclose to Tomas the real reason for the Court of Appeal’s dismissal of the appeal. Neither did Atty. San Juan file a motion for reconsideration, or otherwise resort to available legal remedies that might have protected his client’s interest.

Atty. San Juan’s negligence undoubtedly violates the Lawyer’s Oath that requires him to “conduct [himself] as a lawyer according to the best of (his) knowledge and discretion, with all good fidelity as well to the courts as to (his) clients[.]”  He also violated Rule 18.03 and Rule 18.04, Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Rex Polinar Dagohoy v. Atty. Artemio V. San Juan. A.C. No. 7944, June 3, 2013.

Attorney; IBP findings and recommended penalties in administrative cases against lawyers are only recommendatory. IBP’s recommended penalty of three (3) months suspension from the practice of law is not commensurate to the gravity of the infractions committed. These infractions warrant the imposition of a stiffer sanction.  The following acts and omissions of Atty. San Juan were considered: first, the negligence in handling his client’s appeal; second, his failure to act candidly and effectively in communicating information to his client; and more importantly, third, the serious and irreparable consequence of his admitted negligence which deprived his client of legal remedies in addressing his conviction.

In Pineda v. Atty. Macapagal, the Court imposed a one (1) year suspension from the practice of law on a lawyer who, like Atty. San Juan, had been found guilty of gross negligence in handling his client’s case. With this case as the norm, Atty. San Juan should be meted a suspension of one (1) year from the practice of law for his negligence and inadequacies in handling his client’s case.

Moreover, IBP’s findings and stated penalty are merely recommendatory; only the Supreme Court has the power to discipline erring lawyers and to impose against them penalties for unethical conduct. Until finally acted upon by the Supreme Court, the IBP findings and the recommended penalty imposed cannot attain finality until adopted by the Court as its own. Thus, the IBP findings, by themselves, cannot be a proper subject of implementation or compliance. Rex Polinar Dagohoy v. Atty. Artemio V. San Juan. A.C. No. 7944, June 3, 2013.

Court personnel; dishonesty. Ismael Hadji Ali, a court stenographer I at the Shari’a Circuit Court, represented that he took and passed the Civil Service Professional Examination but evidence showed that another person took the exam for him. Per CSC Memorandum Circular No. 15, Series of 1991, the use of spurious Civil Service eligibility constitutes dishonesty, among others. Dishonesty is a malevolent act that has no place in the judiciary. Hadji Ali failed to observe the strict standards and behavior required of an employee in the judiciary. He has shown unfitness for public office. Pursuant to the Civil Service Rules, Hadji Ali was dismissed from the service with forfeiture of retirement and other benefits. Civil Service Commission v. Ismael A. Hadji Ali, et al., A.M. No. SCC-08-11-P, June 18, 2013.

Court personnel; dishonesty and grave misconduct. Misconduct is a transgression of some established and definite rule of action, more particularly, unlawful behavior as well as gross negligence by a public officer. To warrant dismissal from service, the misconduct must be grave, serious, important, weighty, momentous and not trifling. The misconduct must imply wrongful intention and not a mere error of judgment. The misconduct must also have a direct relation to and be connected with the performance of the public officer’s official duties amounting either to maladministration or willful, intentional neglect, or failure to discharge the duties of the office.

Dishonesty is the “disposition to lie, cheat, deceive, defraud or betray; untrustworthiness; lack of integrity; lack of honesty, probity, or integrity in principle; and lack of fairness and straightforwardness.”

In this case, respondent deceived complainant’s family who were led to believe that he is the legal representative of the Hodges Estate. Boasting of his position as a court officer, a City Sheriff at that, complainant’s family completely relied on his repeated assurance that they will not be ejected from the premises.

In Re: Complaint Filed by Paz De Vera Lazaro Against Edna Magallanes, Court Stenographer III, RTC Br. 28 and Bonifacio G. Magallanes, Process Server, RTC Br. 30, Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya, the Court stressed that to preserve decency within the judiciary, court personnel must comply with just contractual obligations, act fairly and adhere to high ethical standards. In that case, the court held that court employees are expected to be paragons of uprightness, fairness and honesty not only in their official conduct but also in their personal dealings, including business and commercial transactions to avoid becoming the court’s albatross of infamy.

More importantly, Section 4(c) of Republic Act No. 671350 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees mandates that public officials and employees shall remain true to the people at all times. They must act with justness and sincerity and shall not discriminate against anyone, especially the poor and the underprivileged. They shall at all times respect the rights of others, and shall refrain from doing acts contrary to law, good morals, good customs, public policy, public order, public safety and public interest. Rodolfo C. Sabidong v. Nicolasito S. Solas. A.M. No. P-01-1448, June 25, 2013.

Court personnel; Prohibition in acquiring property involved in litigation within the jurisdiction of their courts. Article 1491, paragraph 5 of the Civil Code prohibits court officers such as clerks of court from acquiring property involved in litigation within the jurisdiction or territory of their courts. The rationale is that public policy disallows the transactions in view of the fiduciary relationship involved, i.e., the relation of trust and confidence and the peculiar control exercised by these persons. “In so providing, the Code tends to prevent fraud, or more precisely, tends not to give occasion for fraud, which is what can and must be done.”

For the prohibition to apply, the sale or assignment of the property must take place during the pendency of the litigation involving the property. Where the property is acquired after the termination of the case, no violation of paragraph 5, Article 1491 of the Civil Code attaches.

In this case, when respondent purchased Lot 11-A on November 21, 1994, the Decision in Civil Case No. 14706 which was promulgated on May 31, 1983 had long become final. Be that as it may, it cannot be said that the property is no longer “in litigation” at that time considering that it was part of the Hodges Estate then under settlement proceedings.

A thing is said to be in litigation not only if there is some contest or litigation over it in court, but also from the moment that it becomes subject to the judicial action of the judge. A property forming part of the estate under judicial settlement continues to be subject of litigation until the probate court issues an order declaring the estate proceedings closed and terminated. The rule is that as long as the order for the distribution of the estate has not been complied with, the probate proceedings cannot be deemed closed and terminated. The probate court loses jurisdiction of an estate under administration only after the payment of all the debts and the remaining estate delivered to the heirs entitled to receive the same. Rodolfo C. Sabidong v. Nicolasito S. Solas. A.M. No. P-01-1448, June 25, 2013.

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