October 2013 Philippine Supreme Court Decisions on Legal and Judicial Ethics

Here are select October 2013 cases on legal and judicial ethics:

Attorney; Gross Immoral Conduct. Respondent Pedreña, a Public Attorney, was charged for sexual harassment. The Supreme Court held that the records show that the respondent rubbed the complainant’s right leg with his hand; tried to insert his finger into her firmly closed hand; grabbed her hand and forcibly placed it on his crotch area; and pressed his finger against her private part. Given the circumstances in which he committed them, his acts were not merely offensive and undesirable but repulsive, disgraceful and grossly immoral. They constituted misconduct on the part of any lawyer. In this regard, immoral conduct is gross when it is so corrupt as to constitute a criminal act, or so unprincipled as to be reprehensible to a high degree, or when committed under such scandalous or revolting circumstances as to shock the community’s sense of decency. Atty. Pedreña’s misconduct was aggravated by the fact that he was then a Public Attorney mandated to provide free legal service to indigent litigants, and by the fact that complainant was then such a client. He also disregarded his oath as a public officer to serve others and to be accountable at all times, because he thereby took advantage of her vulnerability as a client then in desperate need of his legal assistance. Thus, respondent was meted out the penalty of suspension from the practice of law for two (2) years. Jocelyn De Leon v. Atty. Tyrone Pedrena, A.C. No. 9401, October 22, 2013.

Attorney; Gross Misconduct. A complaint for disbarment was filed against Assistant Provincial Prosecutor Atty. Salvador N. Pe, Jr. for falsifying an inexistent decision of the RTC. The Supreme Court held that the respondent was guilty of grave misconduct for having authored the falsification of the decision in a non-existent court proceeding. Canon 7 of the Code of Professional Responsibility demands that all lawyers should uphold at all times the dignity and integrity of the Legal Profession. Rule 7.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility states that “a lawyer shall not engage in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law, nor shall he whether in public or private life, behave in a scandalous manner to the discredit of the legal profession.” Lawyers are further required by Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility not to engage in any unlawful, dishonest and immoral or deceitful conduct. Gross immorality, conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude, or fraudulent transactions can justify a lawyer’s disbarment or suspension from the practice of law. Specifically, the deliberate falsification of the court decision by the respondent was an act that reflected a high degree of moral turpitude on his part. Worse, the act made a mockery of the administration of justice in this country, given the purpose of the falsification, which was to mislead a foreign tribunal on the personal status of a person. Thus, the Court disbarred the respondent. Atty. Oscar L. Embido, etc. v. Atty. Salvador N. Pe, Jr., etc., A.M. No. 6732, October 22, 2013.

Attorney; Gross Negligence. Respondent Villaseca was charged for gross and inexcusable negligence in handling a criminal case, as a consequence of which the complainants were convicted. The Supreme Court held that Atty. Villaseca’s failure to submit a demurrer to evidence constitutes inexcusable negligence; it showed his lack of devotion and zeal in preserving his clients’ cause. Furthermore, Atty. Villaseca’s failure to present any testimonial, object or documentary evidence for the defense reveals his lack of diligence in performing his duties as an officer of the Court; it showed his indifference towards the cause of his clients. Considering that the liberty and livelihood of his clients were at stake, Atty. Villaseca should have exerted efforts to rebut the presented prosecution evidence. The Court emphasized that while a lawyer has complete discretion on what legal strategy to employ in a case entrusted to him, he must present every remedy or defense within the authority of the law to support his client’s cause. Mary Ann T. Mattus v. Albert T. Villaseca, A.C. No. 7922, October 1, 2013.

Attorney; Lawyer-Client Relationship. Respondent Gagate was accused of gross ignorance of the law and unethical practice of law. The Supreme Court emphasized that the relationship between a lawyer and his client is one imbued with utmost trust and confidence. In this regard, clients are led to expect that lawyers would be ever-mindful of their cause and accordingly exercise the required degree of diligence in handling their affairs. For his part, the lawyer is expected to maintain at all times a high standard of legal proficiency, and to devote his full attention, skill, and competence to the case, regardless of its importance and whether he accepts it for a fee or for free. To this end, he is enjoined to employ only fair and honest means to attain lawful objectives. These principles are embodied in Canon 17, Rule 18.03 of Canon 18, and Rule 19.01 of Canon 19 of the Code. Thus, the Court found that the respondent failed to exercise the required diligence in handling complainant’s cause since he: (1) failed to represent her competently and diligently by acting and proffering professional advice beyond the proper bounds of law; and, (2) abandoned his client’s cause while the grave coercion case against them was pending. Maria Cristina Zabaljauregui Pitcher v. Atty. Rustico B. Gagate, A.C. No. 9532, October 8, 2013.

Attorney; Lawyer-Client Relationship. Respondent Obias was charged for grave misconduct and/or gross malpractice. The Supreme Court held that since respondent publicly held herself out as lawyer, the mere fact that she also acted as a real estate broker did not divest her of the responsibilities attendant to the legal profession. In this regard, the legal advice and/or legal documentation that she offered and/or rendered regarding the real estate transaction subject of this case should not be deemed removed from the category of legal services. Case law instructs that if a person, in respect to business affairs or troubles of any kind, consults a lawyer with a view to obtaining professional advice or assistance, and the attorney voluntarily permits or acquiesces with the consultation, then the professional employment is established.

Moreover, according to the Court, respondent grossly violated the trust and confidence reposed in her by her clients, in contravention of Canons 17 and 18 of the Code. Records disclose that instead of delivering the deed of sale covering the subject property to her clients, she wilfully notarized a deed of sale over the same property in favor of another person. It is a core ethical principle that lawyers owe fidelity to their clients’ cause and must always be mindful of the trust and confidence reposed in them. Thus, respondent was disbarred by the Court. Ma. Jennifer Tria-Samonte v. Epifania “Fanny” Obias, A.C. No. 4945, October 8, 2013.

Judiciary; Accountability. Respondent Arnejo, a stenographer of the RTC, was accused of receiving payment for the TSN on 22 July 2010 and remitting the money to the cashier of the Clerk of Court only on 19 and 23 December 2010. The Supreme Court held that the respondent violated the Code of Conduct of Court Personnel and Code of Ethics for Government Officials and Employees. The Court will not tolerate the practice of asking for advance payment from litigants, much less the unauthorized acceptance of judicial fees. Section 11, Rule 141 of the Rules of Court, specifically provides that payment for requests of copies of the TSN shall be made to the Clerk of Court. Clearly, therefore, payment cannot be made to respondent, as it is an official transaction, and, as such, must be made to the Clerk of Court. Respondent, being a stenographer, is not authorized to accept payment for judicial fees, even if two-thirds of those fees would be paid to her. Moreover, the issuance of an acknowledgment receipt cannot be construed as having been done in good faith, considering the fact that respondent only remitted the payment for the TSN five (5) months after her receipt of the supposed judicial fee, or only after the instant Complaint had  been filed against her. Her belated remittance was tainted with bad faith. Joefil Baguio v. Maria Fe Arnejo, Stenographer III, Regional Trial Court, Branch 24, Cebu City, A.M. No. P-13-3155, October 21, 2013.

Judiciary; Applicability of Sec. 7, Rule III, IRR of R.A. No. 10154. The issue presented in this case is whether or not Section 7, Rule III of the Implementing Rules and Regulations of Republic Act No. (RA) 10154 applies to the employees of the Judiciary. The Supreme Court ruled that the subject provision which requires retiring government employees to secure a prior clearance of pendency/non-pendency of administrative case/s from, among others, the CSC – should not be made to apply to employees of the Judiciary. To deem it otherwise would disregard the Court’s constitutionally-enshrined power of administrative supervision over its personnel. Besides, retiring court personnel are already required to secure a prior clearance of the pendency/non-pendency of administrative case/s from the Court which makes the CSC clearance a superfluous and non-expeditious requirement contrary to the declared state policy of RA 10154. The Court, however, noted that since the Constitution only accords the Judiciary administrative supervision over its personnel, a different treatment of the clearance requirement obtains with respect to criminal cases. As such, a clearance requirement which pertains to criminal cases may be imposed by the appropriate government agency, i.e., the Office of the Ombudsman, on retiring court personnel as it is a matter beyond the ambit of the Judiciary’s power of administrative supervision. Re: Request for guidance/clarification on Section 7, Rule III of Republic Act No. 10154 Requiring Retiring Government Employees to Secure a Clearance of Pendency/Non-Pendency of Case/s from the Civil Service Commission, A.M. No. 13-09-08-SC, October 1, 2013.

Judiciary; Duty of Sheriff to Promptly Serve Summons. Sherriff Nery was accused of failing to serve summons to the defendant in a case where he asked for transportation expense, and despite being given an amount. The Supreme Court found the respondent guilty. Summons to the defendant in a case shall forthwith be issued by the clerk of court upon the filing of the complaint and the payment of the requisite legal fees. Once issued by the clerk of court, it is the duty of the sheriff, process server or any other person serving court processes to serve the summons to the defendant efficiently and expeditiously. Failure to do so constitutes simple neglect of duty, which is the failure of an employee to give one’s attention to a task expected of him, and signifies a disregard of a duty resulting from carelessness or indifference. Moreover, sheriffs are not allowed to receive any payments from the parties in the course of the performance of their duties. They cannot just unilaterally demand sums of money from the parties without observing the proper procedural steps under Section 10, Rule 141 of the Rules of Court, as amended. Atty. Vladimir Alarique T. Cabigao v. Naeptali Angelo V. Nery, Sheriff III, Branch 30, Metropolitan Trial Court, Manila, A.M. No. P13-3153, October 14, 2013.

Judge; Gross Ignorance of the Law. Judge Clemens was charged for gross ignorance of the law and violation of the Child Witness Examination Rule. The Supreme Court dismissed the complaint for lack of merit since the acts of Judge Clemens were far from being ill-motivated and in bad faith as to justify any administrative liability on his part. A complete reading of the TSN reveals that he was vigilant in his conduct of the proceedings. In the instances mentioned in the Complaint-Affidavit, he had been attentive to the manifestations made by Atty. Tacorda and had acted accordingly and with dispatch. Further, contrary to the allegations of Atty. Tacorda, the TSN showed that the respondent Judge was very much concerned with following the proper conduct of trial and ensuring that the One-Day Examination of Witness Rule was followed; but at the same time, he was sensitive to the fact that the witness was already exhausted, having testified for almost three (3) hours. Atty. Jerome Norman L. Tacorda for: Odel L. Gedraga v. Judge Reynaldo B. Clemens, presiding Judge, Regional Trial Court, Br. 31, Calbayog City, Western Samar, A.M. No. RTJ-13-2359, October 23, 2013.

Judge; Gross Ignorance of the Law. Complainant filed a case against Judge Patricio accusing him of gross ignorance of the law, manifest bias and partiality for refusing to execute a judgment which was already final and executory. The rule is that once a judgment attains finality, it thereby becomes immutable and unalterable. Thus, the Supreme Court held that Judge Patricio demonstrated ignorance of such rule by repeatedly refusing to execute the final and executory judgment of conviction against the accused. The rules on execution are comprehensive enough for a judge not to know how to apply them or to be confused by any auxiliary incidents. The issuance of a writ of execution for a final and executory judgment is ministerial. In other words, a judge is not given the discretion whether or not to implement the judgment. He is to effect execution without delay and supervise implementation strictly in accordance with the judgment. Judge Patricio’s acts unmistakably exhibit gross ignorance of the law. Jesus D. Carbajosa v. Judge Hannibal R. Patricio, Presiding Judge, Municipal Circuit Trial Court, President Roxas, Capiz, A.M. No. MTJ-13-1834, October 2, 2013.

Judge; Gross Misconduct. Judge Pardo was accused of corruption. Judge Pardo did not deny that Rosendo, a litigant who had a pending application for probation in his sala, went to his house, had a “drinking spree” with him and stayed there for more than two hours. The Supreme Court held Judge Pardo liable for gross misconduct. Citing jurisprudence, the Court held that a judge’s acts of meeting with litigants outside the office premises beyond office hours and sending a member of his staff to talk with complainant constitute gross misconduct. Moreover, a judge was held liable for misconduct when he entertained a litigant in his home and received benefits given by the litigant. Atty. Jessie Tuldague and Atty. Alfredo Baldajo, Jr. v. Judge Moises Pardo and Jaime Calpatura, etc. / Atty. Jessie Tuldague and Atty. Alfredo Baldajo, Jr. v. Jaime Calpatura, etc. / Re: Report on the Judicial Audit and Investigation Conducted in the RTC, Cabarroguis, Quirino, A.M. No. RTJ-05-1962/ A.M. OCA IPI No. 05-2243-P/ A.M. No. 05-10-661-RTC, October 25, 2013. 

Judge; Grave Misconduct; Gross Neglect of Duty; Gross Dishonesty; Penalty.  Grave misconduct, gross neglect of duty and gross dishonesty of which Judge Salubre, Edig, Palero and Aventurado are found guilty, even if committed for the first time, are punishable by dismissal and carries with it the forfeiture of retirement benefits, except accrued leave benefits, and the  perpetual disqualification for reemployment in the government service. As to Judge Salubre and Edig, however, in view of their deaths, the supreme penalty of dismissal cannot be imposed on them anymore. It is only the penalty of dismissal that is rendered futile by their passing since they are not in the service anymore, but it is still within the Court’s power to forfeit their retirement benefits. Report on the financial audit conducted in the MTCC, Tagum City, Davao del Norte / Office of the Court Administrator v. Judge Ismael L. Salubre, et al., A.M. OCA IPI No. 09-3138-P/A.M. No. MTJ-05-1618, October 22, 2013.

Judge; Remedy for Correcting Actions of Judge. A complaint for gross ignorance of the law, grave misconduct, oppression, bias and partiality was filed against Judge Omelio. The Supreme Court reiterated the rule that the filing of an administrative complaint is not the proper remedy for correcting the actions of a judge perceived to have gone beyond the norms of propriety, where a sufficient remedy exists. The actions against judges should not be considered as complementary or suppletory to, or substitute for, the judicial remedies which can be availed of by a party in a case. Moreover, the grant or denial of a writ of preliminary injunction in a pending case rests on the sound discretion of the court taking cognizance of the case, since the assessment and evaluation of evidence towards that end involves findings of fact left to the said court for its conclusive determination. Hence, the exercise of judicial discretion by a court in injunctive matters must not be interfered with, except when there is grave abuse of discretion. Ma. Regina S. Peralta v. Judge George E. Omelio / Romualdo G. Mendoza v. Judge George E. Omelio / Atty. Asteria E. Cruzabra v. Judge George E. Omelio, A.M. No. RTJ-11-2259/A.M. No. RTJ-11-2264/A.M. No. RTJ-11-2273, October 22, 2013.

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