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674 Phil. 578

EN BANC

[ G. R. No. 162372, October 19, 2011 ]

GOVERNMENT SERVICE INSURANCE SYSTEM (GSIS), HERMOGENES D. CONCEPCION, JR., WINSTON F. GARCIA, REYNALDO P. PALMIERY, LEOVIGILDO P. ARRELLANO, ELMER T. BAUTISTA, LEONORA V. DE JESUS, FULGENCIO S. FACTORAN, FLORINO O. IBAÑEZ, AIDA C. NOCETE, AURORA P. MATHAY, ENRIQUETA DISUANCO, AMALIO MALLARI, LOURDES PATAG, RICHARD M. MARTINEZ, ASUNCION C. SINDAC, GLORIA D. CAEDO, ROMEO C. QUILATAN, ESPERANZA FALLORINA, LOLITA BACANI, ARNULFO MADRIAGA, LEOCADIA S. FAJARDO, BENIGNO BULAONG, SHIRLEY D. FLORENTINO, AND LEA M. MENDIOLA, PETITIONERS, VS. COMMISSION ON AUDIT (COA), AMORSONIA B. ESCARDA, MA. CRISTINA D. DIMAGIBA, AND REYNALDO P. VENTURA, RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

LEONARDO-DE CASTRO, J.:

This is a petition for review on certiorari under Rule 64 in relation to Rule 65 of the 1997 Rules of Court to annul and set aside the Commission on Audit's Decision Nos. 2003-062 and 2004-004 dated March 18, 2003 and January 27, 2004, respectively, for having been made without or in excess of jurisdiction, or with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction.

The Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) is joined by its Board of Trustees and officials, namely: Chairman Hermogenes D. Concepcion, Jr.; Vice-Chairman and President and General Manager Winston F. Garcia (Garcia); Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Reynaldo P. Palmiery; Trustees Leovigildo P. Arrellano, Elmer T. Bautista, Leonora V. de Jesus, Fulgencio S. Factoran, Florino O. Ibañez, and Aida C. Nocete; Senior Vice Presidents Aurora Mathay, Enriqueta Disuangco, Amalio Mallari, Lourdes Patag, and Asuncion C. Sindac; Vice Presidents Richard Martinez, Romeo C. Quilatan, and Gloria D. Caedo; and Managers Esperanza Fallorina, Lolita Bacani, Arnulfo Madriaga, Leocadia S. Fajardo, Benigno Bulaong, Shirley D. Florentino, and Lea M. Mendiola, together with all other officials and employees held liable by the Commission on Audit (COA) as petitioners in this case.[1]

The respondents in this petition are: the COA; its Director of Corporate Audit Office (CAO) I, Amorsonia B. Escarda (Escarda), who rendered CAO I Decision No. 2002-009 dated May 27, 2002; the former Corporate Auditor of GSIS, Ma. Cristina D. Dimagiba (Dimagiba), who issued the Notices of Disallowance subject of CAO I Decision No. 2002-009; and the incumbent GSIS Corporate Auditor Reynaldo P. Ventura (Ventura).[2]

The facts are as follows:

On May 30, 1997, Republic Act No. 8291, otherwise known as "The Government Service Insurance System Act of 1997" (the GSIS Act) was enacted and approved, amending Presidential Decree No. 1146, as amended, expanding and increasing the coverage and benefits of the GSIS, and instituting reforms therein.

On October 17, 2000, pursuant to the powers granted to it under Section 41(n) of the said law, the GSIS Board of Trustees, upon the recommendation of the Management-Employee Relations Committee (MERCOM), approved Board Resolution No. 326 wherein they adopted the GSIS Employees Loyalty Incentive Plan (ELIP),[3]  to wit:

GSIS EMPLOYEES LOYALTY INCENTIVE PLAN
 (Pursuant to Sec. 41(n) of R.A. No. 8291)

I   OBJECTIVE :  To motivate and reward employees for meritorious, faithful and satisfactory service

II  COVERAGE :   The GSIS Employees Loyalty Incentive Plan shall cover all present permanent employees and members of the Board and those who may hereafter be appointed.

III SPECIFIC BENEFIT  :  LI = TGS* MULTIPLIED BY HS MINUS  5yLS/BPRCP

Where :  LI = loyalty incentive
TGS = total government service
HS = highest monthly salary/benefit received 5yLS = 5 year lump sum under RA 660, RA 910, PD 1146 or RA 8291
BPRCP = retirement benefit previously received plus cash payment for employees no longer qualified to 5yLS

*Determined as follows:

**For positions salary grade 1-26
For positions SG 27 up
1 - 20 yrs x 1.5
1 - 20 yrs x 1.25
21 - 30 yrs x 2.0
21 - 30 yrs x 1.75
31 yrs above x 2.5
31 yrs above x 2.00


**Subject to review.  Applicable only to present salary structure.

IV   IMPLEMENTING POLICIES:

  1. To be entitled to the plan, the employee must be qualified to retire with 5 year lump sum under RA 660 or RA 8291 or had previously retired under applicable retirement laws

  2. The loyalty incentive benefit shall be computed based on both total government service and highest monthly salary/benefit received from GSIS

  3. Employees with pending administrative and/or criminal case may apply but processing and payment of loyalty incentive shall be held in abeyance until final decision on their cases

  4. GSIS loyalty incentive plan can only be availed once and employees who retired under GERSIP'97 are no longer qualified

  5. There shall be no refund of retirement premiums in all cases

  6. Application is subject to approval by the President and General Manager

PROCEDURE:
  1. Employees availing of the Employee Loyalty Incentive Plan must file his/her application under RA 660[4] or RA 8291 for the five (5) year lump sum, with HRS for indorsement to SIG

  2. Option 2 under RA 8291 may be allowed but the loyalty incentive shall be computed based on 5 year lump sum

  3. The loyalty incentive shall only be paid after deducting the lump sum under RA 660, RA 910,[5] PD 1146[6] or RA 8291 or retirement benefit previously received plus cash payment

  4. Government service of previously retired employees shall be considered in computing the loyalty incentive


  5. For expediency, the processing of the plan shall be done by the Social Insurance Group
EFFECTIVITY DATE: The Plan shall take effect August, 2000. (Emphases supplied.)

On November 21, 2000, Board Resolution No. 326 was amended by Board Resolution No. 360,[7] which provided for a single rate for all positions, regardless of salary grade, in the computation of creditable service, viz:

1-20 years          x          1.5
21-30 years        x          2.0
31 years above    x          2.5

Except as herein amended, Resolution No. 326 dated October 17, 2000 shall remain to have full force and effect.

Dimagiba, the corporate auditor of GSIS, communicated to the President and General Manager of GSIS that the GSIS RFP was contrary to law.  However, the GSIS Legal Services Group opined that the GSIS Board was legally authorized to adopt the plan since Section 28(b) of Commonwealth Act No. 186 as amended by Republic Act No. 4968 has been repealed by Sections 3 and 41(n) of Republic Act No. 8291.[8]

On January 16, 2001, Board Resolution No. 6[9] was approved, wherein ELIP was renamed GSIS Retirement/Financial Plan (RFP) to conform strictly to the wordings of Section 41(n) of Republic Act No. 8291.

Upon Garcia's assumption of office as President and General Manager, Dimagiba requested to again review the GSIS RFP.  This was denied by Garcia.[10]  Believing that the GSIS RFP was "morally indefensible,"[11] Dimagiba sought the assistance of COA "in determining the legality and/or morality of the said Plan in so far as it has `adopted the best features of the two retirement schemes, the 5-year lump sum payment under [Republic Act No.] 1616 and the monthly pension of [Republic Act No.] 660 based on the creditable service computed at 150%.'"[12]

On August 7, 2001, COA's General Counsel Santos M. Alquizalas (Alquizalas) issued a Memorandum to COA Commissioner Raul C. Flores regarding the GSIS RFP. Alquizalas opined that the GSIS RFP is a supplementary retirement plan, which is prohibited under Republic Act No. 4968, or the "Teves Retirement Law."  He also said that since there is no provision in the new Republic Act No. 8291 expressly repealing the Teves Retirement Law, the two laws must be harmonized absent an irreconcilable inconsistency.  Alquizalas pronounced that Board Resolution Nos. 360 and 6 are null and void for being violative of Section 28(b) of Commonwealth Act No. 186 as amended by Republic Act No. 4968, which bars the creation of a supplemental retirement scheme; and Section 41(n) of Republic Act No. 8291, which speaks of an early retirement plan or financial assistance.[13]

On August 14, 2001,[14] Commissioner Flores forwarded this Memorandum to Dimagiba, who in turn forwarded it to Garcia on August 23, 2001.  Dimagiba, in her letter attached to Alquizalas's Memorandum, added that for lack of legal basis, her office was disallowing in audit the portion of retirement benefits granted under the GSIS RFP, or the excess of the benefits due the retirees.  She also said that GSIS could avail of the appeal process provided for under Sections 48 to 50 of Presidential Decree No. 1445 and Section 37.1 of the Manual on Certificate of Settlement and Balances.[15]

On August 27, 2001, Garcia responded[16]to Dimagiba, taking exception to the notice of disallowance for being "highly irregular and precipitate" as it was based on a mere opinion of COA's counsel who had no authority to declare the resolution of the GSIS Board of Trustees as null and void.  Moreover, Garcia asseverated that COA had neither power nor authority to declare as null and void certain resolutions approved by the Board of Government Corporations, as the power to do so was exclusively lodged before the courts.  He also argued that the notice of disallowance was premature, and was tantamount to a pre-audit activity, as it should refer only to a particular or specific disbursement of public funds and not against a general activity or transaction. Garcia averred that the GSIS RFP was part and parcel of the compensation package that GSIS may provide for its personnel, by virtue of the powers granted to its Board of Trustees under Section 41(m) and (n) of Republic Act No. 8291.  Garcia said that the appeal process would commence only upon GSIS's receipt of the particulars of the disallowances.[17]  Finally, Garcia requested Dimagiba to withdraw the notices of disallowance "in the interest of industrial peace in the GSIS."[18]

Without responding to Garcia's August 27, 2001 Memorandum, Dimagiba issued the following Notices of Disallowance on the grounds that:

Pursuant to legal opinion of the General Counsel dated August 7, 2001, Board Resolution No. 360 dated Nov. 21, 2000 as amended by No. 6 dated Jan. 16, 2001 approving the Employees Loyalty Incentive Plan (ELIP) is null and void for being directly in conflict with Section 28(b) of CA No. 186 as amended by RA 4968 which bars the creation of supplemental retirement scheme and of Section 41 (n) of RA 8291 which speaks of an early retirement plan or financial assistance.[19]

Notices of Disallowance dated September 19, 2001[20]
 
Notice of Disallowance No./Period covered:
Payee
Amount Disallowed
Persons Liable:
Board of Trustees; Lourdes Patag (SVP),
  Gloria Caedo (VP-SIAMS II), the payee,
  and the following officers:

2001-01-412/
December 2000

Marina Santamaria
P6,895,545.84
Richard Martinez Lea M. Mendiola
2001-02-412/
  December 2000
Rosita N. Lim
P2,281,005.52
2001-03-412/
January 2001
Manuel G. Ojeda
P1,201,581.29
Daniel Mijares Romeo Quilatan Richard Martinez Benigno Bulaong
2001-04-412/
March 2001
Federico Pascual
P11,444,957.32
Winston F. Garcia Esperanza Fallorina Lea M. Mendiola
2001-05-412/
March 2001
Juanito Gamier, Sr.
P332,035.79
Winston F. Garcia Esperanza Fallorina Lea M. Mendiola Shirley Florentino
2001-06-412/
May 2001
Vicente Villegas P4,792,260.17 Enriqueta Disuanco Aurora P. Mathay Lea M. Mendiola


Notices of Disallowance dated October 22, 2001[21]
                   
Notice of Disallowance No./Period covered:
July 24, 2001 
Payee
Amount Disallowed
Persons Liable:
  Board of Trustees; Gloria Caedo (VP-SIAMS II);
  Asuncion Sindac (VP); Richard M. Martinez (VP & Controller);
  Lea M. Mendiola (Manager, HRSD); the payee;
and the following officers:
2001-07-412 Rustico G. Delos Angeles P1,968,516.01 Reynaldo  Palmiery
2001-08-412 Lourdes Delos Angeles P4,320,567.99 Reynaldo  Palmiery Amalio A. Mallari
2001-09-412 Gloria L. Anonuevo P1,308,705.75 Lolita B. Bacani
2001-10-412 Elvira J. Agcaoili P2,313,729.41 Reynaldo  Palmiery Amalio A. Mallari
2001-11-412 Segundina S. Dionisio P743,877.21 (except Richard Martinez and Lea M. Mendiola)


Notices of Disallowance dated October 23, 2001[22]

Notice of
Disallowance No./Period covered:

July 24, 2001
Payee
Amount Disallowed
Persons Liable:
  Board of Trustees; Gloria Caedo (VP-SIAMS II); Asuncion Sindac (VP);
  Lea M. Mendiola (Manager, HRSD);
the payee; and the following officers:
2001-12-412
Daniel N. Mijares
P7,148,031.17
Reynaldo  Palmiery Richard Martinez
2001-13-412
Melinda A. Flores
P1,459,974.12
Reynaldo  Palmiery Richard Martinez Manuel P. Bausa
2001-14-412
Democrito M. Silang
P532,869.65
Enriqueta Disuanco Arnulfo Madriaga
2001-15-412
Manuel P. Bausa
P1,955,561.67
Reynaldo Palmiery Richard Martinez Lourdes A. Delos Angeles


Notices of Disallowance dated November 9, 2001[23]

Notice of Disallowance
  No./Period covered:
Payee
Amount Disallowed
Persons Liable:
Board of Trustees; Winston F. Garcia (PGM);
Asuncion Sindac (SVP); Gloria Caedo (VP);
the payee; and the following officers:
2001-16-412/ June 28, 2001
Lourdes G. Patag
P7,883,629.28
Enriquita Disuanco Lea M. Mendiola
2001-17-412/ July 17, 2001
Elvira U. Geronimo
P5,648,739.26
Richard Martinez


Notices of Disallowance dated November 13, 2001[24]

Notice of Disallowance No./Period covered:
Payee
Amount
Disallowed
Persons Liable:
Board of Trustees; Asuncion Sindac (SVP);
Gloria Caedo (VP); Lea M. Mendiola
  (Manager, HRSD) the payee;
and the following officers:
2001-20-412/
  August 28, 2001
Modesto A. De Leon
P2,887,056.75
Daniel N. Mijares Romeo Quilatan
2001-21-412/
July 20, 2001
Antonio S. De Castro
P931,583.11
Reynaldo Palmiery Richard Martinez
2001-22-412/
August 27, 2001
Teresa O. Loyola
P485,184.27
Leocadia S. Fajardo
2001-23-412/
August 27, 2001
Pablito B. Galvez
P93,487.54
Reynaldo Palmiery Shirley Florentino

On January 30, 2002, GSIS, together with some of the petitioners herein, gave notice[25] to the COA CAO I that it was appealing the 21 Notices of Disallowance it had received from Dimagiba on various dates. It amended[26] this Notice of Appeal the following day, to include all GSIS officials and employees held liable and accountable under the said disallowances.[27]

In their Memorandum of Appeal,[28] the petitioners mainly argued that GSIS had the power, under its charter, to adopt and implement the GSIS RFP.  They alleged that their plan was not unique to GSIS as other government agencies also have their own retirement or financial assistance plans.  They claimed that to then disallow their retirement plan would be tantamount to a violation of their constitutional right to be equally protected by our laws.[29]  The petitioners also argued that Republic Act No. 8291 had modified or repealed all provisions of the Teves Retirement Law that were inconsistent with it and that GSIS's officials could not be held liable or accountable for implementing the GSIS RFP since this was done in the performance of their duties.[30]

On May 27, 2002, the COA, through Escarda, in CAO I Decision No. 2002-009,[31] affirmed the disallowances made by Dimagiba.  Escarda sustained the COA general counsel's opinion and said that while the GSIS may have the power to adopt an early retirement or a financial assistance plan under its charter, it cannot supplement a retirement plan already existing under the law.  Escarda said that the purpose of an early retirement plan is generally to streamline the organization by encouraging those who would not be qualified for compulsory retirement to retire early under the plan.  However, Escarda claimed, the availees of the plan were employees whose supposed monthly pensions under the GSIS RFP included services they had already earned in other government agencies.  Thus, Escarda held that the GSIS RFP was in reality a supplementary retirement plan for these GSIS employees.  Finally, Escarda disagreed with GSIS's assertion that the Teves Retirement Law had been modified or repealed as the repealing clause in Republic Act No. 8291 is a general repealing clause, which is frowned upon and is generally not effective to repeal a specific law like the Teves Retirement Law.[32]

Undaunted, the petitioners filed before the COA a Petition for Review[33] of CAO I's decision, raising the exact same issues it raised in its Memorandum of Appeal dated February 14, 2002, to wit:

I

Whether or not petitioners/appellants GSIS and GSIS Board of Trustees have the power and authority to design and adopt the questioned GSIS Retirement Financial Plan.

II

Whether or not petitioners/appellant GSIS officials who are merely implementing the GSIS Act of 1997 and duly adopted Board Resolutions must be held responsible and accountable for the implementation of the GSIS Retirement Financial Plan.

III

Whether or not the adoption of the GSIS Retirement Financial Plan violated Section 28 (b) of CA No. 186 as amended by Republic Act No. 4968, and Section 41(n) of Republic Act No. 8291, otherwise known as the GSIS Act of 1997.

IV

Whether or not the COA disallowance of the GSIS Retirement Financial Plan is lawful, and the CAO I Decision No. 2002-009 and the Notices of Disallowance issued by GSIS Corporate Auditor Dimagiba are proper.[34]

On March 18, 2003, COA issued Decision No. 2003-062,[35] wherein the issue was narrowed down to "whether or not the GSIS Board can reward themselves with unusually large benefits in the face of an unusually large actuarial deficit which will result in the denial of benefits of future retirees in other government agencies for whom the fund is principally intended."[36]

COA zeroed in on the fact that to be entitled to the GSIS RFP, the employee "must be qualified to retire with 5-year lump sum under R.A. No. 660 or R.A. No. 8291 or [must have] previously retired under the applicable retirement laws."[37]  They affirmed Escarda's ruling and contended that what the "still valid"[38] Teves Retirement Law permits is the creation of an early retirement or financial assistance plan, and the above requirement imposed under the GSIS RFP does not apply to either plans.  COA added:

Unmistakably, the Plan being a supplementary pension/retirement plan, it contravenes the Teves law.  Not even the renaming of [the] Employees Loyalty Incentive Plan (ELIP) to Retirement Financial Plan (RFP), purportedly to conform with the wording of the law, could conceal its true nature or character as a supplementary pension/retirement plan which incorporates the best features of R.A. Nos. 660 and 8291, creating in effect a third retirement plan for GSIS personnel only.  This is all the more made manifest by the fact that even Board members who are not qualified at all to retire under any existing retirement laws could retire under the RFP.  Strikingly, by promulgating another regular retirement scheme, the GSIS Board enlarged the field of its authority and regulation as provided in the statute it is supposed to administer.[39]

COA said that the power of GSIS in applying the law must not be abused.  COA averred that GSIS was found to be deficient actuarially by Fifteen Billion Pesos, and for it to reward its employees, who were already enjoying salaries higher than their counterparts in other government agencies, meant that it would have to dip into its principal fund to the prejudice of its members, who were the very raison d'etre for its establishment.[40]

Addressing petitioners' claim of discrimination, COA said that each of the government agencies that had adopted its own retirement plans did so pursuant to a valid law and under factual circumstances that were not present  in the case of GSIS.  COA also affirmed the liability of the petitioners who were held accountable under the disallowances as they had failed to exercise the diligence of a good father of a family in the performance of their functions.[41]  Finally, COA averred that while its general counsel's opinion boosted its position, such was not the basis of the disallowance.[42]

The petitioners sought reconsideration[43] of this decision and even asked to be heard in oral arguments,[44] but COA, in its Decision No. 2004-004 dated January 27, 2004,[45] denied both motions and affirmed its Decision No. 2003-062 dated March 18, 2003 with finality.

The petitioners are now before us, asking us to nullify COA's March 18, 2003 and January 27, 2004 decisions, on the ground that they were made with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction.[46]

The petitioners posit the following arguments to support their cause:

RESPONDENTS ACTED WITHOUT OR IN EXCESS OF JURISDICTION, OR WITH GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION AMOUNTING TO LACK OR IN EXCESS OF JURISDICTION, WHEN IN THE FOLLOWING MANNER:

I

Respondents sought to interpret clear provisions of Republic Act No. 8291, otherwise known as the GSIS Act of 1997, and declare null and void duly adopted resolutions of petitioner GSIS which has the power and authority to design and adopt the questioned GSIS Retirement Financial Plan (RFP).

II

Respondents ruled that petitioners GSIS officials who are merely implementing the GSIS Act of 1997 and duly adopted Board Resolutions could be held responsible and accountable for the implementation of the GSIS Retirement Financial Plan (RFP).

III

Respondents held that the adoption of the GSIS Retirement Financial Plan (RFP) violated Section 28 (b) of CA No. 186, as amended by Republic Act No. 4968, and Section 41(n) of Republic Act No. 8291, otherwise known as the GSIS Act of 1997.

IV

Respondent[s] disallowed the GSIS Retirement Financial Plan (RFP), and erroneously affirmed the Notices of Disallowance issued by then GSIS Corporate Auditor Dimagiba.

V

Respondents touched on new and irrelevant matters which were not raised in the disallowances and/or pleadings below, and which were never validated.[47]

The crux of the present case boils down to the legality of Board Resolution Nos. 360, 326, and 6, which we shall refer to simply as "the GSIS RFP," in light of Republic Act No. 8291 or the GSIS Act of 1997, and Commonwealth Act No. 186 or the Government Service Insurance Act as amended by Republic Act No. 4968 (the Teves Retirement Law).

Below are the pertinent provisions of the foregoing laws:

Republic Act No. 8291

SECTION 41. Powers and Functions of the GSIS. -- The GSIS shall exercise the following powers and functions:

x x x x

(n) to design and adopt an Early Retirement Incentive Plan (ERIP) and/or financial assistance for the purpose of retirement for its own personnel; x x x.

Commonwealth Act No. 186 as amended by the Teves Retirement Law:

SEC. 28. Miscellaneous Provisions - x x x

(b) Hereafter no insurance or retirement plan for officers or employees shall be created by any employer.  All supplementary retirement or pension plans heretofore in force in any government office, agency, or instrumentality or corporation owned or controlled by the government, are hereby declared inoperative or abolished.  x x x. [48]

Republic Act No. 4968 or the Teves
Retirement Law
Is Still Good Law

The petitioners insist that under Section 3 of Republic Act No. 8291, which provides that "all laws or any law or parts of law specifically inconsistent herewith are hereby repealed or modified accordingly," all provisions of the Teves Retirement Law that are inconsistent with Republic Act No. 8291 are deemed repealed or modified.[49]

We do not subscribe to petitioner's interpretation of this law.  This is because, unless the intention to revoke is clear and manifest, the abrogation or repeal of a law cannot be assumed.[50]  The repealing clause contained in Republic Act No. 8291 is not an express repealing clause because it fails to identify or designate the statutes that are intended to be repealed.  It is actually a clause, which predicated the intended repeal upon the condition that a substantial conflict must be found in existing and prior laws.[51]

Since Republic Act No. 8291 made no express repeal or abrogation of the provisions of Commonwealth Act No. 186 as amended by the Teves Retirement Law, the reliance of the petitioners on its general repealing clause is erroneous. The failure to add a specific repealing clause in Republic Act No. 8291 indicates that the intent was not to repeal any existing law, unless an irreconcilable inconsistency and repugnancy exists in the terms of the new and old laws.[52]

We are likewise not convinced by petitioners' claim of repeal by implication.  It is a well-settled rule that to bring about an implied repeal, the two laws must be absolutely incompatible and clearly repugnant that the later law cannot exist without nullifying the prior law.[53]  As this Court held in Recaña, Jr. v. Court of Appeals[54]:

Repeal of laws should be made clear and expressed.  Repeals by implication are not favored as laws are presumed to be passed with deliberation and full knowledge of all laws existing on the subject.  Such repeals are not favored for a law cannot be deemed repealed unless it is clearly manifest that the legislature so intended it.  x x x.[55]

This Court sees no incompatibility between the two laws being discussed here.  In reconciling Section 41(n) of Republic Act No. 8291 with the Teves Retirement Law, we are guided by this Court's pronouncement in Philippine International Trading Corporation v. Commission on Audit[56]:

In reconciling Section 6 of Executive Order No. 756 with Section 28, Subsection (b) of Commonwealth Act No. 186, as amended, uppermost in the mind of the Court is the fact that the best method of interpretation is that which makes laws consistent with other laws which are to be harmonized rather than having one considered repealed in favor of the other. Time and again, it has been held that every statute must be so interpreted and brought in accord with other laws as to form a uniform system of jurisprudence -- interpretere et concordare legibus est optimus interpretendi.  Thus, if diverse statutes relate to the same thing, they ought to be taken into consideration in construing any one of them, as it is an established rule of law that all acts in pari materia are to be taken together, as if they were one law.  x x x.[57]

While Republic Act No. 8291 speaks of an early retirement incentive plan or financial assistance for the GSIS employees, Commonwealth Act No. 186 as amended by the Teves Retirement Law talks about insurance or retirement plans other than our existing retirement laws.  In other words, what the Teves Retirement Law contemplates and prohibits are separate retirement or insurance plans.  In fact, the very same provision declared inoperative or abolished all supplementary retirement or pension plans.

The GSIS Retirement/Financial
Plan is Null and Void

It is true that under Section 41(n) of Republic Act No. 8291, GSIS is expressly granted the power to adopt a retirement plan and/or financial assistance for its employees, but a closer look at the provision readily shows that this power is not absolute.  It is qualified by the words "early," "incentive," and "for the purpose of retirement."  The retirement plan must be an early retirement incentive plan and such early retirement incentive plan or financial assistance must be for the purpose of retirement.

According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, "early" means "occurring before the expected or usual time," while "incentive" means "serving to encourage, rouse, or move to action," or "something that constitutes a motive or spur."[58]

It is clear from the foregoing that Section 41(n) of Republic Act No. 8291 contemplates a situation wherein GSIS, due to a reorganization, a streamlining of its organization, or some other circumstance, which calls for the termination of some of its employees, must design a plan to encourage, induce, or motivate these employees, who are not yet qualified for either optional or compulsory retirement under our laws, to instead voluntarily retire.  This is the very reason why under the law, the retirement plan to be adopted is in reality an incentive scheme to encourage the employees to retire before their retirement age.

The above interpretation applies equally to the phrase "financial assistance," which, contrary to the petitioners' assertion, should not be read independently of the purpose of an early retirement incentive plan.  Under the doctrine of noscitur a sociis, the construction of a particular word or phrase, which is in itself ambiguous, or is equally susceptible of various meanings, may be made clear and specific by considering the company of words in which it is found or with which it is associated.  In other words, the obscurity or doubt of the word or phrase may be reviewed by reference to associated words.[59]  Thus, the phrase "financial assistance," in light of the preceding words with which it is associated, should also be construed as an incentive scheme to induce employees to retire early or as an assistance plan to be given to employees retiring earlier than their retirement age.

Such is not the case with the GSIS RFP.  Its very objective, "[t]o motivate and reward employees for meritorious, faithful, and satisfactory service,"[60] contradicts the nature of an early retirement incentive plan, or a financial assistance plan, which involves a substantial amount that is given to motivate employees to retire early. Instead, it falls exactly within the purpose of a retirement benefit, which is a form of reward for an employee's loyalty and lengthy service,[61] in order to help him or her enjoy the remaining years of his life.

Furthermore, to be able to apply for the GSIS RFP, one must be qualified to retire under Republic Act No. 660 or Republic Act No. 8291, or must have previously retired under our existing retirement laws.  This only means that the employees covered by the GSIS RFP were those who were already eligible to retire or had already retired.  Certainly, this is not included in the scope of "an early retirement incentive plan or financial assistance for the purpose of retirement."

The fact that GSIS changed the name from "Employees Loyalty Incentive Plan" to "Retirement/Financial Plan" does not change its essential nature.  A perusal of the plan shows that its purpose is not to encourage GSIS's employees to retire before their retirement age, but to augment the retirement benefits they would receive under our present laws. [62] Without a doubt, the GSIS RFP is a supplementary retirement plan, which is prohibited by the Teves Retirement Law.

Conte v. Commission on Audit[63] squarely applies in this case.  In that case, the Social Security System (SSS) issued Resolution No. 56, which provided financial incentive and inducement to SSS employees who were qualified to retire, to avail of retirement benefits under Republic Act No. 660, as amended (which GSIS would have to pay), rather than the retirement benefits under Republic Act No. 1616, as amended (which SSS would have to pay). Under SSS Resolution No. 56, those who retire under Republic Act No. 660 would be given a "financial assistance" equivalent in amount to the difference between what a retiree would have received under Republic Act No. 1616, less what he was entitled to under Republic Act No. 660.  COA disallowed in audit all claims for financial assistance under SSS Resolution No. 56 for being similar to those separate retirement plans or incentive/separation pay plans adopted by other government corporate agencies, which resulted in the increase of benefits beyond what was allowed under existing retirement laws.  This Court sustained COA's disallowance and held that SSS Resolution No. 56 constituted a supplementary retirement plan proscribed by Section 28(b) of Commonwealth Act No. 186, as amended by Republic Act No. 4968. [64]

The petitioners argue that Conte finds no application in this case, since SSS had no authority under its charter to adopt such a resolution, unlike the GSIS, which was cloaked with authority to issue the questioned resolutions. Furthermore, petitioners argue that Republic Act No. 8291 became effective in 1997, which was after this Court had already decided the Conte case.

We find no merit in the petitioners' arguments.  The laws have not changed, and the doctrine in Conte has not been overturned or abandoned. The fact that Republic Act No. 8291 was approved and enacted after Conte is of no moment, as what was interpreted in Conte was the provision in the Teves Retirement Law in issue here.  Moreover, we have already discussed above how such provision has neither been repealed nor modified by Section 41(n) of Republic Act No. 8291.  Thus, it is just fitting that we find guidance in the application and interpretation of Section 28(b) of Commonwealth Act No. 186, as amended by Republic Act No. 4968, from the Conte case.

As we have held in that case:

Section 28(b) [of C.A. No. 186] as amended by R.A. No. 4968 in no uncertain terms bars the creation of any insurance or retirement plan - other than the GSIS - for government officers and employees, in order to prevent the undue and inequitous proliferation of such plans. x x x.[65]

The petitioners asseverate that many laws such as Republic Act Nos. 8291, 1161, 8282, 6683, and 7641, were validly enacted after the Teves Retirement Law; thus, the evil that it seeks to avoid is the proliferation of those retirement plans that are not so authorized by law.[66]  The petitioners even go so far as comparing themselves to other government agencies, which have adopted their own retirement schemes at one time or another such as the Development Bank of the Philippines, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Power Corporation, the COA, the Court of Appeals, and even this Court.[67]

The petitioners themselves admit that those retirement schemes were adopted as a "[one-time] grant [by] reason of reorganization"[68] pursuant to Republic Act No. 6683[69] or the Early Retirement Law.  As for the additional benefits extended to retiring justices or commissioners, suffice it to say that they were also given pursuant to laws passed by Congress.  Moreover, those retirement plans enjoy the presumption of validity and regularity.

In stark contrast, the GSIS RFP was not created because of a valid company reorganization.  Its purpose did not include the granting of benefits for early retirement.  Neither did it provide benefits for either voluntary or involuntary separation from GSIS. It was intended for employees who were already eligible to retire under existing retirement laws.  While the GSIS may have been clothed with authority to adopt an early retirement or financial assistance plan, such authority was limited by the very law it was seeking to implement.

Borrowing this Court's words in the Conte case, "it is beyond cavil that [the GSIS Retirement/Financial Plan] contravenes [Section 28(b) of C.A. No. 186 as amended by R.A. No. 4968 or the Teves Retirement Law], and is therefore invalid, void, and of no effect.  To ignore this and rule otherwise would be tantamount to permitting every other government office or agency to put up its own supplementary retirement benefit plan under the guise of such `financial assistance.'"[70]

Another compelling reason to nullify the GSIS RFP is that it allows, and in fact mandates, the inclusion of the years in government service of previously retired employees, to wit:

PROCEDURE:

x  x x x

4.  Government service of previously retired employees shall be considered in computing the loyalty incentive.[71]

In Santos v. Court of Appeals,[72] we affirmed the Court of Appeals and the Civil Service Commission's ruling that for the purpose of computing or determining Santos' separation pay, his years of service in his previous government office should be excluded and his separation pay should be solely confined to his services in his new government position.   We gave the rationale for this as follows:

Such would run counter to the policy of this Court against double compensation for exactly the same services.  More important, it would be in violation of the first paragraph of Section 8 of Article IX-B of the Constitution, which proscribes additional, double, or indirect compensation.  Said provision reads:
No elective or appointive public officer or employee shall receive additional, double, or indirect compensation, unless specifically authorized by law... .[73]
Our ruling therein is likewise applicable in this case.  To credit the years of service of GSIS retirees in their previous government office into the computation of their retirement benefits under the GSIS RFP, notwithstanding the fact that they had received or had been receiving the retirement benefits under the applicable retirement law they retired in, would be to countenance double compensation for exactly the same services.[74]

To emphasize COA's "distaste"[75] for the huge retirement benefits of GSIS's board members, officers, and employees, who are already receiving significantly higher salaries than their counterparts in other government agencies, COA illustrated the glaring discrepancy between what a GSIS employee would get under the GSIS RFP, and what a mere GSIS member would get under applicable retirement laws:

GSIS EMPLOYEE vs GSIS MEMBER not covered by [GSIS RFP]

GSIS EMPLOYEE
SALARY GRADE
GSIS MEMBER
GSIS Vice-President
27
Director III
46.36895
Length of Service
46.36895
P110,775.00
Basic Salary
P25,223.00
65 years old
Age at Retirement
65 years old
August 21, 2001
Date of Retirement
August 21, 2001
April 8, 1954
First Day in Govt Service
April 8, 1954
April 8, 1954
First Day in GSIS/Other office
April 8, 1954


BENEFITS UNDER DIFFERENT MODES OF RETIREMENT

[GSIS Employee]
   [GSIS Member]
[GSIS RFP]
RA 1616
RA 660
  
[GSIS RFP]
RA 1616
RA 660
90.92238
67.7379
46.36895
CGS
N/A
67.7379
46.36895
10,071,926.00
7,503,665.87
NONE
GA
1,708,553.05
NONE
3,176,380.80
5YLS
1,210,704.00
52,939.68
BMP
20,178.40
NONE
with refund
NONE
RRP
with refund
NONE


*[GSIS RFP] less 5YLS = FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE plus MP of
  P52,939.68 after five years
= P6,895,545.20 Financial Assistance + Monthly Pension after five years

*          CGS -   Creditable Government Service
*          GA -   Gratuity Amount Payable by Employer
*          5YLS -   Five (5) Year Lump Sum Payable by GSIS
*          BMP -   Basic Monthly Pension
*          RRP   - Refund of Retirement Premiums[76]

With the above illustration, it can be readily seen and understood why the Teves Retirement Law prohibits the proliferation of additional retirement plans in our government offices.  While it is true that a better compensation package will not only attract more competent and capable individuals to work in GSIS, but will also ensure that they remain loyal and faithful therein, this has already been addressed by the GSIS employees' exemption from Republic Act No. 678 or the Salary Standardization Law (SSL), under Sec. 43(d) of Republic Act No. 8291.  As shown in the above tables, the salary of a GSIS employee is much higher compared to his counterpart in another government agency.  This remains to be true even with the recent increase of the salaries in the SSL.

The petitioners also question COA's authority to nullify the resolutions involved in this case.  It must be remembered that none of the COA decisions nullified the Board Resolutions adopted by GSIS's Board of Trustees.  What the COA decisions affirmed were the disallowances made by GSIS's own Corporate Auditor, Dimagiba.  It is irrelevant that COA, in its decisions, touched upon issues not brought before it, or that it referred to its general counsel's opinion on the GSIS RFP, as these were done only to reinforce COA's position.  They have no bearing upon the weight of COA's decisions, which are based upon our existing laws and jurisprudence.

As for Dimagiba, while she may have relied on the opinion of COA's legal counsel to support the disallowances she had made, it is worthy to note that she had already informed Garcia of the GSIS RFP's illegality even before she sought COA's opinion on the matter.  Moreover, neither Dimagiba's nor COA's confidence in the opinion of COA's general counsel could be faulted, as under Presidential Decree No. 1445, or the Government Auditing Code of the Philippines, one of the responsibilities of COA's legal office is to interpret pertinent laws and auditing rules and regulations, to wit:

SECTION 11.  The Legal Office. -The Legal Office shall be charged with the following responsibilities:

(1) Perform advisory and consultative functions and render legal services with respect to the performance of the functions of the Commission and the interpretation of pertinent laws and auditing rules and regulations; x x x.

In view of the above, we can hardly impute grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of respondents COA, Escarda, and Dimagiba, for disallowing in audit the portion of retirement benefits in excess of what is allowed under our existing retirement laws.  On the contrary, they acted with caution, diligence, and vigilance in the exercise of their duties, especially since what was involved were huge amounts of money imbued with public interest, since GSIS's funds come from the contributions of its members.  Thus, GSIS's business is to keep in trust the money belonging to its members,[77] who are not limited to its own employees.

The Payees are Liable for the Return of the
Disallowed Benefits
Under the GSIS RFP

The petitioners claim that GSIS's Board of Trustees cannot be held liable as they were acting pursuant to a valid law when they adopted the GSIS RFP.  The petitioners also argue that the implementation of the GSIS RFP was merely ministerial, thus the GSIS officers held accountable under the Notices of Disallowance should not be held responsible and accountable for the allocation and release of the benefits under the GSIS RFP.

This Court agrees that only the payees should be held liable for the return of the disallowed amounts under the GSIS RFP.

Although it is true that as early as December 2000,[78] Dimagiba already questioned the legality of the GSIS RFP, it was only in August 2001 when GSIS received COA's opinion on the matter.  Moreover, COA first decided the issue only in 2002.

While the Board of Trustees believed they had the authority and power to adopt the GSIS RFP, the officers on the other hand believed that they were implementing a valid resolution.  As we said in Buscaino v. Commission on Audit,[79] the resolution of the Board of Trustees was sufficient basis for the disbursement, and it is beyond these officers' competence to pass upon the validity of such board resolutions.[80]

On account of the GSIS RFP's doubtful validity, the petitioners should have exercised prudence and held in abeyance the disbursement of the portion of retirement benefits under the GSIS RFP until the issue of its legality had been resolved.

However, the Board of Trustees and the officers held accountable under the Notices of Disallowance should not be held liable as they are entitled to the presumption of having exercised their functions with regularity and in good faith.

WHEREFORE, the petition is PARTIALLY GRANTED.  The assailed Decisions of the Commission on Audit Nos. 2003-062 and 2004-004 dated March 18, 2003 and January 27, 2004, are AFFIRMED with the MODIFICATION that only the payees of the disbursements made under the GSIS RFP in the Notices of Disallowance are liable for such disbursements.  Board Resolution Nos. 326, 360, and 6 are declared ILLEGAL, VOID, and OF NO EFFECT.

SO ORDERED.

Corona, C.J., Carpio, Velasco, Jr., Leonardo-De Castro,  Brion, Peralta, Abad, Villarama, Jr., Mendoza, Sereno, Reyes, and Perlas-Bernabe, JJ., concur.
Bersamin and Del Castillo, J., on leave.
Perez, J., on official leave.
 


[1] Rollo, pp. 3-4.

[2] Id. at 4.

[3] Id. at 73-76.

[4] Republic Act No. 660, An Act to Amend Commonwealth Act Numbered One Hundred and Eighty-Six Entitled "An Act to Create and Establish a Government Service Insurance System, to Provide for its Administration, and to Appropriate the Necessary Funds Therefor," and to Provide Retirement Insurance and For Other Purposes.

[5] Republic Act No. 910, An Act to Provide for the Retirement of Justices of the Supreme Court and of the Court of Appeals, for the Enforcement of the Provisions Hereof by the Government Service Insurance System, and to Repeal Commonwealth Act Numbered Five Hundred and Thirty-Six.

[6] Presidential Decree No. 1146, Amending, Expanding, Increasing and Integrating the Social Security and Insurance Benefits of Government Employees and Facilitating the Payment Thereof Under Commonwealth Act No. 186, As Amended, and For Other Purposes.

[7] Rollo, pp. 77-78.

[8] Id. at 57.

[9] Id. at 79-80.

[10] Id. at 57.

[11] Id. at 87.

[12] Id. at 83.

[13] Id. at 84-86.

[14] Id. at 82.

[15] Id. at 81.

[16] Id. at 88-90.

[17] Id. at 88-89.

[18] Id. at 90.

[19] Id. at 91-111.

[20] Id. at 91-96.

[21] Id. at 97-101.

[22] Id. at 102-105.

[23] Id. at 106-107.

[24] Id. at 108-111.

[25] Id. at 112-113.

[26] Id. at 116-118.

[27] Id. at 114.

[28] Id. at 119-144.

[29] Id. at 139-140.

[30] Id. at 124-131.

[31] Id. at 147-150.

[32] Id. at 148-150.

[33] Id. at 154-183.

[34] Id. at 160.

[35] Id. at 56-69.

[36] Id. at 62. Emphasis in the original.

[37] Id. at 63.

[38] Id. at 67.

[39] Id. at 64.

[40] Id. at 66-67.

[41] Id. at 69.

[42] Id. at 67.

[43] Id. at 189-204.

[44] Id. at 209-211.

[45] Id. at 70-72.

[46] Id. at 45.

[47] Id. at 12.

[48] As amended by Republic Act No. 660.

[49] Rollo, p. 32.

[50] Government Service Insurance System v. The City Assessor of Iloilo City, G.R. No. 147192, June 27, 2006, 493 SCRA 169, 176.

[51] Garcia v. Sandiganbayan, 499 Phil. 589, 616 (2005).

[52] Intia, Jr. v. Postmaster General, Philippine Postal Corporation, 366 Phil. 273, 290 (1999).

[53] Government Service Insurance System v. The City Assessor of Iloilo City, supra note 50 at 176-177.

[54] 402 Phil. 26 (2001).

[55] Id. at 35.

[56] G.R. No. 183517, June 22, 2010, 621 SCRA 461.

[57] Id. at 474.

[58] Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1993).

[59] Oil and Natural Gas Commission v. Court of Appeals, 354 Phil. 830, 841 (1998).

[60] Rollo, p. 75.

[61] Aquino v. National Labor Relations Commission, G.R. No. 87653, February 11, 1992, 206 SCRA 118, 121.

[62] Conte v. Commission on Audit, 332 Phil. 20, 32-33 (1996).

[63] Id.

[64] Id. at 35-36.

[65] Id. at 35.

[66] Rollo, p. 30.

[67] Id. at 19.

[68] Id.

[69] An Act Providing Benefits for Early Retirement and Voluntary Separation from the Government Service, As Well As Involuntary Separation of Civil Service Officers and Employees Pursuant to Various Executive Orders Authorizing Government Reorganization After the Ratification of the 1997 Constitution, Appropriating Funds Therefor and for Other Purposes.

[70] Conte v. Commission on Audit, supra note 62 at 35.

[71] Rollo, p. 76.

[72] 282 Phil. 298 (2000).

[73] Id. at  307-308.

[74] Id. at 307.

[75] Rollo, p. 65.

[76] Id.

[77] Government Service Insurance System v. Court of Appeals, 350 Phil. 654, 660 (1998).

[78] Rollo, p. 69.

[79] 369 Phil. 886 (1999).

[80] Id. at 904.

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