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324 Phil. 698

THIRD DIVISION

[ A.C. No. CBD-174, March 07, 1996 ]

GIOVANI M. IGUAL, COMPLAINANT, VS. ATTY. ROLANDO S. JAVIER, RESPONDENT.

D E C I S I O N

PANGANIBAN, J.:

In the instant case, this Court has found occasion to again remind members of the Bar to observe honesty in their dealings with clients and the public alike, and fidelity to the cause entrusted to them.

This case stemmed from a Complaint-Affidavit filed by complainant with the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) on September 23, 1991 to initiate disbarment proceedings against the respondent, "for malpractice, deceit, dishonesty, (and) gross misconduct in his office as attorney and/or for violation of his lawyer’s oath x x x."[1] Respondent was accused of having unlawfully withheld and misappropriated complaint’s money in the amount of P7,000.00, allegedly paid by way of acceptance fee for a matter which respondent never performed any work on.

The IBP’s Committee on Bar Discipline, through its investigating Commissioner Vicente Q. Roxas, required respondent to answer the charges and thereafter held several hearings, during which the parties were able to present their respective witnesses and documentary evidence.  After the parties had filed their respective formal offer of evidence as well as memoranda, the case was considered submitted for resolution.  Subsequently, the commissioner rendered his Commissioner’s Report dated January 30, 1995, which became the basis for the Resolution passed by the IBP Board of Governors on February 18, 1995, which reads as follows:

"RESOLUTION NO. XI-95-288
CBD Case No. 174
Giovani M. Igual vs.
Atty. Rolando S. Javier

"RESOLVED to RECOMMEND to the Supreme Court that the respondent be SUSPENDED from the practice of law for ONE (1) month and restitution of the SEVEN THOUSAND PESOS (P7,000.00) acceptance fee."

The Antecedent Facts

Inasmuch as the findings of fact made by Commissioner Roxas in his report are substantiated by the evidence on record, the same are herein adopted, to wit:

"The complaint dated September 23, 1991 alleges that complainant met respondent attorney thru complainant’s tennis partner, one Sergio Dorado, sometime April 1, 1991. Complainant asked Sergio Dorado to make it possible for complainant to meet respondent at the latter’s house regarding the possibility of hiring respondent to handle Civil Case No. 2 188-LRC No. 215, pending with the Regional Trial Court of Aklan. A decision favorable to complainant’s mother had just been rendered but this decision was appealed by the adverse party to the Court of Appeals, consolidated and docketed as CA-G.R. No. 32592 [1(a) Complaint-Affidavit].  Complainant said respondent is being hired because complainant’s mother wanted the appeal expedited.

That very night, ‘when Atty. Javier offered to collaborate in the appealed case’ [1(c) Complaint-Affidavit] because ‘Atty. Javier through sweet talk and pretense of influence to several justices of the Court of Appeals x x x that he could be of great help in expediting the speedy disposition of the case’ [1(b) Complaint-Affidavit] complainant gave respondent P10,000.00 which money he intended to buy a refrigerator with. Complainant alleged that he gave the money with the understanding that the money is for ‘safekeeping and as proof, according to him, x x x promising to return my money should my mother and her lawyer Atty. Ibadlit disagree in his collaborating in the case’ [1(c) Complaint-Affidavit] - covered by receipt which provides: ‘Received the amount of Ten Thousand (P 10,000.00) Pesos from Mr. Giovani M. Igual as Legal Fees and Filing Fees (Civil Case No. 2188). April 1, 1991 signed by respondent Atty. Rolando S. Javier. [Exhibit A and Annex A to Complaint-Affidavit].

Respondent thus entered his formal appearance ‘as collaborating counsel’ dated April 3, 1991 [Annex B to Complaint-Affidavit].  Then complainant wrote respondent on June 27, 1991 stating that he is demanding P7,000.00 balance since P3,000.00 had already been refunded by respondent.  [Exhibit B and Annex C, Complaint-Affidavit].

Instead of filing an Answer, respondent filed an ‘Affidavit’ dated April 20, 1992, alleging that: he ‘gave back the P3,000.00 not as a settlement’ because complainant said ‘his child was hospitalized and gravely ill’ [par. 22, Affidavit-Javier] and that the reason why complainant wanted a refund of the remaining P7,000.00 is because ‘it is not the fault of the affiant if Giovani M. Igual had quarreled with his mother or his brother or his sister as to the reimbursement or sharing of the Legal Fees - because the truth was that Igual wanted to secure double or bigger reimbursement.’ [par. 30, Affidavit-Javier]. Complainant denied the allegation of respondent in a Reply-Affidavit dated May 21, 1992.

Respondent presented Exhibit 4 which is certified xerox copy of the Decision dated March 19, 1991 in Civil Case No. 2188 and LRC 215, Regional Trial Court of Aklan, Province.

Respondent’s declared purpose in the Formal Offer of Evidence was ‘to show that Atty. Rolando S. Javier had accepted the appealed cases and had obtained pertinent records or pleadings to work on it’ [page 2 number (4) exhibit, Formal Offer dated February 6, 1993].

From the evidence, however, the decision is dated February 25, 1991 and the March 19, 1991 is the date of the RTC’s Order stating that the appeal had been perfected.

Complainant testified that he went back on April 3, 1991, to claim back the P 10,000.00 given last April 1, 1991. [TSN, page 15, July 8, 1992, Giovani Igual].  Respondent also reimbursed the P3,000.00 two (2) months after. [TSN, page 19, July 8, 1992].
Respondent testified that he entered as collaborating counsel only and was promised P20,000.00 if he wins the case and:
‘A: x x x as collaborating counsel I am going to to (sic) prepare the appeal brief and that I required Mr. Giovani Igual to get the consent of his brothers, sisters and mother.’ [TSN, pages 12-13, September 16, 1992, Atty. Javier]. .

Respondent further testified that:

‘A: Now as to the agreement as to the fees, about few days after our agreement he returned and gave me the money.  The agreement is that that is my legal fee.  That is an acceptance fee. I do not know where he got that but that is what he paid me. [TSN, page 15, Sept. 16, 1992, Atty. Javier].
The Commission confronted respondent with the question:
‘Q: How about the copy of the appeal? (sic)’ [TSN, page 27, September 16, 1992, Atty. Javier]

‘A: It was not finished, Your Honor, because we quarreled. When I am preparing the brief we quarreled already.’ [TSN, page 27, September 16, 1992, Atty. Javier].
Then again:
‘A: This is what I promised him. I told him that upon the arrival of all pertinent records in the Court of Appeals, I am going to prepare the brief but on the basis of the paper that I have in my possession(.) I can merely be guided by the decision.’ [TSN, page 34, September 16, 1992, Atty. Javier]

‘Question: Did you not ascertain from them when did they receive the appellant’s brief because for purposes of prescription there is the reglementary period within which to file appellee’s brief?

‘Answer: I did not ascertain anymore because at that time my thinking was that I have to study first the case.

‘Question: Considering that this is the filing of appellee’s brief, is there a need to pay filing fee for appellee’s brief?

‘Answer: If what you inquired from (sic) is the filing of an appellee’s brief, there is no such thing. But if you see, in filing briefs in the appealed cases there are usually motions for reconsideration, supplement of the appellee’s brief and if you look on the Rules of Court, even the motion for reconsideration is payable.  Even a motion for reconsideration on the appealed cases has to be paid.  There is a fee so I put there the legal fees or the filing fees but that does not necessarily mean that I am referring to a filing fee of an appealed brief.  Take note, sir, that in the rule of filing fees even motions for reconsideration or supplement to the motion for reconsideration there must be a payment of fees.  [TSN, pages 39-40, September 16, 1992, Cross Examination of Atty. Javier]

‘Q: And only you did not specify that this is in payment for your professional services, is that correct?

‘A: Yes that is true. It is a matter of style. There are lawyers who specified transportation, fees, etc.

‘Q: Did you not also issue a receipt that this is only a partial payment?

‘A: I did not. What I did, Your Honor, is to issue a receipt for P 10,000.00 as my legal fees and filing fees in a package deal basis with an unwritten agreement that if I will win the case on the appeal on the basis of my appellee’s brief in a gentleman’s agreement he will give me additional P 10,000.00. It is not written.’ [TSN pages 44 to 45, September 16, 1992, Atty. Javier’s cross examination] (italics supplied)
Commissioner’s Evaluation

Commissioner Roxas then rendered the following analysis and evaluation of the evidenée presented:
This would have been a difficult situation had there been no written receipt of payment of fees. In a lawyer-client relationship, what is governing is the written receipt dated April 1, 1991.  Respondent admits he was hired to prepare an appellee’s brief Respondent admits he did not prepare said appellee’s brief because he and his clients immediately quarreled after hiring. If that was the situation from the very beginning - that respondent quarreled with his clients immediately within two days after April 1, 1991 - respondent knew all along he would not get his papers of the case and he knew all along he will not make the appellee’s brief.

In such situations, if indeed the lawyer cannot agree with the client, or, as in this case, the lawyer is quarreling with his client, there are several options for the lawyer to exit from the relationship instead of merely maintaining a cold war of doing nothing in the case, such as securing a written and signed notice of withdrawal from the case, or, manifesting to the court the circumstances why he can no longer proceed in representing his client. Otherwise, a lawyer’s act will be interpreted as abandonment.

More than the mere presumption that respondent abandoned his client if he does not render any service to the case he is handling, there are other positive indications of why such presumptions may altogether be confirmed as intentional:

FIRST, respondent alleged that he was angry at complainant because he resented what he testified to as the attitude of the clients in calling him names in the neighborhood for failing to return the money.

SECOND, despite the fact the April 1, 1991 receipt specified that the money would be for legal fees and filing fees, yet none of the two materialized.

Respondent claims the money given him is an acceptance fee.  But, as known by respondent, ambiguities in contracts prepared by him, are construed against him, and thus, if the receipt does not specify that it is such an acceptance fee, it cannot be treated as such. When it comes to fees, the amount and purpose must be clearly stated.  Otherwise said contracts are interpreted against the lawyer who is presumed to know better on such legal matters as against his client, as in this case, who is not a lawyer.

The crucial evidence against respondent is his own admissions that he never really performed any work in preparing or submitting any appellee’s brief.

Respondent claims that he was forced to such a situation because of the attitude of the client which compelled attorney to maintain his ground in refusing to reimburse money to someone who continues to malign his character - which is the reason why respondent had acted as he did.  This complainant did not refute.

Respondent should have set aside his personal feelings and should have pursued diligently the cause of his client within the bounds of reason, justice, and fair play. Public interest requires that an attorney exert his best efforts and ability in the prosecution or defense of his client’s cause [Cantiller vs. Potenciano, 180 SCRA 246]. It has been held that such neglect of respondent, his failure to exercise due diligence or his abandonment of client’s cause, renders him unworthy of the trust of his client [Ibid]. The Supreme Court has pointed out that lawyers have a higher responsibility because they are an indispensable part of the whole system of administering justice in this jurisdiction [Ibid].

Respondent’s attitude of blaming his client for the latter’s allegedly maligning him is not being candid with the Commission.  Respondent must be reminded that candor towards the court is a cardinal requirement of a practicing lawyer [Paluwagan ng Bayan Savings Bank vs. King, 172 SCRA 60].

For it has been held that a lawyer is not merely a professional but also an officer of the court and as such, he is called upon to share in the task and responsibility of dispensing justice and resolving disputes in society [Zaldivar vs. Gonzales, 166 SCRA 316], and not contribute to propagating more disputes." (italics supplied)
Commissioner Roxas then made the following recommendation, to wit:
"WHEREFORE, it is respectfully recommended to the Board of Governors, that the penalty of suspension from the practice of law for a period of THREE (3) MONTHS be meted on respondent in view of the circumstances."
which recommended penalty, as indicated above, was reduced by the IBP Board of Governors to a suspension of one (1) month, but with the addition that respondent be required to restitute the P7,000.00 (balance) he received from complainant.

The Court’s Ruling

We are in agreement with Commissioner Roxas’ findings and conclusions, as -approved by the IBP Board of Governors. In addition, we note that respondent not only unjustifiably refused to return the complainant’s money upon demand, but he stubbornly persisted in clinging to what was not his and to which he absolutely had no right. Such lack of delicadeza and absence of integrity was further highlighted by respondent’s half-baked excuses, hoary pretenses and blatant lies in his testimony before the IBP Committee on Bar Discipline represented by Commissioner Roxas. The sad thing is, he was not fooling anyone at all. He only ended up making a fool of himself in the process.

Respondent, like all other members of the Bar, was and is expected to always live up to the standards embodied in the Code of Professional Responsibility, particularly the following Canons, viz:
"CANON 15 - A lawyer shall observe candor, fairness and loyalty in all his dealings and transactions with his client.

"CANON 16- A lawyer shall hold in trust all moneys and properties of his client that may come into his possession.

"CANON 17 - A lawyer owes fidelity to the cause of his client and he shall be mindful of the trust and confidence reposed in him."

"CANON 20 - A lawyer shall charge only fair and reasonable fees."
for the relationship between an attorney and his client is highly fiduciary in nature and demands utmost fidelity and good faith.

It goes without saying that respondent, by his deceitful actuations constituting violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility, must be subjected to disciplinary measures for his own good, as well as for the good of the entire membership of the Bar as a whole.

WHEREFORE, in light of the foregoing, and consistent with the recommendation of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, respondent ROLANDO S. JAVIER is hereby SUSPENDED from the practice of law for a period of ONE (1) MONTH, effective upon notice hereof, and ORDERED to restitute to the complainant the amount of SEVEN THOUSAND PESOS (P7,000.00) within thirty (30) days from notice.  Let copies of this Decision be spread upon his record in the Bar Confidant’s Office and furnished the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

SO ORDERED.

Narvasa, C.J. (Chairman), Davide, Jr., Melo, and Francisco, JJ., concur.


[1]
Complainant’s letter dated September 23, 1991 addressed to the IBP.

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