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G.R. No. 147146

THIRD DIVISION

[ G.R. NO. 147146, August 29, 2005 ]

JOSE, JULIO AND FEDERICO, ALL SURNAMED JUNIO, PETITIONERS, VS. ERNESTO D. GARILAO, IN HIS CAPACITY AS SECRETARY OF AGRARIAN REFORM, RESPONDENT.

D E C I S I O N

PANGANIBAN, J.:

Lands already classified and identified as commercial, industrial or residential before June 15, 1988 -- the date of effectivity of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL) -- are outside the coverage of this law.  Therefore, they no longer need any conversion clearance from the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR).

The Case

Before the Court is a Petition for Review[1] under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court, seeking to set aside the February 24, 2000 Decision[2] of the Court of Appeals (CA), in CA-GR SP No. 37217.  The Decision denied petitioners’ Petition for Certiorari[3] for its failure to show that the DAR had acted with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction when it issued its Exemption Order dated September 13, 1994.  The Order, issued by then DAR Secretary Ernesto D. Garilao, had excluded Lot 835-B from the coverage of Republic Act 6657, otherwise known as the “Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL).”

In its Resolution dated April 4, 2001, this Court (through the Second Division) immediately denied the Petition for failure of petitioners (1) to attach the duplicate original/certified true copy of the CA Resolution denying their Motion for Reconsideration of the CA Decision; and (2) to state the dates of their receipt and filing of a Motion for Reconsideration of that Decision.

In their Motion for Reconsideration[4] of the April 4, 2001 Resolution, petitioners alleged that they had received the assailed CA Decision on March 8, 2000 and filed their Motion for Reconsideration on March 22, 2000.  They likewise submitted a duplicate original of the February 2, 2001 CA Resolution,[5] which had denied that Motion.

On January 22, 2002, petitioners filed a Manifestation.[6] It stated that in a clarificatory letter dated July 30, 1997,[7] Salvador S. Malibong, the deputized zoning administrator of Bacolod City, completely reversed the false Certification he had issued earlier.  That Certification had been the basis of the DAR secretary’s assailed Exemption Order.

On February 18, 2002, public respondent submitted its Comment on the Motion for Reconsideration filed by petitioners.  They in turn submitted their Reply to the Comment on June 14, 2002, in compliance with the Court’s Resolution dated April 10, 2002.  In its Resolution dated August 13, 2003, the Court (Second Division) resolved to grant their Motion for Reconsideration and to require the solicitor general to comment on the Petition within ten days from notice.

On October 9, 2003, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) submitted a Manifestation in Lieu of Comment.  The OSG stated that its Comment on the Motion for Reconsideration filed by petitioners on February 18, 2002, had fully addressed the issues presented in their Petition for Review.  On November 12, 2003, the Court resolved to give due course to the Petition and required the parties to submit their respective memoranda within thirty days from notice.  Thereafter, the case was transferred to the First Division, and finally to the Third, which will now resolve the controversy.

The Facts

The CA summarized the antecedents of the case as follows:
“In a Complaint dated February 12, 1994, filed with the [Department of Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board (DARAB)] by complainants (some of whom are herein petitioners), identified as ‘Potential CARP Beneficiaries’ per Certification of OIC [Municipal Agrarian Reform Officer (MARO)] dated November 21, 1991 x x x, it is prayed that a writ of preliminary injunction be issued against the registered owners of a certain parcel of agricultural land consisting of 71 hectares, more or less, known as Lot No. 835-B of Bacolod Cadastre, Brgy. Pahanocoy, Bacolod City, covered by Transfer Certificate of Title No. T-79622.  Petitioners claim that x x x Sta. Lucia Realty Corporation and the Estate of Guillermo Villasor, represented by Irving Villasor, are bulldozing and leveling the subject property for the purpose of converting it into a residential subdivision; that as prospective CARP beneficiaries of the land in question, ‘being former laborers, actual occupants and permanent residents of Barangay Pahanocoy,’ their rights will be prejudiced by the illegal conversion of the land into a residential subdivision x x x.

“On April 13, 1994, the DARAB OIC Executive Director forwarded the complaint to [Provincial Agrarian Reform Adjudicator (PARAD)], DAR, Region VI, Bacolod City for appropriate action x x x.  Before any hearing could be conducted thereon, the Secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform issued an Order dated September 13, 1994 in ‘RE: PETITION FOR EXEMPTION FROM CARP COVERAGE PURSUANT TO DOJ OPINION NO. 44, SERIES OF 1990, IRVING P. VILLASOR, et al., Rep. by Atty. Angel Lobaton, Jr., Petitioners,’ portions of which read as follows:

‘After a careful study of the facts of the case and the evidences presented by the parties, this Office finds the petition for exemption to be well founded.  Under DOJ Opinion No. 44, Series of 1990, it provides that lands which has already been classified as mineral, forest, residential, commercial and industrial areas, prior to June 15, 1988 shall be excluded from CARP coverage.  To this, it is an [i]nescapable conclusion that the subject property is exempted from CARP coverage considering the fact that the same was classified as residential as evidenced by the Resolution No. 5153-A, Series of 1976 of the City Council of Bacolod and as approved by the Human Settlements Regulatory Commission (now HLURB) in its Resolution dated September 24, 1980 as per Certification dated June 22, 1994 issued by the said Commission.  The Certification of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) dated June 9, 1994 stated that the subject land is not irrigable or is outside the service area of the irrigation system in the locality.  In effect the said application had conformed to the requirements of the law on exemption.  In accord thereto, the stand of Mr. Espanola that the portion, which he planted to trees and developed into mini-forest should be covered by CARP[,] is beyond recognition as the program does not apply to those which are already classified as residential lands prior to the effectivity of CARL on June 15, 1988.  Instead, it is confined only to agricultural lands, which under R.A. 6657, Sec. 3(c), it defines agricultural lands as lands devoted to agricultural activity as defined in this Act and not classified as mineral, forest, residential or industrial land.  With the above stated definition, it is beyond reason that the placing of the said portion under CARP coverage (1.5 hectare) is devoid of legal and factual basis.’”[8]
As earlier said, the Exemption Order was challenged before the appellate court via a Petition for Certiorari.

Ruling of the Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals sustained the Exemption Order issued by public respondent.  It found that prior to June 15, 1988, Lot 835-B had been reclassified from agricultural to residential land.  It relied on the Court’s pronouncement in Natalia Realty v. Department of Agrarian Reform[9] that lands were outside the coverage of the CARL if they had been converted to non-agricultural uses by government agencies, other than the DAR, prior to the effectivity of that law.

Further, the CA ruled that neither the CARL nor the Local Government Code of 1991 had nullified the reclassification of Lot 835-B.  The appellate court noted that the land had been validly reclassified from agricultural to residential in 1976, prior to the effective date of both laws.  It added that neither of those two laws could be applied retroactively, since they contained no provision authorizing their retroactivity.

Hence, this Petition.[10]

Issues

In their Memorandum, petitioners submit this lone issue for our consideration:
“Whether the respondent DAR secretary had the inherent authority or power to exclude or exempt at will from the coverage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) the subject agricultural land which was already automatically covered by the CARL (RA 6657) upon its effectivity on June 15, 1988 without affording due process to herein petitioners and without the necessity of Congress having first to amend Section 4 of the said law authorizing such exemption or exclusion from CARP coverage.”[11]
The Court’s Ruling

The Petition is devoid of merit.

Sole Issue:
Coverage

Section 4 of RA 6657 sets forth the coverage of the CARL as follows:
“SEC. 4. Scope. – The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law of 1988 shall cover, regardless of tenurial arrangement and commodity produced, all public and private agricultural lands as provided in Proclamation No. 131 and Executive Order No. 229, including other lands of the public domain suitable for agriculture.

“More specifically, the following lands are covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program:

x x x    x x x    x x x

“(d) All private lands devoted to or suitable for agriculture regardless of the agricultural products raised or that can be raised thereon.
Section 3(c) of the CARL defines agricultural land as that which is “devoted to agricultural activity x x x and not classified as mineral, forest, residential, commercial or industrial land.”

The meaning of agricultural lands covered by the CARL was explained further by the DAR in its Administrative Order No. 1, Series of 1990,[12] entitled “Revised Rules and Regulations Governing Conversion of Private Agricultural Land to Non-Agricultural Uses,” issued pursuant to Section 49 of CARL, which we quote:
“x x x.  Agricultural land refers to those devoted to agricultural activity as defined in R.A. 6657 and not classified as mineral or forest by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and its predecessor agencies, and not classified in town plans and zoning ordinances as approved by the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB) and its preceding competent authorities prior to 15 June 1988 for residential, commercial or industrial use.”  (Emphasis supplied)
Prior to this Order, Department of Justice Opinion No. 44 dated March 16, 1990, which was addressed to then DAR Secretary Florencio Abad, recognized the fact that before the date of the law’s effectivity on June 15, 1988, the reclassification or conversion of lands was not exclusively done by the DAR.[13] Rather, it was a “coordinated effort” of all concerned agencies; namely, the Department of Local Governments and Community Development, the Human Settlements Commission and the DAR.[14] Then Justice Secretary Franklin M. Drilon explained the coordination in this wise:
“x x x.  Under R.A. No. 3844,[15] as amended by R.A. No. 6389,[16] an agricultural lessee may, by order of the court, be dispossessed of his landholding if after due hearing, it is shown that the ‘landholding is declared by the [DAR] upon the recommendation of the National Planning Commission to be suited for residential, commercial, industrial or some other urban purposes.’[17]

“Likewise, under various Presidential Decrees (P.D. Nos. 583, 815 and 946) which were issued to give teeth to the implementation of the agrarian reform program decreed in P.D. No. 27, the DAR was empowered to authorize conversions of tenanted agricultural lands, specifically those planted to rice and/or corn, to other agricultural or to non-agricultural uses, ‘subject to studies on zoning of the Human Settlements Commissions’ (HSC).  This non-exclusive authority of the DAR under the aforesaid laws was, x x x recognized and reaffirmed by other concerned agencies, such as the Department of Local Government and Community Development (DLGCD) and the then Human Settlements Commission (HSC) in a Memorandum of Agreement executed by the DAR and these two agencies on May 13, 1977, which is an admission that with respect to land use planning and conversions, the authority is not exclusive to any particular agency but is a coordinated effort of all concerned agencies.

“It is significant to mention that in 1978, the then Ministry of Human Settlements was granted authority to review and ratify land use plans and zoning ordinance of local governments and to approve development proposals which include land use conversions (see LOI No. 729 [1978]). This was followed by [E.O.] No. 648 (1981) which conferred upon the Human Settlements Regulatory Commission (the predecessors of the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board [HLURB] the authority to promulgate zoning and other land use control standards and guidelines which shall govern land use plans and zoning ordinances of local governments, subdivision or estate development projects of both the public and private sector and urban renewal plans, programs and projects; as well as to review, evaluate and approve or disapprove comprehensive land use development plans and zoning components of civil works and infrastructure projects, of national, regional and local governments, subdivisions, condominiums or estate development projects including industrial estates.”
Hence, the justice secretary opined that the authority of the DAR to approve conversions of agricultural lands to non-agricultural uses could be exercised only from the date of the law’s effectivity on June 15, 1988.

Following the opinion of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the DAR issued Administrative Order (AO) No. 6, Series of 1994,[18] stating that conversion clearances were no longer needed for lands already classified as non-agricultural before the enactment of Republic Act 6657.  Designed to “streamline the issuance of exemption clearances, based on DOJ Opinion No. 44,” the AO provided guidelines and procedures for the issuance of exemption clearances.

Thereafter, DAR issued AO 12,[19] Series of 1994, entitled “Consolidated and Revised Rules and Procedures Governing Conversion of Agricultural Lands to Non-Agricultural Uses.” It provided that the guidelines on how to secure an exemption clearance under DAR AO No. 6, Series of 1994, shall apply to agricultural lands classified or zoned for non-agricultural uses by local government units (LGUs); and approved by the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB) before June 15, 1988.  Under this AO, the DAR secretary had the ultimate authority to issue orders granting or denying applications for exemption filed by landowners whose lands were covered by DOJ Opinion No. 44.

Contrary to petitioners’ stance, the CA properly applied Natalia Realty v. Department of Agrarian Reform,[20] which had earlier held that lands previously converted by government agencies, other than DAR, to non-agricultural uses prior to the effectivity of the CARL were outside the coverage of that law.  Our ruling in Natalia was not confined solely to agricultural lands located within townsite reservations, but applied also to real estate converted to non-agricultural uses prior to the effectivity of the CARL,[21] provided the conversion was made by government agencies other than the DAR --like the HLURB and its predecessor, the Human Settlement Regulatory Commission (HSRC).[22]

The Court’s ruling in Natalia was reiterated in Pasong Bayabas Farmers Association v. Court of Appeals,[23] which affirmed the authority of the Municipal Council of Carmona to issue a zoning classification and to reclassify the property in question from agricultural to residential, as approved by the HSRC (now the HLURB).  The Court held that Section 3 of RA 2264,[24] amending the Local Government Code, specifically empowered municipal and/or city councils, in consultation with the National Planning Commission, to adopt zoning and subdivision ordinances or regulations.  Hence, the power of the local government to convert or reclassify lands to residential or non-agricultural was not subject to the approval of the DAR.[25]

It is thus settled that with respect to areas classified and identified as zonal areas not for agricultural uses, like those approved by the HSRC before the effectivity of RA 6657 on June 15, 1988, the DAR’s clearance is no longer necessary for conversion.

The next question before us is whether the subject landholding was in fact reclassified as residential before June 15, 1988, the date of effectivity of the CARL.  The Exemption Order of the DAR secretary pointed out that the parcel had indeed been reclassified as residential under Resolution No. 5153-A of the City Council of Bacolod.  This reclassification was later affirmed by the HSRC.

The courts generally accord great respect, if not finality, to factual findings of administrative agencies because of their special knowledge and expertise over matters falling under their jurisdiction.[26] It must be stressed at this point that with the DAR lies the power to determine whether Lot 835-B is non-agricultural and, hence, exempt from the coverage of the CARL.

According to DAR AO 6-94, an application for exemption from the coverage of the CARP must be accompanied by a certification from the HLURB that the pertinent zoning ordinance has been approved by the Board prior to June 15, 1988 (the date of effectivity of the CARL).  In the instant case, the landowner did file an accompanying Certification from the HLURB.

The Certification issued by the Board expressly mentioned that the “property x x x, Lot 835-B located at Brgy. Tangub, Bacolod City, covered by TCT T-79622, x x x was identified for residential use under the 1976 Framework Plan of the City of Bacolod prepared pursuant to the Program of the then Ministry of Local Government and approved by the City Council in its Resolution No. 5153-A, Series of 1976.”[27] It also certified that the “area where the aforecited property is located was likewise identified for residential use under the Town Planning, Housing Zoning Program of the National Coordinating Council of  the then Ministry of Human Settlements as approved under the City Council Resolution No. 5792, Series of 1977.  x x x.”[28]

These Certifications carried the presumption of regularity in their issuance.  Petitioners did not present any evidence to overcome that presumption.[29]  The letter of the deputized zoning administrator of Bacolod City -- cited by petitioners to contradict the Certifications -- did not touch on, much less corroborate, their claim that the subject landholding remained classified as agricultural.  It merely restated what was already provided in the law -- that only the Sangguniang Panlungsod of Bacolod City could reclassify lands.

Petitioners next assert that, for tax purposes, the subject property was declared by its owners as agricultural land since time immemorial until at least 1994.[30] It is settled, however, that a tax declaration is not conclusive of the nature of the property for zoning purposes.[31] It may have been declared by its owner as residential for real estate taxation purposes, but it may well be within a commercial zone.[32] In the determination of the nature of a piece of property, a discrepancy would thus exist between its classification for real estate taxation purposes vis-à-vis that for zoning purposes.

Under the Real Property Tax Code, a tax declaration serves only to enable the assessor to identify a property for assessment levels,[33] not to bind a provincial/city assessor.  Under Section 220 of the Real Estate Tax Code, appraisal and assessment are based on the actual use, regardless of “any previous assessment or taxpayer’s valuation thereon” which, in turn, is based on a taxpayer's declaration.

Republic v. Court of Appeals[34] ruled thus:
“There is no law or jurisprudence that holds that the land classification embodied in the tax declarations is conclusive and final nor would proscribe any further inquiry.  Furthermore, the tax declarations are clearly not the sole basis of the classification of a land.  In fact, DAR Administrative Order No. 6 lists other documents, aside from tax declarations, that must be submitted when applying for exemption from CARP.  In Halili v. Court of Appeals, we sustained the trial court when it ruled that the classification made by the Land Regulatory Board of the land in question outweighed the classification stated in the tax declaration.”
Consequently, even if the subject landholding has been declared as agricultural for taxation purposes, once a local government has reclassified it as residential, that determination must prevail for zoning purposes.

WHEREFORE, the Petition is DENIED, and the assailed Decision AFFIRMED.  Costs against the petitioners.

SO ORDERED.

Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio-Morales, and Garcia, JJ., concur.

Corona, J., on official leave.



[1] Rollo, pp. 3-7.  This was erroneously entitled “Petition for Certiorari.”

[2] Annex “A” of Petition; id., pp. 8-13.  Sixth Division.  Penned by Justice Ma. Alicia Austria-Martinez (Division chair, now a member of this Court) and concurred in by Justices Oswaldo D. Agcaoili and Wenceslao I. Agnir Jr. (members).

[3] Entitled “In the Matter of Petition for Declaratory Judgment regarding the Validity of the Order of Exemption of DAR Secretary Ernesto D. Garilao dated September 13, 1994.  Ramon de la Torre, Rudy Balena, Jose Junio, Romulo Obag, Loreto Pahilona, Emilia Junio, Julio Junio, Danilo Maban and Romulo M. Matti in his official capacity as Chairman of the Barangay Agrarian Reform Committee (BARC) for Brgy. Pahanocoy, Bacolod City, Petitioners, versus Ernesto D. Garilao in his official capacity as the Secretary of Agrarian Reform, Respondent.”

[4] Rollo, p. 20.

[5] Id., p. 21.

[6] Id., p. 71.

[7] Id., p. 91.  The pertinent portion of the letter reads:

“Let it be stated clearly that the City Planning and Development Office (CPDO) did not reclassify subject lands, it merely identified areas for expansion under the 1976 Framework Plan of Bacolod City under City Council Resolution No. 5153-A Ser. of 1976 and Resolution No. 5792 Ser. of 1977, only the Sangguniang Panlungsod (SP) of Bacolod City can reclassify land and only the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) can convert lands.”

[8] CA Decision, pp. 2-3; rollo, pp. 9-10.

[9] 225 SCRA 278, August 12, 1993.

[10] This case was deemed submitted for decision on March 23, 2004, upon this Court’s receipt of public respondent’s Memorandum, signed by Assistant Solicitor General Nestor J. Ballacillo and Associate Solicitor Louella Vieve B. Fernandez.  Petitioners’ seven-page Memorandum, signed by Atty. Romulo A. Deles, was received by this Court on February 6, 2004.

[11] Memorandum, pp. 4-5; rollo, pp. 217-218.  Original in uppercase.

[12] March 22, 1990.

[13] §4(j) of Executive Order No. 129-A, (which took effect on July 26, 1987), specifically provides that the Department of Agrarian Reform shall be responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program and, for that purpose, is authorized to approve or disapprove the conversion, restructuring, or readjustment of agricultural lands into non-agricultural uses.  §5(l) of the same EO also provides that, pursuant to its mandate and in order to ensure the successful implementation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, the DAR has exclusive authority to approve or disapprove conversion of agricultural lands for residential, commercial, industrial and other land uses as may be provided for by law.

[14] See also DOJ Opinion No. 136, Series of 1993.

[15] Entitled “An Act to Ordain the Agricultural Land Reform Code and to Institute Land Reforms in the Philippines, Including the Abolition of Tenancy and the Channeling of Capital into Industry, Provide for the Necessary Implementing Agencies, Appropriate Funds therefor and for other purposes;” which took effect on August 8, 1963.

[16] Code of Agrarian Reforms, September 10, 1971.  Designed as an improvement of RA No. 3844, this amendatory Act featured the creation of the Department of Agrarian Reforms (DAR), which was vested with powers and duties to resolve all agrarian conflicts thru the exercise of its quasi-judicial functions.

[17] §36(1).

[18] May 27, 1994.

[19] Dated October 24, 1994.

[20] 225 SCRA 278, August 12, 1993.

[21] Advincula-Velasquez v. Court of Appeals et al., 431 SCRA 165, June 8, 2004.  See also National Housing Authority v. Allarde, 318 SCRA 22, November 16, 1999.

[22] Section 5 of Executive Order No. 648 dated February 7, 1981 provides as follows:

“Powers and Duties of the Commission.
“a) Promulgate zoning and other land use control standards and guidelines which shall govern land use plans and zoning ordinances of local governments; the zoning components of civil works and infrastructure projects of the national, regional and local governments; subdivision or estate development projects of both the public and private sectors; and urban renewal plans, programs and projects: provided that the zoning and other land use control standards and guidelines to be promulgated hereunder shall respect the classification of public lands for forest purposes as certified by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
“b) Review, evaluate and approve or disapprove comprehensive land use development plans and zoning ordinances of local governments; and the zoning component of civil works and infrastructure projects of national, regional and local governments, subdivisions, condominiums or estate development projects including industrial estates, of both the public and private sectors and urban renewal plans, programs and projects: Provided, that the land use Development Plans and Zoning Ordinances of Local Governments herein subject to review, evaluation and approval of the commission shall respect the classification of public lands for forest purposes as certified by the Ministry of Natural Resources:  Provided, further, that the classification of specific alienable and disposable lands by the Bureau of Lands shall be in accordance with the relevant zoning ordinance of Local government where it exists: and provided, finally that in cities and municipalities where there are as yet no zoning ordinances, the Bureau of Lands may dispose of specific alienable and disposable lands in accordance with its own classification scheme subject to the condition that the classification of these lands may be subsequently changed by the local governments in accordance with their particular zoning ordinances which may be promulgated later.
“c) Issue rules and regulations to enforce the land use policies and human settlements as provided for in Presidential Decrees No. 399, 815, 933, 957, 1216, 1344, 1396, 1517, Letter of Instructions No. 713, 729, 833, 935, and other related laws regulating the use of land including the regulatory aspects of the Urban Land Reform Act and all decrees relating to regulation of the value of land and improvements, and their rental.”

[23] 429 SCRA 109, May 25, 2004.

[24] Otherwise known as the Local Autonomy Act of 1959.

“Sec. 3. Power to adopt zoning and planning ordinances. — Any provision of law to the contrary notwithstanding, Municipal Boards or City Councils in cities, and Municipal Councils in municipalities are hereby authorized to adopt zoning and subdivision ordinances or regulations for their respective cities and municipalities subject to the approval of the City Mayor or Municipal Mayor, as the case may be. Cities and municipalities may, however, consult the National Planning Commission on matters pertaining to planning and zoning.”

[25] Pasong Bayabas Farmers Association, Inc. v. Court of Appeals et al., id.

[26] Pasong Bayabas Farmers Association, Inc. v. Court of Appeals et al., supra; Sps. Calvo v. Sps. Vergara, 423 Phil. 939, December 19, 2001; Palele v. Court of Appeals, 362 SCRA 141, July 31, 2001.

[27] Rollo, p. 126.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Sec. 3, Rule 131 of the Revised Rules of Court. Lercana v. Jalandoni, 426 Phil. 319, February 1, 2002.

[30] Memorandum, p. 3; rollo, p. 216.

[31] Patalinghug v. Court of Appeals, 229 SCRA 554, January 27, 1994.

[32] In Article 217 of the LGC 1991 on Real Property Taxation, it is provided that “real property shall be classified, valued and assessed on the basis of its actual use regardless of where located, whoever owns it, and whoever uses it.”

[33] Article 202, Real Property Taxation, LGC 1991.

[34] 342 SCRA 189, 190, October 5, 2000 per Gonzaga-Reyes, J.

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