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575 Phil. 350

SECOND DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 168116, April 22, 2008 ]

BELLE CORPORATION, PETITIONER, VS. ARTURO N. MACASUSI, RESPONDENT.

DECISION

QUISUMBING, J.:

The instant petition seeks to annul the Decision[1] dated August 31, 2004, as well as the Resolution[2] dated May 10, 2005, of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 76648. The appellate court modified the Decision[3] dated October 15, 2002 of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) and ordered petitioner to pay respondent separation pay equivalent to one month salary for every year of service, and full backwages from the time he was illegally dismissed on June 21, 1999, until finality of the decision.

In September 1997, petitioner Belle Corporation employed respondent Arturo N. Macasusi as a grader operator of a Caterpillar-14G in its Tagaytay Midlands Golf Course.

On June 10, 1999, while respondent was operating the equipment, he heard a loud cracking sound followed by several cracking sounds. He stopped the equipment and called the mechanic from the Motor Pool. On the same day, he was issued a Disciplinary Action Form[4] and required to explain in writing why the equipment broke.

On June 21, 1999, respondent received a Memorandum[5] containing the findings of Rodolfo Vocal, the Motor Pool Supervisor. Vocal reported that the damage to the equipment was caused by the sudden and severe shifting of the gear from forward to reverse and vice versa while it was in motion. Once the gear is damaged, the operator would hear a loud sound warning him to stop the equipment. Thereupon, petitioner found respondent guilty of gross negligence and dismissed him from employment effective July 1, 1999.

Respondent filed a complaint[6] for illegal dismissal, non-payment of wages, premium pay for holiday and rest day, separation pay, holiday pay, service incentive leave pay and 13th month pay with prayer for attorney's fees. He alleged that there was no basis for finding him guilty of gross negligence.

Petitioner countered that respondent was guilty of gross negligence since he continued operating the equipment although he heard the warning sounds. It added that the requisite element of habituality may be disregarded since respondent's negligence caused it to suffer P504,000 as actual damages.

On August 1, 2001, Labor Arbiter Pablo C. Espiritu, Jr. rendered a Decision[7] in respondent's favor. First, he ruled that the mechanical failure could not be attributed solely to respondent since other factors such as ordinary wear and tear and use by other grader operators must be considered. There was no evidence also that respondent operated the equipment wantonly and without the slightest care. Second, he noted that the penalty of dismissal was too harsh since this was respondent's first offense. To be a just cause for dismissal, the employee's negligence must be both gross and habitual. Third, he held that respondent was a regular and not a project employee for the following reasons: (1) respondent was employed since 1997 and there was no proof that his employment was co-terminous with any project; (2) petitioner failed to show that upon the termination of respondent's project employment, the same was reported to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE); and (3) respondent's job assignment did not indicate that he was a project employee. In sum, Labor Arbiter Espiritu disposed, as follows:
WHEREFORE, judgment is hereby rendered ordering respondent Corporation to pay complainant full backwages and separation pay in lieu of reinstatement to the amounts of P234,000.00 and P18,720.00, respectively.

Respondent is further ordered to pay complainant proportionate 13th month pay and service incentive leave in the amounts of P4,680.00 and P1,800.00, respectively.

The [complaint] for holiday pay, unpaid wages, and premium pay for holiday and rest day are hereby disallowed for want of merit.

SO ORDERED.[8]
On appeal, the NLRC affirmed in toto the decision of the Labor Arbiter.[9] Petitioner filed a petition for certiorari with the Court of Appeals contending that the NLRC acted with grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction when it ruled that respondent was illegally dismissed and entitled to separation pay, service incentive leave pay, 13th month pay and full backwages.

In dismissing the petition, the Court of Appeals ruled that, first, under Article 282 (b)[10] of the Labor Code, negligence must be both gross and habitual to justify the dismissal of an employee. In this case, there was lack of substantial evidence to prove that respondent was guilty of gross negligence. While respondent heard a loud cracking sound, there was doubt when he heard the succeeding cracking sounds. These may have come immediately after the first, such that there was not enough time to stop the equipment immediately. Any doubt should be considered in respondent's favor. Second, petitioner never denied respondent's allegation that the equipment was replaced in April 1999 since it was already old and not functioning properly. Third, respondent was entitled to separation pay and backwages since he was a regular and not a project employee. There was no proof that he was hired as a project employee in September 1997. His job assignment did not even indicate that his employment was for a specific project. There was also no evidence that upon the termination of respondent's project employment, the same was reported to the DOLE. Thus, the appellate court ordered:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, the instant petition is DENIED. The decision of the National Labor Relations Commission dated 15 October 2002 affirming the finding of illegal dismissal and granting monetary awards to private respondent Macasusi is MODIFIED in that petitioner is ordered to pay private respondent Macasusi separation pay equivalent to one (1) month salary for every year of service, a fraction of at least six (6) months being considered as one (1) whole year, and full backwages from the time of his illegal dismissal on 21 June 1999 until the finality of the decision favoring private respondent.

SO ORDERED.[11]
Petitioner now submits the following issues for our consideration:
I.

THE COURT OF APPEALS DECIDED THE CASE IN A WAY NOT IN ACCORD WITH LAW AND APPLICABLE DECISIONS OF THE SUPREME COURT BY NOT HOLDING THAT -
  1. RESPONDENT WAS A PROJECT EMPLOYEE, CONSIDERING THAT -

    1. RESPONDENT'S WRITTEN CONTRACT FOR PROJECT EMPLOYMENT WAS NEVER DISPUTED;

    2. RESPONDENT PRAYED FOR UNPAID WAGES FOR THE PERIOD BEGINNING 01 JULY 1999 (TIME OF HIS DISMISSAL) UNTIL 16 JULY 1999 (LAST DAY OF PROJECT EMPLOYMENT) ONLY;

    3. NON-COMPLIANCE WITH DEPARTMENT ORDER NO. 19 DOES NOT PROVIDE CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE OF REGULAR EMPLOYMENT; AND

    4. EMPLOYMENT FOR SUCCESSIVE PERIODS DOES NOT PROVIDE CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE OF REGULAR EMPLOYMENT.

  2. RESPONDENT WAS LEGALLY DISMISSED, CONSIDERING THAT -

    1. RESPONDENT'S GROSS NEGLIGENCE WAS SUFFICIENTLY ESTABLISHED BY SUBSTANTIAL EVIDENCE;

    2. RESPONDENT'S ACTS CONSTITUTE GROSS NEGLIGENCE UNDER PREVAILING LAW AND JURISPRUDENCE; AND

    3. THE BASIS FOR THE COURT OF APPEALS' FINDING WAS ARBITRARY AND BASED ON MERE ASSUMPTION AND CONJECTURE, WITHOUT ANY EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT THE SAME. 

  3. RESPONDENT WAS ENTITLED TO SEPARATION PAY AND FULL BACKWAGES, CONSIDERING THAT -

    1. RESPONDENT DID NOT PRAY FOR SEPARATION PAY, REINSTATEMENT NOR FULL BACKWAGES; AND

    2. RESPONDENT WAS LEGALLY DISMISSED.
II.

PETITIONER IS ENTITLED TO THE ISSUANCE OF A TEMPORARY RESTRAINING ORDER AND/OR WRIT OF PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION.[12]
Simply, the issues are: (1) Was respondent a project employee? and (2) Was respondent legally dismissed on the ground of gross negligence?

The petition must fail.

At the outset, it must be stressed that the issues raise questions of fact which are not proper subjects of a petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court.  It is axiomatic that in an appeal by certiorari, only questions of law may be reviewed.[13] Furthermore, factual findings of administrative agencies that are affirmed by the Court of Appeals are conclusive on the parties and not reviewable by this Court. This is so because of the special knowledge and expertise gained by these quasi-judicial agencies from presiding over matters falling within their jurisdiction. So long as these factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, this Court will not disturb the same.[14]

In this case, the Labor Arbiter, the NLRC and the Court of Appeals were unanimous in their factual conclusions that respondent was a regular and not a project employee. When petitioner employed respondent in September 1997, there was no indication that he was merely a project employee. Petitioner never presented respondent's employment contract for the alleged specific project. Meanwhile, respondent's job assignment[15] did not indicate that he was a project employee nor that his employment was co-terminous with a specific project. What petitioner should have done was to present respondent's successive employment contracts for the different projects or phases thereof for which he was employed. Notably, petitioner presented only respondent's latest contract of employment for March to July 1999.[16] Petitioner also failed to show that it reported to the DOLE respondent's dismissal after the completion of each project or any phase thereof, in which he was employed. Since respondent had provided petitioner with continuous and uninterrupted services since September 1997, we see his latest contract of employment for March to July 1999 as a mere subterfuge to prevent him from acquiring regular status and deriving benefits therefrom.

On the other hand, the Labor Arbiter, the NLRC and the Court of Appeals were unanimous in their findings that respondent was illegally dismissed on the ground of gross negligence.

Under Article 282 (b) of the Labor Code, negligence must be both gross and habitual to justify the dismissal of an employee. As borne out by the records, there was lack of substantial evidence to prove that respondent was grossly negligent. Petitioner failed to submit evidence to disprove respondent's allegation that the equipment was replaced in April 1999 since it was already old and not functioning properly. Neither did it show that the equipment was operated solely by respondent so as to attribute the equipment's failure to him. Thus, the mechanical failure could have been brought about by factors such as ordinary wear and tear and use by other grader operators. Furthermore, there was no evidence that respondent operated the equipment without even the slightest care. While respondent heard a loud cracking sound, there was doubt when he heard the succeeding cracking sounds. These may have come immediately after the first such that there was not enough time to stop the equipment immediately. In any event, respondent stopped the equipment after the succeeding sounds.

Having considered and viewed all arguments in proper perspective, we reiterate the principle that any doubt should be resolved in favor of the employee, in keeping with the principle of social justice enshrined in our Constitution.[17]

WHEREFORE, the instant petition is DENIED.  The Decision dated August 31, 2004, as well as the Resolution dated May 10, 2005 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 76648 is AFFIRMED. Costs against petitioner.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio-Morales, Tinga, Velasco, Jr., and Brion, JJ., concur.



[1] Rollo, pp. 47-52.  Penned by Associate Justice Rosmari D. Carandang, with Associate Justices Andres B. Reyes, Jr. and Monina Arevalo-ZeƱarosa concurring.

[2] Id. at 54.

[3] Id. at 139-142.

[4] Records, p. 28.

[5] Id. at 29-30.

[6] Id. at 2.

[7] Id. at 56-64.

[8] Id. at 64.

[9] Rollo, pp. 139-142.

[10] ART. 282. Termination by employer: - An employer may terminate an employment for any of the following causes:

x x x x

(b) Gross and habitual neglect by the employee of his duties;

x x x x

[11] Rollo, p. 13.

[12] Id. at 24-25.

[13] Morales v. Skills International Company, G.R. No. 149285, August 30, 2006, 500 SCRA 186, 194; JMM Promotions and Management, Inc. v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 139401, October 2, 2002, 390 SCRA 223, 229.

[14] Morales v. Skills International Company, supra at 195; Cosmos Bottling Corporation v. National Labor Relations Commission, G.R. No. 146397, July 1, 2003, 405 SCRA 258, 262-263.

[15] Records, p. 51.

[16] Id. at 26-27.

[17] Maranaw Hotels and Resort Corporation v. NLRC, G.R. No. 123880, February 23, 1999, 303 SCRA 540, 544.

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