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588 Phil. 435


[ A.M. No. MTJ-06-1631 (Formerly A.M. OCA IPI No. 05-1744-MTJ), September 30, 2008 ]



REYES, R.T., J.:

Fenina R. Santos' verified letter-complaint[1] to the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) initiated this administrative case against Judge Erasto D. Tanciongco of the First Municipal Circuit Trial Court (MCTC), Dinalupihan-Hermosa, Dinalupihan, Bataan for manifest bias, partiality and neglect of duty relative to Civil Case No. 1334.

On June 22, 2005, the OCA required Judge Tanciongco to submit a comment relative to the complaint.  Judge Tanciongco filed his comment to the letter-complaint on September 2, 2005.  On April 19, 2006, the Court's First Division referred this case to Hon. Jose Ener S. Fernando, Executive Judge, Regional Trial Court, Dinalupihan, Bataan, for investigation.

The case was immediately set for hearing.  On July 17, 2006, Judge Fernando voluntarily inhibited himself from hearing the case due to doubts raised by Santos about the former's impartiality, since Judge Tanciongco had been the public prosecutor assigned to his sala from 1992 to 2002.

The OCA found that Santos failed to prove Judge Fernando's bias and prejudice with clear and convincing evidence, to be considered a valid justification for his inhibition.  On July 26, 2006, the Court noted Judge Fernando's order inhibiting himself from the case, but directed him to proceed with the investigation and strictly comply with the Court's April 19, 2006 Resolution.

On December 18, 2006, Judge Fernando terminated the investigation and submitted the case for resolution upon agreement of the parties.  On March 12, 2007, Judge Fernando submitted his investigation report and recommendation.

The evidence for the complainant consists of Santos' letter, attached affidavit and testimony.  Santos narrated that on December 16, 2003, she and her husband filed an action for forcible entry, temporary restraining order and injunction against Dominador Jimenez, Maria Jimenez, Herminia Salenga Tan, and Purita Salenga Pinpin, docketed as Civil Case No. 1334, before the MCTC of Dinalupihan-Hermosa, Dinalupihan, Bataan, presided by Judge Tanciongco.

Santos accused Judge Tanciongco of uncalled for liberality in accepting defendant's Answer which was filed beyond the ten-day reglementary period.  She also alleged that Judge Tanciongco reset the case for hearing several times for the period February 5 to December 7, 2004. This was despite her pleas to cause the appearance of defendants in court.  On three (3) occasions, Judge Tanciongco promised to act on her request, but defendants still failed to appear in court for the hearings of the case.

In view of defendants' continued non-appearance in court, Santos moved for the court to render judgment on the case.  However, Judge Tanciongco allegedly suggested resetting the hearing of the case.  Santos' counsel, Atty. Leopoldo C. Lacambra, withdrew from the case after filing the motion to render judgment.

On February 1, 2005, the counsel for defendants appeared for the first time in court.  Santos was also present, and she manifested before Judge Tanciongco that she no longer had a counsel and that she wanted to know the outcome of the motion to render judgment.  However, Judge Tanciongco ordered the start of the preliminary hearing of the case in the next hearing.

In contrast, Judge Tanciongco, in his Comment and testimony before the investigating Judge, denied the allegations of Santos. He maintained that he conducted hearings in accordance with law and observed due process by giving the parties and their respective lawyers enough time and opportunity to be heard in court.  He asserted that the delays were attributable to non-appearance of counsel and the parties.

Judge Tanciongco further explained that he did not act on the motion to render judgment because of his earnest desire for the parties to settle their dispute amicably.  However, his efforts were in vain.  Moreover, in view of the complaint against him, he voluntarily inhibited himself and requested the Supreme Court to designate another judge.

After hearing, the investigating Judge found Judge Tanciongco guilty of gross ignorance of the law and inefficiency tantamount to neglect of duty relative to Civil Case No. 1334.  The pertinent portion of his report and recommendation reads:
The culpability of respondent Judge lies on the propriety or impropriety of his acts.  Respondent Judge was accused of manifest bias, partiality and neglect of duty relative to his actions in connection with Civil Case No. 1334.  As a matter of policy the acts of a judge in his judicial capacity are not subject to disciplinary action - only judicial errors tainted with fraud, dishonesty, gross ignorance, bad faith or deliberate intent to do an injustice will be administratively sanctioned. While a judge is a man subject to the frailties of other men, his office is an exalted position in the administration of justice, thus, it behooves him to act with circumspection at all times in order to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

Records reveal that the complainant filed her complaint for forcible entry with TRO and injunction on December 16, 2003.  All cases of forcible entry and unlawful detainer, irrespective of the amount of damages or unpaid rentals sought to be recovered, shall be governed by the rules on summary procedure.  Section 6, Rule 70 of the Revised rules of Civil Procedure provides that the defendant shall file his answer within ten (10) days from the service of the summons and his failure to answer the complaint within the said period, the court, motu proprio or motion of the plaintiff, shall render judgment as may be warranted by the facts alleged in the complaint.

Summons were issued on January 7, 2004. In their Answer, defendants Dominador and Maria Jimenez averred that they received the complaint on January 15, 2004.  A close scrutiny of the Answer reveals that it was prepared on January 26, 2004, verified only on January 27, 2004 and received by the MCTC on the same date. Surely, the ten (10)-day reglementary period fixed by law had already lapsed.  Complainant filed her comment with motion to strike out answer, but this was not even acted upon by respondent Judge, claiming that he was trying to settle the issues amicably between the parties, but despite his efforts, the same failed and that the complainant filed her pre-trial brief which was tantamount to abandonment of the motion to strike out answer.  The filing of the pre-trial brief does not necessarily mean that the complainant is abandoning her motion to strike out answer. Respondent Judge should have acted on it just the same.  Unfortunately, he chose to ignore it.

Granting for the sake of liberality that the aforementioned acts of respondent Judge are justifiable, the undersigned would like to point at respondent Judge's ignorance of the law which was manifested when he required defendants to file their answer within fifteen (15) days from receipt of the summons, considering that this case is governed by the rules on summary procedure. This fact was even argued by Atty. Lacambra, but respondent Judge was relentless in his stance.  When the law is so elementary, such as the provisions of the Revised Rules of Court on the rules on summary procedure, not knowing it or to act as if one does not know it, constitutes gross ignorance of the law. Gross ignorance of the law, incompetence and inefficiency are characteristics impermissible in a judge.

Respondent Judge's leniency towards the cause of the defendants, while it may not be erroneous, transgresses the constitutional right of the complainant to a speedy disposition of her case.  It is the noble office of a judge to render justice not only impartially but expeditiously as well, for delay in the disposition of cases erodes the faith and confidence of our people in the judiciary, lower its standards and brings it into disrepute.

On the issue of partiality and manifest bias, the rule is that mere suspicion that a judge is partial is not enough. Clear and convincing evidence to prove the charge is required.  The burden to prove that respondent Judge committed the acts complained of rest on the complainant.  It is complainant's asseveration that respondent Judge was protecting the defendants who are rich and influential; that some of them are townmates of the respondent judge; and they were sometimes seen together. These allegations remain as mere allegations without any evidence to support them. Complainant averred that her sister and relatives saw the respondent Judge with the defendants talking and eating in a restaurant.  However, said sister and relatives were not presented to testify on that allegation.  Mere allegation of partiality and bias without more cannot discharge the burden bestowed upon the complainant to prove respondent Judge's partiality and bias. Charges against any member of the judiciary must be supported at least by substantial evidence.  Applying the foregoing principles to this case, the undersigned finds that the charges of the complainant against respondent Judge for partiality and bias failed to measure up to the yardstick of substantial evidence.

On the charge of neglect of duty

This case has been pending before respondent Judge's sala for so long.  As stated earlier, this case was filed on December 16, 2003, yet, the preliminary  conference  was  set only  on  February 1, 2005.  Considering that this case is governed by the rules on summary procedure, the undersigned could not find any justifiable reason on what took respondent Judge so long to act on it.  His explanations that he tried to settle the case amicably and that the parties failed to appear at the scheduled hearings are but flimsy excuses for the long delay incurred.  The delay could have been avoided had he exercised more diligence and determination in disposing the case.

Complainant also pointed out that there had been several settings of the case, particularly February 5 and 13, 2004 which were not documented.  No order or minutes of these hearings appear on the records of the case and respondent Judge did not offer any explanation nor rebut complainant's allegations regarding this matter.

The filing of a motion to cancel hearing by the defendants one day before the scheduled hearing was prejudicial to the complainant's cause.  Said dilatory motion for postponement is a violation of Section 19 of the Revised Rules on Summary Procedure.

On the scheduled hearing on July 21, 2004, the proceedings of said hearing are not found in the records of the case.  According to the respondent Judge, they were in the possession of OIC Evelyn Roncal. Be that as it may, as an officer of the court having control and supervision over his staff, respondent Judge should organize and supervise his staff to ensure the prompt and efficient dispatch of business, as well as the observance of high standards of public service and fidelity at all times.  He should adopt a system of records management, so that files are kept intact despite the temporary absence of the person primarily responsible for their custody.

When asked why he did not resolve the complainant's counsel motion to render judgment, respondent Judge averred that said motion was considered abandoned when Atty. Lacambra withdrew as counsel for the complainant.  Fact is, said motion to render judgment was filed on October 8, 2004 (per registry receipt attached to it) while Atty. Lacambra's withdrawal as counsel was received by the MCTC on March 21, 2005, or around five (5) months had already lapsed. The failure of respondent Judge to act on the motion with reasonable dispatch constitutes gross inefficiency.

To recapitulate, respondent Judge was quite liberal in his dealings with defendants which greatly contributed to the delay in the disposition of this case. He cannot take refuge behind defendants' non-appearance in court.  Delay in the disposition of cases not only deprives litigants of their right to speedy disposition of their cases but also tarnishes the image of the judiciary. Failure to dispose the court's business promptly within the periods prescribed by law and the rules constitutes gross inefficiency and warrants administrative sanction on the erring judge like respondent.  It seems that respondent Judge developed a bad working habit, as evidenced by the resolution of the Supreme Court, Second Division, dated June 15, 2005 in A.M. No. MTJ-05-1592 (Office of the Court Administrator vs. Judge Erasto D. Tanciongco, Virgilio P. Mejia, et al. of the Municipal Circuit Trial Court, Dinalupihan-Hermosa, Bataan) wherein he was admonished for his failure to exercise due diligence in the supervision of his  subordinates and to implement an effective and efficient records management system for prompt disposition of  the court's business.  He was also given a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar lapses in the future shall be dealt with more severely.  His inhibition later in this case does not absolve him from liability

WHEREFORE, it is respectfully submitted that respondent Judge Erasto Tanciongco be found GUILTY of gross ignorance of the law and inefficiency tantamount to neglect of duty relative to Civil Case No. 1334, hence, it is respectfully recommended that he be suspended for two (2) months and be fined in the amount of P20,000.00.

Dinalupihan, Bataan, March 12, 2007.[2]
The investigating Judge found Judge Tanciongco guilty of gross ignorance of the law and inefficiency tantamount to neglect of duty relative to Civil Case No. 1334 and recommended two (2) months suspension[2-a] and a fine in the amount of Twenty Thousand Pesos (P20,000.00).

The OCA concurred with the findings of the investigating Judge but recommended that the fine be increased to Thirty Thousand Pesos (P30,000.00).

We accept the findings of the investigating Judge.  The rules on summary procedure require that an answer be filed within ten (10) days from receipt of summons.  Judge Tanciongco instead gave defendants fifteen (15) days from receipt of summons.  Apparently, Judge Tanciongco overlooked a summary rule.  It is a lapse in procedure made without bad faith or corrupt motive.

However, the Court is mindful of the fact that Judge Tanciongco is merely human and this Court has forgiven human errors in the past.[3]  Thus, the fine of Twenty Thousand Pesos (P20,000.00) recommended by the investigating Judge is more reasonable and appropriate.

WHEREFORE, a FINE of Twenty Thousand Pesos (P20,000.00) is imposed on Judge Tanciongco, the same to be deducted from his retirement benefits.


Ynares-Santiago, (Chairperson), Austria-Martinez, Chico-Nazario, and Nachura, JJ., concur.

[1] Rollo, pp. 1-4.  Dated July 8, 2005.

[2] Id. at 131-143.

[2-a] The penalty of suspension is no longer favorable on account of respondent Judge's retirement on June 22, 2007 per OCA Memorandum dated July 6, 2007.

[3] Apiag v. Cantero, A.M. No. MTJ-95-1070, February 12, 1997, 268 SCRA 47.

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