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623 Phil. 168

FIRST DIVISION

[ A.M. No. P-09-2676, December 16, 2009 ]

JUDGE JUANITA T. GUERRERO, COMPLAINANT, VS. TERESITA V. ONG, RESPONDENT.

D E C I S I O N

BERSAMIN, J.:

Litigant Reynaldo N. Garcia, a plaintiff in Civil Case No. 03-045, entitled Spouses Reynaldo and Lydia Garcia v. Spouses Joselito and Merle Arevalo, brought an administrative complaint against Judge Juanita T. Guerrero, Presiding Judge of Branch 204 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) in Muntinlupa City, charging her with bias and irregularities in relation to her disposition of the application for a writ of preliminary prohibitory and mandatory injunction in said case.

Answering Garcia's administrative complaint, Judge Guerrero incorporated a formal charge for improper conduct against respondent Teresita V. Ong, Court Stenographer of Branch 260, RTC, in ParaƱaque City, which is now the subject matter of this decision.

Antecedents

In his complaint-affidavit against Judge Guerrero,[1] Garcia averred that he and his wife, the plaintiffs in Civil Case No. 03-045, had sought the enforcement of an easement of right of way. He imputed the following acts of impropriety to Judge Guerrero, namely: (1) that she had issued an unjust order in the action; (2) that her process server had been seen in the premises involved in the litigation looking for Lito Arevalo, the defendant; and (3) that in another case involving him (Garcia) and the Manila Electric Company (Meralco), she had urged him (Garcia) to settle his obligations by telling him: "Kinakalaban po namin ay pader at wala kaming magagawa."

Required by the Office of the Court Administrator (OCAd) to comment on Garcia's complaint,[2] Judge Guerrero denied the imputed improprieties, averring that she resolved the incidents in Civil Case No. 03-045 based on the evidence presented by the parties during the hearings; that no bias or partiality could be noted on the assailed orders; that her process server had gone to see the defendant in Civil Case No. 03-045 only to serve the court notices; that although she had said that "Meralco was a pader," she denied saying: "Wala kayong magagawa;" and that she had already recused herself from hearing Garcia's cases.

As stated, Judge Guerrero's comment incorporated an administrative complaint against Ong. Therein, Judge Guerrero insisted that any acts of impropriety relative to Civil Case No. 03-045 had been committed by Ong, a tenant of Garcia, who had gone to her chambers on several occasions in the guise of making a courtesy call on her, and had then discussed the merits of the case with her; that Ong had engaged in name-dropping to urge her to resolve in favor of Garcia; that Ong had attended the hearings of the case in her Supreme Court uniform; and that Ong had told her Acting Branch Clerk of Court that she (Judge Guerrero) and the defendants "ay nagkatapatan na," which Ong had implied to mean that the "Judge (had) received consideration from the defendants."

In its memorandum dated November 22, 2004,[3] the OCAd found that Judge Guerrero had committed no act of impropriety, and recommended that the complaint against Judge Guerrero be dismissed for lack of merit, with a reminder to Judge Guerrero to exercise caution in her utterances, like remarking that Meralco was "pader," lest they be misconstrued as bias in favor of a party litigant. The OCAd further recommended that Ong be required to comment on the allegations of improper conduct made against her by Judge Guerrero.

Through the resolution dated January 19, 2005,[4] the Court adopted the recommendations of the OCAd; dismissed the complaint against Judge Guerrero; and required Ong to comment on Judge Guerrero's allegations of impropriety against her within 10 days from notice.

In due course, Ong submitted her comment on July 18, 2005.[5]

The Court referred Ong's comment to the OCAd for evaluation, report and recommendation.[6]

In turn, the OCAd recommended that the administrative matter against Ong be referred for investigation to a consultant of the OCAd in order to ascertain every act of impropriety imputed against her.

Accordingly, on February 13, 2006,[7] the Court referred the administrative matter against Ong to retired Justice Narciso T. Atienza for investigation. Justice Atienza submitted his report on July 31, 2006.[8]

On August 12, 2009, the case was re-docketed as a regular administrative case.

Justice Atienza's Report and Recommendation

During the investigation, Ong explained that her attendance at the hearings and ocular inspection had been made only upon the request of Garcia, whose plea for moral support she could not refuse; that she had not filed applications for leave because her superior had permitted her to attend the hearings and the ocular inspection; and that her sole purpose for talking with Judge Guerrero had been only to inform the latter about the case pending in her sala.

Justice Atienza regarded Ong's defense as incredible, and observed that Ong's real intention in talking with Judge Guerrero in her chambers while in office uniform had been to influence Judge Guerrero to resolve the pending incident in Garcia's favor. He concluded that Ong had attended several hearings and the ocular inspection in Civil Case No. 03-045 in her office uniform and during office hours; and that on those occasions, she had not filed applications for leave and had not reflected her undertime in her daily time records (DTRs).

Justice Atienza recommended, therefore, that:

1) Ms. Teresita V. Ong be reprimanded for improper conduct with a warning that commission of the same or similar acts of impropriety in the future shall be dealt with more severely; and,

2) Advise Ms. Ong to log out before leaving the Office during office hours and log in upon return, but when leaving the office is not on official business, the undertime should be reflected in the Daily Time Record.[9]

Ruling

The Court agrees with the findings of Justice Atienza, which were entirely substantiated by the records, but differs with his recommendation of the penalty. Ong was guilty of grave misconduct, for using her official position as a court employee to secure benefits for Garcia; and of dishonesty, for committing serious irregularities in the keeping of her DTRs.

I. Use of Official Position to Secure Benefits

All court personnel, from the lowliest employees to the clerks of court, are involved in the dispensation of justice like judges and justices, and parties seeking redress from the courts for grievances look upon them also as part of the Judiciary.[10] In performing their duties and responsibilities, court personnel serve as sentinels of justice, that any act of impropriety they commit immeasurably affects the honor and dignity of the Judiciary and the people's confidence in the Judiciary.[11] They are, therefore, expected to act and behave in a manner that should uphold the honor and dignity of the Judiciary, if only to maintain the people's confidence in the Judiciary.

A court employee is not prohibited from helping individuals in the course of performing her official duties, but her actions cannot be left unchecked when the help extended puts under suspicion the integrity of the Judiciary.[12] Indeed, she is strictly instructed not to use her official position to secure unwarranted benefits, privileges, or exemptions for herself or for others.[13] The evident purpose of the instruction is precisely to free the court employees from suspicion of misconduct.

Ong did not comply with the instruction. Instead, she used her official position as an employee of the Judiciary to attempt to influence Judge Guerrero to rule in favor of litigant Garcia, her landlord. She was thereby guilty of misconduct, defined as a transgression of some established or definite rule of action; or, more particularly, an unlawful behavior on the part of a public officer or employee.[14] Her misconduct was grave, which the Court explains in Imperial v. Santiago,[15] viz:

Misconduct is a transgression of some established and definite rule of action, more particularly, unlawful behavior or gross negligence by the public officer. To warrant dismissal from the service, the misconduct must be grave, serious, important, weighty, momentous and not trifling. The misconduct must imply wrongful intention and not a mere error of judgment. The misconduct must also have a direct relation to and be connected with the performance of his official duties amounting either to maladministration or willful, intentional neglect or failure to discharge the duties of the office. There must also be reliable evidence showing that the judicial acts complained of were corrupt or inspired by an intention to violate the law.

In grave misconduct, as distinguished from simple misconduct, the elements of corruption, clear intent to violate the law, or flagrant disregard of established rule must be manifest.[16] Corruption as an element of grave misconduct consists in the act of an official or employee who unlawfully or wrongfully uses her station or character to procure some benefit for herself or for another, contrary to the rights of others.[17] It is established herein that Ong knowingly and corruptly tried to influence Judge Guerrero to favor Garcia in the latter's pending civil action.

Ong's grave misconduct was a grave offense that deserved the penalty of dismissal for the first offense pursuant to Sec. 52, A, of the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service.[18] However, there being no record of her having previously committed a similar offense, the penalty of suspension of one year without pay and a fine of P20,000.00, coupled with a warning that a repetition shall be dealt with more severely, is just and proper. The penalty is commensurate with the penalty meted in Salazar v. Barriga,[19] whereby the Court imposed on a sheriff found guilty of grave misconduct the penalty of suspension of one year without pay and a fine of P20,000.00, upon considering the length of his government service as a mitigating circumstance.

II. Making False Entries in the DTR

Justice Atienza found that Ong had made false entries in her DTRs by indicating therein that she had been at work although she had been elsewhere. We sustain the finding of Justice Atienza and pronounce Ong administratively liable for committing irregularities in the keeping of her DTRs.[20] Her false entries in the DTRs constituted dishonesty,[21] an act that Section 52, Rule IV, Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, classifies as a grave offense for which the penalty of dismissal from the service even for the first commission is imposable.

Again, the Court opts not to wield the axe of outright dismissal, a penalty that may be too extreme. As earlier observed, there is no record of Ong having been previously charged with and penalized for any administrative offense. Section 53, Rule IV of the Revised Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service grants the disciplining authority the discretion to consider mitigating circumstances in the imposition of the proper penalty.[22] The Court thus imposes upon her the penalty of suspension of one year without pay, with warning that a repetition of the offense will surely be dealt with more severely.

WHEREFORE, we find and declare Court Stenographer Teresita V. Ong separately liable for the two administrative offenses of gross misconduct and dishonesty, and, accordingly, suspend her for one year without pay for each offense, to be served consecutively, plus a fine of P20,000.00 for the grave misconduct, with a warning that the repetition of either offense shall be dealt with more severely.

Let a copy of this decision be attached to the personnel records of respondent Ong in the Office of the Administrative Services, Office of the Court Administrator.

SO ORDERED.

Puno, C.J., (Chairperson), Carpio Morales, Leonardo-De Castro, and Villarama, Jr., concur.



[1] Rollo, pp. 2-4.

[2] Id., p. 1.

[3] Id., pp. 406-408.

[4] Id., p. 410.

[5] Id., pp. 413-414.

[6] Id., p. 419.

[7] Id., p. 424.

[8] Id., pp. 540-567.

[9] Id., p. 567.

[10] 3rd Whereas Clause, Code of Conduct for Court Personnel.

[11] 4th Whereas Clause, Code of Conduct for Court Personnel.

[12] Civil Service Commission v. Belagan, G.R. No. 132164, October 19, 2004, 440 SCRA 578; Maguad v. De Guzman, A.M. No. P-94-1015, March 29, 1999, 305 SCRA 469; Estarija v. Ranada, G.R. No. 159314, June 26, 2006, 492 SCRA 652.

[13] Section 1, Canon 1, Code of Conduct for Court Personnel, states:

Section 1. Court personnel shall not use their official position to secure unwarranted benefits, privileges or exemptions for themselves or for others.

[14] Mendoza v. Navarro, A.M. No. P-05-2034, September 11, 2006, 501 SCRA 354, 363.

[15] A.M. No. P-01-1449, February 24, 2003, 398 SCRA 75, 85.

[16] Salazar v. Barriga, A.M. No. P-05-2016, April 19, 2007, 521 SCRA 449, 455; Civil Service Commission v. Belagan, G.R. No. 132164, October 19, 2004, 440 SCRA 578.

[17] Salazar v. Barriga, id.

[18] Section 52. Classification of Offenses. xxx.

A. The following are grave offenses with their corresponding penalties:

xxx

3. Grave Misconduct
1st offense - Dismissal

xxx


[19] Supra, at note 16.

[20] Duque v. Aspiras, A.M. No. P-05-2036, July 15, 2005, 463 SCRA 447, 454.

[21] Gillamac-Ortiz v. Almeida, Jr., A.M. No. P-07-2401, November 28, 2007, 539 SCRA 20.

[22] Section 53. Extenuating, Mitigating, Aggravating, or Alternative Circumstances. - In the determination of the penalties to be imposed, mitigating, aggravating and alternative circumstances attendant to the commission of the offense shall be considered.

xxx.

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