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EN BANC

[ A.M. No. P-15-3400 (Formerly OCA IPI No. 12-3896-P), November 06, 2018 ]

INVESTIGATING JUDGE JAIME E. CONTRERAS, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, BRANCH 25, NAGA CITY, COMPLAINANT, VS. PATRICIA DE LEON, CLERK III, OFFICE OF THE CLERK OF COURT, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, NAGA CITY; EDGAR HUFANCIA, SHERIFF, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, BRANCH 21, NAGA CITY; EDGAR SURTIDA IV,•• SHERIFF IV, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, BRANCH 25, NAGA CITY; AND PELAGIO J. PAPA, JR., SHERIFF, OFFICE OF THE CLERK OF COURT, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, NAGA CITY, RESPONDENTS.

DECISION

PER CURIAM:

This administrative matter, which was filed by Investigating Judge Jaime E. Contreras (Judge Contreras) of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 25, Naga City, is an offshoot of Olivan v. Rubio,[1] which, in turn, stemmed from a complaint filed by Eleanor Olivan (Olivan) with the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) against Arnel Jose A. Rubio (Rubio), Sheriff IV, Office of the Clerk of Court (OCC), RTC of Naga City, for malversation, alleging that Rubio claimed excessive sheriffs expenses and bloated the liquidation thereof in connection with Land Registration Case No. N-594, GLRC Rec. No. 8109 entitled Domingo Olivan, et al. v. The Municipality of Pasacao, et al.[2] (subject case), after which the Court then found Rubio guilty of Dishonesty and Grave Misconduct, and dismissed him from the service.

To recall, the Court of Appeals decided the subject case in favor of Olivan, which decision already became final and executory. Thereafter, a Writ of Execution was also issued in her favor, followed by an Alias Writ of Execution (writ) on September 29, 2005, wherein Rubio was tasked to enforce the latter.[3]

On April 27, 2006, Rubio received P20,000.00 from Olivan as partial payment for the sheriffs incidental expenses for the implementation of the writ, after which he issued a handwritten receipt which Olivan signed. Subsequently, on May 10, 2006, Rubio filed a Manifestation pursuant to Rule 141 of the Rules of Court, detailing the Sheriffs Expenses in the amount of P150,000.00 as incidental expenses and P3,000.00 as the court's commission fee, or a total of P153,000.00 for the implementation of the said writ. The Manifestation contained Olivan's conformity and the recommending approval of Atty. Egmedio C. Blacer, Clerk of Court VI and Ex-Officio Sheriff of the RTC, which was approved by Judge Pablo M. Paqueo, Jr., then Executive Judge of the RTC. On the same day, Olivan deposited P153,000.00 with the OCC of the RTC, which Rubio withdrew in full thereafter on the same day.[4]

Rubio, however, failed to implement the writ despite receipt of a total sum of P173,000.00, and failed to return to the OCC or to Olivan the remaining amount of P22,866.00 as indicated in his Liquidation of Sheriffs Expenses dated December 20, 2008. The said report showed that the total amount spent in attempting to implement the writ was only P150,134.00, thereby leaving a balance of P22,866.00.[5]

Rubio defended the aforementioned payment of P20,000.00 given to him by Olivan by alleging that he needed other court sheriffs to assist him in implementing the writ and requested for a precision survey of the subject property to identify the actual occupants thereof to whom they would serve the writ and the Notice to Vacate, as well as personnel of the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Army to maintain peace and order, considering, among others, that it had to be served to 40 residents living in the parcel of land subject of the case, who had violently refused to obey the writ. He also added that Atty. Fiel V. Bagalacsa-Abad, Clerk of Court V of the OCC, issued a Travel Order to him and other assisting sheriffs, namely, respondent Pelagio Papa, Jr. (Papa), Sheriff, OCC, RTC Naga City, respondent Edgar Surtida IV (Surtida), Sheriff IV, RTC Branch 25, Naga City, and the late Donn Valenciano, after which they went to the subject property several times to enforce the writ, submitting thereafter a Partial Return thereof and a Sheriffs Report detailing the actions he had undertaken during the service of the writ.[6]

Thereafter, the Court, in its Resolution dated January 11, 2010, referred Olivan's complaint to Judge Contreras for investigation, report and recommendation.[7]

In the course of the investigation, Judge Contreras found that, aside from the fact that Rubio had incurred unnecessary and/or unsubstantiated expenses, other employees of the RTC, who were identified as Papa, Surtida, respondent Patricia De Leon (De Leon), Clerk III, OCC, RTC Naga City, and respondent Edgar Hufancia (Hufancia), Sheriff, RTC Branch 21, Naga City, were involved in the anomalous transactions wherein they were able to collect certain sums of money from Olivan under the promise of helping her in the subject case.[8] In his Report and Recommendation[9] dated December 5, 2010, Judge Contreras made the following observations, based on the testimonies and admissions of Olivan and the respondents, to wit:
OTHER RELATED MATTERS

During the course of the investigation in this instant administrative case against Sheriff Rubio, informations were disclosed showing that other employees in the Regional Trial Court of Naga City were involved in anomalous or shady transactions wherein they were able to collect certain sums of money from complainant, Eleanor Olivan, under the guise of helping her in her case. They are the following:

1. PATRICIA DE LEON, a Clerk at the Office of the Clerk of Court, Regional Trial Court, Naga City, whom complainant Eleanor Olivan approached for help being her townmate, promised to expedite the implementation of the writ of execution and find a lawyer for her and in the process received aggregate sums of money in the total amount of [P]9,500.00. However, for failure to comply with her promises, Patricia de Leon undertook to return the money to Mrs. Olivan upon the latter's demand. However, the money was not actually returned to Mrs. Olivan due to the intervention of her lawyer, Atty. Amador Simando, that said amount be just credited as payment for his future court appearances in her case, and

2. SHERIFF EDGAR HUFANCIA of RTC, Br. 21, Naga City, who, per his own admission was allegedly the assisting sheriff of the late Sheriff Roque Angeles, to whom this case was earlier assigned. He received certain sums of money amounting to more than [P]40,000.00 from Mrs. Olivan under the guise of helping her with Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya, Jr. for the payment of the lot purchase [sic] of the land subject-matter [sic] of the writ. However, upon demand, [he] acknowledged and paid only the amount of [P]24,000.00 to Mrs. Olivan.

Other sheriffs must also be taught a lesson and be subjected to disciplinary action by reason of their complicity in the implementation of the writ, when ordinary prudence would tell them that on several occasions, it was unnecessary for them to still be going back and forth to Pasacao, Camarines Sur, and still hire unreasonable number of laborers/security escorts which resulted to the financial losses or prejudice of Mrs. Olivan, and they are the following:

1. SHERIFF EDGAR SURTIDA II of RTC, Br. 25, Naga City, who was one of the assisting sheriffs of Sheriff Rubio in causing the implementation of the writ subject-matter [sic] in [sic] this case, for his complicity and in conspiracy with Sheriff Rubio and other assisting sheriffs, who per travel orders, have [sic] repeatedly gone with [I]mplementing Sheriff Rubio to Pasacao, Camarines Sur, even if a simple exercise of prudence would dictate that the same were no longer necessary, thereby causing additional expense to the complainant. Further, as assisting sheriff, he disregarded the Supreme Court Circular on the matter and repeated reminders of herein Investigating Judge, who is also the Presiding Judge of Br. 25, to secure the latter's appropriate permission and approval before consenting/agreeing to be an assisting sheriff, and

2. SHERIFF PELAGIO J. PAPA, JR. of the OCC, RTC, Naga City for his complicity and in conspiracy with Sheriff Rubio and other assisting sheriffs of having repeatedly gone with [I]mplementing Sheriff Rubio to Pasacao, Camarines Sur, even if a simple exercise of prudence would dictate that the same were [sic] no longer necessary, thereby causing additional expense to the complainant.[10]
Acting on the recommendation of the OCA in its Memorandum[11] dated March 14, 2012, the Court, in its Resolution[12] dated June 13, 2012, docketed Judge Contreras' aforementioned Report and Recommendation as the instant administrative matter against herein respondents separately from that of Rubio, and required them to comment therein. While Papa and Hufancia had filed their respective Comments, Surtida and De Leon failed to file theirs.

Papa, in his Comment,[13] denied having conspired with Rubio and having committed misconduct, asserting that he was issued travel orders[14] to assist Rubio in the subject case where more than 200 persons or 35 families were subject for eviction. That, coupled by the fact that the subject property was located 40 kilometers from the RTC of Naga City, and that the area was believed to be infested by members of the New People's Army, necessitated his assistance in implementing the writ. Moreover, there were also times when he did not actually accompany Sheriff Rubio, and merely reported to the office, as shown by his daily time records.[15]

Hufancia, for his part,[16] denied having been the assisting sheriff of Rubio or the late Sheriff Roque Angeles, or that he received any complaint from Olivan. He maintained that it was retired Executive Sheriff Anastacio Bongon whom he assisted in implementing the writ before the task was reassigned to Rubio. However, he admitted having tried to convince the Sangguniang Bayan of Pasacao, Camarines Sur, to instead buy the subject property from Olivan, necessitating additional expenses which were not included in the original estimate of expenses. Thus, he received the amount of P24,000.00 from Olivan in connection with his attempt to sell the property, issuing receipts for every amount that he received from her. However, he claimed that he had returned the said amount to Olivan during the investigation conducted by Judge Contreras.

The OCA's Report and Recommendation

In its Memorandum[17] dated September 1, 2015, the OCA made the following findings and recommendations, to wit:
  1. It found De Leon guilty of Dishonesty and Grave Misconduct for accepting P9,500.00 from Olivan in exchange for a promise to expedite the implementation of the writ in the subject case. It opined that, not only did she violate Section 3(b) of Republic Act No. (RA) 3019, but her act is also considered as grave misconduct under Section 2, Canon 1 of the Code of Conduct for Court Personnel which enjoins all personnel from soliciting or accepting any gift, favor or benefit based on any or explicit understanding that such gift, favor or benefit shall influence their official actions, as well as dishonesty, both of which are considered grave offenses under Section 52(A)(1) and (3) (later Section 46[A][1] and [3]) of the Revised Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service (RRACCS). Moreover, her failure to file her Comment on Judge Contreras' Report and Recommendation despite orders from the Court is considered a violation of the Court's circulars. However, considering that De Leon had been previously dropped from the rolls effective February 1, 2012 in the Court's Resolution dated August 12, 2013,[18] the OCA recommended that she be fined P40,000.00 in lieu of dismissal from the service.[19]

  2. As for Hufancia, he was found guilty of Serious Dishonesty for his act of unilaterally receiving P24,000.00 from Olivan for the execution of the Alias Writ without issuing a receipt therefor. It opined that as the sheriff, he is not allowed to receive any voluntary payments from parties to a case, much less demand such payment on his own without observing the proper procedure, that is: (1) making the estimate of his expenses to be submitted for the approval of the court; (2) depositing the amount by the party concerned with the clerk of court and ex-officio sheriff, who will then disburse such amount to the sheriff assigned to enforce the writ; and (3) liquidating the amount received, returning the excess amount to the party, and rendering a full report. Moreover, it is immaterial whether or not Hufancia received the said amount in good faith, since it is important that the said procedure be followed before accepting such amount, which he had failed to do. However, in view of his death on August 31, 2013, the OCA recommended that this case as against him be dismissed.[20]

  3. With regard to Surtida, he was found guilty of Conduct Prejudicial to the Best Interest of the Service in his act of travelling with Rubio and the other sheriffs to Pasacao, Camarines Sur around ten (10) times in order to implement the writ, all without any authority issued by the Executive Judge. It also found that Surtida had received allowances therefrom, brought along his own security, and had continued to assist Rubio even though the only thing they had accomplished was the service of the writ and the notice to vacate, thereby also causing Olivan to suffer additional and needless expenses. Moreover, his failure to file a Comment on Judge Contreras' Report and Recommendation despite orders from the Court is considered a violation of the Court's circulars. Considering that suspending Surtida would unduly have an adverse effect on public service, the OCA recommended that he instead be fined P20,000.00.[21]

  4. Finally, as to Papa, he was also found guilty of Conduct Prejudicial to the Best Interest of the Service. It held that, like Surtida, Papa also travelled with Rubio and the other sheriffs to Pasacao, Camarines Sur around the same number of times in order to implement the writ, and received allowances therefrom, all without any authority issued by the Executive Judge. Thus, the OCA recommended that he be fined P5,000.00.[22]
In its Resolution[23] dated August 3, 2016, the Court dismissed the case as against Hufancia in view of his death.

The Court's Ruling

After a judicious review of the records, the Court has no compelling reason to deviate from the findings of the OCA. However, the penalties should be modified.

Dishonesty has been defined as "the disposition to lie, cheat, deceive, defraud, or betray; unworthiness; lack of integrity; lack of honesty, probity, or integrity in principle; and lack of fairness and straightforwardness" which renders a person unfit to serve in the judiciary.[24]

Misconduct, on the other hand, involves a "transgression of some established and definite rule of action, [specifically] unlawful behavior or gross negligence" by a public officer or employee, which should be grave, serious, important, weighty, momentous, and not trifling. Moreover, to be characterized as gross, such misconduct must be attended by corruption, clear intent to violate the law, or flagrant disregard of established rule.[25]

Conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service pertains to any conduct, whether an act or omission, which violates the norm of public accountability, as well as diminish - or threaten to diminish - public faith in the judiciary.[26]

Finally, insubordination is a willful or intentional disregard of, or refusal to obey, lawful and reasonable instructions of the employer.[27] This includes, among others, failure to comply with a directive issued by the Court, whether directly or through the OCA, to submit a comment to a complaint or a report regarding an offense allegedly committed by the court personnel concerned.[28]

In this matter, the OCA observed that De Leon had falsely promised Olivan that the execution of the writ would be expedited in exchange for P9,500.00, and accepted the said amount. Meanwhile, Papa and Surtida had joined Rubio and the other sheriffs in implementing the writ, and even hired additional security in doing so, all without the authority of the judge, thereby incurring additional and unnecessary expenses on the part of Olivan.

The Court agrees with the OCA. Time and again, the Court has emphasized that "[c]ourt personnel, regardless of position or rank, are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the strict standards of integrity and morality."[29] Any deviation from such standards would adversely reflect on the image of the judiciary to the public, as well as their trust and confidence in this branch of government.[30]

As gleaned above, the evidence had established De Leon's intent to extort money from Olivan by making her falsely believe that the execution of the writ would be expedited in exchange for P9,500.00 and actually accepting the said amount. Such display of dishonesty and misconduct not only gravely endangers the trust and confidence of the people in the judiciary, but also violates Section 3(b) of RA 3019 - an offense which, when committed by an official or personnel of the judiciary, would be a serious affront to the image of this hallowed branch of government.

With regard to Papa and Surtida, their unauthorized acts of accompanying Rubio and the other sheriffs in enforcing the writ and employing additional security had caused an additional and unnecessary financial burden on Olivan, who had been patiently waiting for a long time for the writ to be fully implemented, and thus, they are considered prejudicial to the best interest of the service.

Finally, it also bears emphasizing that De Leon's and Surtida's failure to file their respective comments, despite the Court's directive for them to do so, shows their utter indifference thereto, and is tantamount to insubordination.

As for the imposable penalty, grave misconduct is punishable by dismissal from the service for the first offense, while dishonesty and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service are punishable by suspension of six (6) months and one (1) day to one (1) year for the first offense, and dismissal from the service for the second offense, under Rule 10, Section 46(A) and (B) of the RRACCS, respectively, all of them being grave offenses. On the other hand, insubordination is a less grave offense which is punishable by suspension of one (1) month and one (1) day to six (6) months for the first offense, and dismissal from the service for the second offense, under Section 46(0) thereof. Moreover, Section 50 provides that if the respondent is found guilty of two (2) or more charges or counts, the penalty for the most serious charge shall be imposed, and the others shall be considered as aggravating circumstances.

In this regard, it is relevant to note that this is not the first time that De Leon and Surtida have been held administratively liable. In Villaseñor v. De Leon,[31] the Court reprimanded De Leon for conduct unbecoming of an employee of the court after she had willfully failed to pay the amount of P20,000.00 she had loaned from the complainant therein, Monica Villasenor. Moreover, considering that De Leon had already been dropped from the rolls, the Court can only impose a fine or forfeiture of benefits to her.

Taking into account the number and gravity of De Leon's offenses in this matter and her previous administrative liability, the Court finds the fine of P40,000.00, as recommended by the OCA, too lenient. Therefore, the Court hereby forfeits all of her benefits, excluding her accrued leave credits, and perpetually disqualifies her from being re-employed in any government agency or instrumentality, including government-owned and controlled corporations or government financial institutions,[32] without prejudice to the filing of appropriate civil and criminal cases against her.

As for Surtida, the Court, in Manaog v. Rubio and Surtida II,[33] had also previously reprimanded him for conduct unbecoming of an employee of the court after he joined Rubio in verbally abusing the complainant therein, Christopher Manaog, when the latter tried to secure information with the OCC regarding certain parcels of land which were allegedly transferred to others through fraud. Hence, in view of this and the number and gravity of Surtida's offenses in the present matter, the Court also finds the fine of P20,000.00, as recommended by the OCA, less than commensurate to his infractions. Therefore, he should be, as he is hereby, suspended from service without pay for one (1) year.

Finally, as to Papa, it appears that he has not been previously held administratively liable for any other offense. Nevertheless, the Court also finds the fine of P5,000.00, as recommended by the OCA, too light. Thus, he should be, as he is hereby, suspended from the service without pay for six (6) months and one (1) day.

WHEREFORE, the Court hereby finds respondent Patricia De Leon, former Clerk III, Office of the Clerk of Court, Regional Trial Court, Naga City, GUILTY of Dishonesty, Grave Misconduct, and Insubordination, and would have been DISMISSED from the service, had she not been earlier dropped from the rolls of court employees. Accordingly, all of her benefits, except accrued leave credits, if any, are hereby FORFEITED, WITH PREJUDICE to re-employment or appointment to any public office or employment, including government­ owned or controlled corporations.

The Office of the Court Administrator is hereby DIRECTED TO IMMEDIATELY FILE the appropriate civil and criminal charges against respondent Patricia De Leon.

As to respondent Pelagio Papa, Jr., Sheriff, Office of the Clerk of Court, Regional Trial Court, Naga City, he is hereby found GUILTY of Conduct Prejudicial to the Best Interest of the Service and is hereby SUSPENDED from the service for SIX (6) MONTHS AND ONE (1) DAY WITHOUT PAY, with a STERN WARNING that a repetition of the same or similar offense in the future shall be dealt with more severely.

As regards respondent Edgar Surtida II, Sheriff IV, Regional Trial Court, Branch 25, Naga City, he is hereby found GUILTY of Conduct Prejudicial to the Best Interest of the Service and Insubordination, and is hereby SUSPENDED from the service for ONE (1) YEAR WITHOUT PAY, with a STERN WARNING that a repetition of the same or similar offense in the future shall be dealt with more severely.

Finally, the Court reiterates that this case as against respondent Edgar Hufancia, Sheriff, Regional Trial Court, Branch 21, Naga City, is hereby DISMISSED in view of his death.

This Decision is IMMEDIATELY EXECUTORY.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio (Senior Associate Justice), Peralta, Bersamin, Perlas-Bernabe, Leonen, Jardeleza, Caguioa, Tijam, Reyes, Jr., and Hernando, JJ., concur.
Del Castillo, Gesmundo, and J. Reyes, Jr., JJ., on official leave.



NOTICE OF JUDGMENT

Sirs/Mesdames:

Please take notice that on November 6, 2018 a Decision, copy attached herewith, was rendered by the Supreme Court in the above-entitled administrative matter, the original of which was received by this Office on January 18, 2019 at 3:00 p.m.


Very truly yours,



(SGD)

EDGAR O. ARICHETA
 
Clerk of Court


Appears as Sheriff IV in some parts of the records.

•• Also referred to as Edgar Surtida II some parts of the records.

[1] Docketed as A.M. No. P-12-3063 (Formerly A.M. OCA IPI No. 09-3082-P), 722 Phil. 77 (2013).

[2] Rollo, p. 1.

[3] See Olivan v. Rubio, supra note 1, at 80.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 80-81.

[6] Id. at 81-82.

[7] See Memorandum of Judge Contreras dated December 5, 2010, p. 1; rollo, p. 1. Please note that no copy of the said Resolution was attached to the records.

[8] See 0livan v. Rubio, supra note 1, at 84; rollo, p. 13.

[9] Rollo, pp. 1-15.

[10] Id. at 13-14.

[11] Id. at 18-24.

[12] Id. at 47-48.

[13] Dated August 17, 2012; id. at 28-32.

[14] Rollo, pp. 33-37.

[15] Id. at 30-31, 38-39.

[16] See Hufancia's Comment dated August 14, 2012; id. at 41-46.

[17] Rollo, pp. 87-100.

[18] See id. at 91. Please note that no copy of the Court's Resolution on the matter of De Leon's dropping from the rolls was attached to the records.

[19] See id. at 92-93.

[20] See id. at 91, 93-96.

[21] Id. at 96-98.

[22] See id. at 98-99.

[23] Id. at 115-119.

[24] Zarate-Fernandez v. Lovendino, A.M. No. P-16-3530 (Formerly A.M. No. 16-08-306-RTC), March 6, 2018, p. 6 and Tolentino-Genilo v. Pineda, A.M. No. P-17-3756 (Formerly OCA I.P.I. No. 16-4634-P), October 10, 2017, p. 5, both citing Office of the Court Administrator v. Acampado, 721 Phil. 12, 30 (2013).

[25] Office of the Court Administrator v. Umblas, A.M. No. P-09-2649 (Formerly A.M. No. 09-5-219- RTC), August 1, 2017, 833 SCRA 502, 510.

[26] Zarate-Fernandez v. Lovendino, supra note 24.

[27] Id. at 6-7.

[28] See id. at 8; Balloguing v. Dagan, A.M. No. P-17-3645 (Formerly OCA IPI No. 15-4415-P), January 30, 2018, p. 7.

[29] Villahermosa, Sr. v. Sarcia, 726 Phil. 408, 415 (2014).

[30] See Cabauatan v. Uvero, A.M. No. P-15-3329 (Formerly OCA I.P.I. No. 13-4165-P), November 6, 2017, p. 6; Gubatanga v. Bodoy, 785 Phil. 30, 37 (2016).

[31] 447 Phil. 457 (2003).

[32] See Perez v. Roxas, A.M. No. P-16-3595 (formerly OCA I.P.I. No. 15-4446-P), June 26, 2018, pp. 8-9; Noces-De Leon v. Florendo, 781 Phil. 334, 340-341 (2016).

[33] 598 Phil. 491 (2009).

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