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SECOND DIVISION

[ A.C. No. 9422, November 19, 2018 ]

ATTY. FLORANTE S. LEGASPI, COMPLAINANT, V. ATTY. EL CID C. FAJARDO, RESPONDENT.

D E C I S I O N

PERLAS-BERNABE, J.:

For the Court's resolution is an administrative complaint[1] dated February 29, 2012 filed before the Court by complainant Atty. Florante S. Legaspi (complainant) against respondent Atty. El Cid C. Fajardo (respondent) praying that the latter be administratively sanctioned for his alleged acts constituting conflict of interest.

The Facts

Complainant alleged that on July 31, 2008, he, on behalf of his client, Cristina Gabriel (Gabriel), initiated the case entitled "Cristina Gabriel v. [Jannet][2] Malino, Carl Blum Blomary[3] and the Register of Deeds of Oriental Mindoro,"[4] docketed as Civil Case No. CV-08-5950 before the Regional Trial Court of Calapan City, Oriental Mindoro, Branch 40 (RTC). On December 10, 2010, the RTC issued a Decision[5] on the basis of a Compromise Agreement[6] signed by both parties.[7]

Notably, a day before the issuance of such Decision, or on December 9, 2010, respondent filed a formal entry of appearance[8] stating that he was acting as collaborating counsel for one of the defendants, Jannet Malino (Malino). More than a month later, or on January 18, 2011, respondent filed with the RTC the following: (a) a Special Power of Attorney[9] purportedly executed by Gabriel appointing him as her attorney-in-fact; and (b) an Ex-Parte Plaintiffs Motion to Dismiss[10] where he affixed his signature as Gabriel's attorney-in-fact.[11] Thereafter, respondent, purportedly on behalf of Gabriel, filed an undated notice[12] terminating complainant's services as counsel due to loss of trust and confidence. Complainant then opposed the Ex-Parte Plaintiffs Motion to Dismiss, as well as the said notice, contending that: there was no prior advice from Gabriel; the reasons presented in the motion to dismiss had no legal and factual bases; the RTC ruling on the case had already become final and executory; and Gabriel had yet to satisfy his legal fees although she already obtained a favorable judgment with the help of complainant.[13] In the Orders dated February 3, 2011[14] and February 18, 2011,[15] the RTC ruled in favor of complainant, holding that the pleadings and motions purportedly filed by respondent on behalf of Gabriel were irregular, and in any case, must be denied for being moot and academic in view of its ruling which had long become final and executory.[16]

In view of the foregoing, complainant filed the instant complaint accusing respondent of representing conflicting interests by appearing as collaborating counsel for Malino, and thereafter, acting as attorney-in-fact for Gabriel.[17]

In his defense,[18] while respondent admitted to complainant's narration of facts, he nevertheless maintained, inter alia, that his acts do not amount to representing conflicting interests, as his being Gabriel's attorney-in-fact, by filing pleadings on her behalf and furnishing copies thereof to complainant, were simply clerical in nature, and thus, did not amount to acting as a lawyer/counsel for Gabriel.[19]

In a Resolution[20] dated December 5, 2012, the Court referred the matter to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) for its investigation, report, and recommendation.

The IBP's Report and Recommendation

In a Report and Recommendation[21] dated January 4, 2014, the Investigating Commissioner found respondent administratively liable, and accordingly, recommended that he be suspended from the practice of law for a period of six (6) months for violating the principle of conflict of interest under Rules 15.01 and 15.03, Canon 15 of the Code of Professional Responsibility (CPR).[22]

The Investigating Commissioner found that respondent's acceptance of Gabriel's appointment as her attorney-in-fact in Civil Case No. CV-08-5950, while at the same time acting as collaborating counsel for Malino in the same case, is clearly a conflict of interest. It was ratiocinated that even assuming arguendo that respondent's functions as Gabriel's attorney-in-fact were merely clerical in nature, it is nevertheless undeniable that he placed himself in a. situation where he could easily manipulate one side to gain an advantage for the other. In this regard, the Investigating Commissioner even pointed out that respondent himself admitted that he accepted Gabriel's appointment as her attorney-in-fact as it was advantageous to Malino.[23]

In a Resolution[24] dated June 5, 2015, the IBP Board of Governors adopted the Investigating Commissioner's report and recommendation, with modification increasing the recommended period of suspension to one (1) year. Respondent moved for reconsideration[25] but the same was denied in a Resolution[26] dated November 28, 2017. Consequently, the assailed Resolution, together with the entire records, was elevated to the Court for final action.[27] Albeit unnecessary, respondent filed a petition for review on certiorari[28] before the Court.[29]

The Issue Before the Court

The essential issue in this case is whether or not respondent should be administratively sanctioned for the acts complained of.

The Court's Ruling

The Court adopts the findings and recommendations of the Investigating Commissioner, as modified by the IBP Board of Governors.

The relationship between a lawyer and his/her client should ideally be imbued with the highest level of trust and confidence. This is the standard of confidentiality that must prevail to promote a full disclosure of the client's most confidential information to his/her lawyer for an unhampered exchange of information between them. Needless to state, a client can only entrust confidential information to his/her lawyer based on an expectation from the lawyer of utmost secrecy and discretion; the lawyer, for his part, is duty-bound to observe candor, fairness and loyalty in all dealings and transactions with the client.[30] In this regard, Rules 15.01 and 15.03, Canon 15 of the CPR, respectively state:

CANON 15 – A lawyer shall observe candor, fairness and loyalty in all his dealings and transactions with his clients

Rule 15.01 – A lawyer, in conferring with a prospective client, shall ascertain as soon as practicable whether the matter would involve a conflict with another client or his own interest, and if so, shall forthwith inform the prospective client.

x x x x

Rule 15.03 – A lawyer shall not represent conflicting interests except by written consent of all concerned given after a full disclosure of the facts.

An attorney owes his client undivided allegiance. Because of the highly fiduciary nature of their relationship, sound public policy dictates that he be prohibited from representing conflicting interests or discharging inconsistent duties. An attorney may not, without being guilty of professional misconduct, act as counsel for a person whose interest conflicts with that of his present or former client. This rule is so absolute that good faith and honest intention on the erring lawyer's part do not make it inoperative. The reason for this is that a lawyer acquires knowledge of his former client's doings, whether documented or not, that he would ordinarily not have acquired were it not for the trust and confidence that his client placed on him in the light of their relationship. It would simply be impossible for the lawyer to identify and erase such entrusted knowledge with faultless precision or lock the same into an iron box when suing the former client on behalf of a new one.[31] In other words, a lawyer is prohibited from representing new clients whose interests oppose those of a former client in any manner, whether or not they are parties in the same action or on totally unrelated cases. The prohibition is founded on the principles of public policy and good taste.[32]

In Hornilla v. Salunat,[33] the Court laid down the parameters in determining the presence of conflict of interest, to wit:

There is conflict of interest when a lawyer represents inconsistent interests of two or more opposing parties. The test is "whether or not in behalf of one client, it is the lawyer's duty to fight for an issue or claim, but it is his duty to oppose it for the other client. In brief, if he argues for one client, this argument will be opposed by him when he argues for the other client." This rule covers not only cases in which confidential communications have been confided, but also those in which no confidence has been bestowed or will be used. Also, there is conflict of interests if the acceptance of the new retainer will require the attorney to perform an act which will injuriously affect his first client in any matter in which he represents him and also whether he will be called upon in his new relation to use against his first client any knowledge acquired through their connection. Another test of the inconsistency of interests is whether the acceptance of a new relation will prevent an attorney from the full discharge of his duty of undivided fidelity and loyalty to his client or invite suspicion of unfaithfulness or double dealing in the performance thereof.[34] (Emphases and underscoring supplied)

In this case, it is clear that respondent indeed violated the rule on conflict of interest when he entered his appearance for defendant Malino in Civil Case No. CV-08-5950, and thereafter, accepted his appointment as attorney-in-fact for Gabriel, who was the plaintiff in the same case, and even submitted pleadings and motions on Gabriel's behalf therein. As aptly remarked by the Investigating Commissioner, "it is undeniable that [respondent] placed himself in a situation where he could as easily manipulate one side to gain an advantage for the other."[35] Jurisprudence provides that "it behooves attorneys, like Caesar's wife, not only to keep inviolate the client's confidence, but also to avoid the appearance of treachery and double-dealing. Only thus can litigants be encouraged to entrust their secrets to their attorneys which is of paramount importance in the administration of justice."[36] Thus, even if respondent's intentions in accepting Gabriel's designation as attorney-in-fact were honest and in good faith, the fact remains that his actions constitute representing conflicting interests, for which he must be administratively sanctioned.

Anent the proper penalty to be imposed on respondent, case law in Aniñon v. Sabitsana, Jr.[37] and Santos Ventura Horcoma Foundation, Inc. v. Funk[38] similarly instructs that in instances where an erring lawyer represents conflicting interests, he/she is meted the penalty of suspension from the practice of law for a period of one (1) year. Thus, the Court finds it appropriate to impose upon respondent such penalty, as recommended by the IBP Board of Governors.

WHEREFORE, respondent Atty. El Cid C. Fajardo is found guilty of violating Rules 15.01 and 15.03, Canon 15 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Accordingly, he is hereby SUSPENDED from the practice of law for a period of one (1) year, effective immediately upon his receipt of this Decision. He is STERNLY WARNED that a repetition of the same or similar acts will be dealt with more severely.

Further, he is DIRECTED to report to this Court the date of his receipt of this Decision to enable it to determine when his suspension from the practice of law shall take effect.

Let copies of this Decision be furnished to the Office of the Bar Confidant to be appended to respondent's personal record as an attorney, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for its information and guidance, the Office of the Court Administrator for circulation to all courts in the country.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio (Chairperson), Caguioa, A. Reyes, Jr., and J. Reyes, Jr.,[*] JJ., concur.


[*] Designated Additional Member per Special Order No. 2587 dated August 28, 2018.

[1] Rollo, pp. 3-12.

[2] "Janneth," "Janeth," or "Janet" in some parts of the rollo.

[3] "Blomarv" or "Blumarv" in some parts of the rollo.

[4] See Complaint dated July 28, 2008; rollo, pp. 15-20.

[5] Id. at 40-44. Penned by Judge Tomas C. Leynes.

[6] Dated December 4, 2009. Id. at 175-177.

[7] See id. at 4-5 and 387-388.

[8] See Formal Entry of Appearance as Collaborating Counsel for Defendant Janneth Malino; id. at 45-46.

[9] Dated December 1, 2010. Id. at 47.

[10] Dated December 22, 2010. Id. at 48-49.

[11] See id. at 5-6 and 388-389.

[12] See Notice of Termination of Counsel and Revocation of the Special Power of Attorney Granted by Plaintiff to Cita Barquilla filed on January 18, 2011; id. at 50-51.

[13] See id. at 6-7 and 389-390.

[14] Id. at 52-54.

[15] Id. at 55-61.

[16] See id. at 53-54 and 59-61.

[17] See id. at 7-9 and 390.

[18] See Comment dated September 20, 2012; id. at 127-133.

[19] See id. at 128-129 and 390-393.

[20] Id. at 222-223.

[21] Id. at 386-396. Signed by Commissioner Romualdo A. Din, Jr.

[22] Id. at 396.

[23] See id. at 393-396.

[24] See Notice of Resolution in Resolution No. XXI-2015-382 issued by National Secretary Nasser A. Marohomsalic; id. at 385, including dorsal portion.

[25] See Verified Motion for Reconsideration dated November 9, 2015; id. at 413-433.

[26] See Notice of Resolution in CBD Case No. 13-3756 issued by National Secretary Patricia-Ann T. Prodigalidad; id. at 441-442.

[27] See id. at 457-458.

[28] Dated September 6, 2018. Id. at 457-466.

[29] In Bar Matter No. 1645 dated June 17, 2008, entitled "RE: CLARIFICATION ON RULES OF PROCEDURE OF THE COMMISSION ON BAR DISCIPLINE," the Court resolved, among others, that:

In case a decision is rendered by the BOG that exonerates the respondent or imposes a sanction less than suspension or disbarment, the aggrieved party can file a motion for reconsideration within the 15-day period from notice. If the motion is denied, said party can file a petition for a review under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court with this Court within fifteen (15) days from notice of the resolution resolving the motion. If no motion for reconsideration is filed, the decision shall become final and executory and a copy of said decision shall be furnished this Court.

If the imposable penalty is suspension from the practice of law or disbarment, the BOG shall issue a resolution setting forth its findings and recommendations. The aggrieved party can file a motion for reconsideration of said resolution with the BOG within fifteen (15) days from notice. The BOG shall first resolve the incident and shall thereafter elevate the assailed resolution with the entire case records to this Court for final action. If the 15-day period lapses without any motion for reconsideration having been filed, then the BOG shall likewise transmit to this Court the resolution with the entire case records for appropriate action.

Note, however, in Bar Matter No. 1645 dated October 13, 2015, entitled "RE: AMENDMENT OF RULE 139-B," Section 12 of Rule 139-B of the Rules of Court was amended to read as follows:

Section 12. Review and Recommendation by the Board of Governors. —

a)
Every case heard by an investigator shall be reviewed by the IBP Board of Governors upon the record and evidence transmitted to it by the Investigator with his report.


b)
After its review, the Board, by the vote of a majority of its total membership, shall recommend to the Supreme Court the dismissal of the complaint or the imposition of disciplinary action against the respondent. The Board shall issue a resolution setting forth its findings and the reasons on which it is based. The resolution shall be issued within a period not exceeding thirty (30) days from the next meeting of the Board following the submission of the Investigator's report.


c)
The Board's resolution, together with the entire records and all evidence presented and submitted, shall be transmitted to the Supreme Court for final action within ten (10) days from issuance of the resolution.


d)
Notice of the resolution of the Board shall be given to all parties through their counsel, if any.

[30] Aniñon v. Sabitsana, Jr., 685 Phil. 322, 326 (2012).

[31] Santos Ventura Horcoma Foundation, Inc. v. Funk, 692 Phil. 502, 506 (2012).

[32] Anglo v. Valencia, 755 Phil. 1, 8-10 (2015), citing Quiambao v. Bamba, 505 Phil. 126, 133 (2005).

[33] 453 Phil. 108 (2003).

[34] Id. at 111-112.

[35] Rollo, p. 396.

[36] Catalan, Jr. v. Silvosa, 691 Phil. 572, 579 (2012).

[37] Supra note 30, at 331.

[38] Supra note 31, at 507.

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