664 Phil. 253

THIRD DIVISION

[ A.M. No. P-05-1970 (Formerly A.M.OCA I.P.I. No. 04-1962-P), May 30, 2011 ]

AN ANONYMOUS COMPLAINT AGAINST ATTY. PORTIA DIESTA, BRANCH CLERK OF COURT, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, BRANCH 263, PASIG CITY AND LUZ SANTOS-TACLA, CLERK III, SAME COURT.

R E S O L U T I O N

BRION, J.:

We resolve in this Resolution the complaint against Atty. Portia Flores-Diesta, Branch Clerk of Court, and Luz Santos-Tacla, Clerk III, of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 263 (Branch 263), Pasig City.

Background Facts


On April 20, 2004, the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) received an undated anonymous letter complaint[1] against Atty. Diesta and Tacla alleging dishonesty, conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service, and violation of Republic Act No. 3019 (the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act).

In the letter, the anonymous writer charged Atty. Diesta of not reporting for work on time, of collecting commissioner's fees for ex parte hearings, of not subjecting to raffle the publication of cases and judicial notices, and of illegally practicing law by appearing in court for his practitioner-father. Tacla, on the other hand, was charged of being tardy and being frequently absent, of falsifying her entry in the attendance logbook and on her daily time record, and of acting as "runner" for Atty. Diesta. The supporting documents were attached to the letter-complaint.

The OCA required Atty. Diesta and Tacla to comment on this letter.[2] Atty. Diesta filed her comment on August 9, 2004,[3] while Tacla filed her comment on August 10, 2004.[4] Both Atty. Diesta and Tacla denied the allegations.

The OCA, after a review of the respondents' comments and the result of its discreet investigation, recommended that the case be redocketed as a regular administrative matter and referred the case to the Executive Judge of the Pasig City RTC for investigation, report and recommendation. On January 31, 2005, the Court issued a Resolution adopting the OCA recommendation.[5]

Pasig City RTC Executive Judge Edwin A. Villasor conducted several hearings. He summoned the two respondents, the staff of Branch 263, and Atty. Jaime del Rosario who was alleged to have been asked by Atty. Diesta for a commissioner's fee. The two respondents (represented by their lawyers) and the court staff testified before Judge Villasor and were duly cross-examined. Atty. Del Rosario failed to appear.

In his October 19, 2005 exhaustive report to the OCA,[6] Judge Villasor summarized the allegations against Atty. Diesta, as follows:

(1) always late in reporting for work, left the office early, and could not complete the whole week without being absent;
(2) tolerated the infractions of the Clerk In-Charge of Criminal Cases who was allegedly the "runner" when there were transactions concerning bonds and publications;
(3) publication of cases or judicial notices were not raffled, but, instead, were assigned to "the Courier";
(4) appeared in cases, particularly in Quezon City and in San Mateo, Rizal, for her practitioner-father; and
(5) asked for a commissioner's fee according to a Private Practitioner, Atty. del Rosario.

Judge Villasor reported that Atty. Diesta lost the attendance logbook of Branch 263 covering the dates relevant to the charges against her and Tacla, that she asked for a commissioner's fee from Atty. Del Rosario, and that she was amenable to receiving "token" amounts from lawyers.

He summarized the allegations against Tacla as follows:

(1) that she was the "runner" of the Branch Clerk of Court when there were transactions concerning bonds and publications entered into by the former;
(2) that her name did not appear in the attendance logbook, which meant that she did not report for work, but her DTR showed that she reported for work on the days concerned; and
(3) that in the entry of September 2, 2003, she cheated on her time.

He found that Tacla falsified her entries in the attendance logbook.

Since the complaint was the first one for both Atty. Diesta and Tacla, Judge Villasor recommended that Atty. Diesta be reprimanded and admonished to exercise care in securing the attendance logbook and in performing her other official duties, and that Tacla be warned to be more careful in making entries in the official attendance logbook.

The OCA Report/Recommendation

The OCA submitted its Report, dated February 10, 2006,[7] with the following findings:

Atty. Diesta denied that she was late or absent and alleged that she did not record her time of arrival to or departure from the office because she was not required to do so. She admitted that the attendance logbook of Branch 263 for the period of September 2003 to September 2004 is missing. She admitted that she had custody of the logbook and that she kept it in the filing cabinet behind her desk; it remained missing despite efforts to find it. The OCA found that the loss of the attendance logbook while in Atty. Diesta's custody was an indication that she was careless in her duty to keep it safe.

The OCA noted the statement of Lourdes Puzon, Clerk III in charge of civil cases. Ms. Puzon claimed that when there was a need for publication, she prepared an order for signature by the pairing judge of Branch 263 and after the order was signed, she submitted it to Atty. Diesta. Ms. Puzon claimed that after her submission of the signed order, she had no more knowledge on how the publication was done. Atty. Diesta contradicted this claim and maintained that after she received, the signed order with the record of cases for publication, she gave it to the clerk-in-charge. She then presumed that the clerk would forward it to the Office of the Clerk of Court. According to the OCA, Atty. Diesta had the responsibility and duty as branch clerk of court to furnish the Office of the Clerk of Court with a copy of the signed order, citing Sections 10 and 11 of A.M. No. 01-1-07-SC.[8] The OCA also verified the records of the Office of the Clerk of Court and found that Branch 263 had not submitted for raffle any judicial notice or announcement for publication. The OCA found that Atty. Diesta violated A.M. No. 01-1-07-SC.

The OCA also stated that Ms. Puzon confirmed Atty. Del Rosario's manifestation before Judge Isagani Geronimo of Branch 263 that Atty. Del Rosario asked that the case be heard before the court, although it was set for ex parte hearing, because Atty. Diesta was charging him an amount that he could not justify to his client. This incident was corroborated by Julie Ann Berosil, former court interpreter of Branch 263.[10]  An OCA investigator who interviewed Atty. Del Rosario also confirmed that the latter offered to pay Atty. Diesta Pi,500.00 instead of the P3,500.00 that she was asking for.[11] Atty. Diesta, on the other hand, asserted that the matter involving Atty. Del Rosario was an isolated one and had already been resolved.

On the alleged "token" voluntarily given by lawyers, Atty. Diesta admitted in her July 18, 2005 comment that "In fact, when lawyers ask about the 'commissioner's fee,'" they are simply told that [its] collection x x x is prohibited. Even the stenographers concerned have repeatedly stressed this information to the lawyers. It cannot be denied though that there are lawyers who insist that it is but a 'token' and that they have set aside a budget for the same. In these instances, the matter is left to the discretion of the lawyer concerned. But, whatever amount is handed out, it is strictly VOLUNTARILY given and in no way was anyone ever forced, coerced or intimidated to make payments in exchange for the reception of their evidence."[12] The OCA, finding these statements disturbing, said: "As frontliners in the administration and dispensation of justice, respondent Diesta is duty bound to uphold the integrity of the court. She should avoid the practice of accepting or tolerating such tokens, as it will deteriorate (sic) the entire judiciary's integrity."[13]

On the matter of Tacla's alleged cheating on her time record, the OCA reported Tacla's claim that she did not intend to cheat on her entries in the attendance logbook and that her watch stopped causing her to indicate the wrong time of her arrival on September 2, 2003.[14] She also maintained that she was not gallivanting during the times she was out of the office but was actually doing official work. She also denied that she was Atty. Diesta's "runner." The OCA found that Tacla's explanation that she was out on official business when her name did not appear in the attendance logbook was a disregard of the directive to faithfully accomplish the attendance logbook.

According to the OCA, public servants must at all times exhibit the highest sense of honesty and integrity, and their conduct must be above suspicion and characterized by propriety and decorum. The OCA recommended that Atty. Diesta and Tacla be reprimanded, with a stern warning that a commission of similar acts in the future shall be dealt with more severely.

The Court's Ruling

Ample evidence is on record to support the OCA's finding of Atty. Diesta and Tacla's culpability.

On the charges against Atty. Diesta, we note the affidavit of Lourdes Puzon:[15]

5. With respect to the allegations of a certain Atty. Jaime Del Rosario, I, together with the interpreter Julie Ann Berosil and two (2) Stenographers, Ms. Erlinda Verga and Fannie Magtibay were present. During the hearing wherein Atty. Del Rosario appeared as counsel for a certain civil case, he manifested before Hon. Judge Isagani A. Geronimo that his case is set for ex-parte presentation before the Branch Clerk of Court but he wanted his case to be heard before the Court because according to him, Atty. Diesta was charging him for a substantial amount.

Atty. Diesta also admitted that the attendance logbook was missing and that she had the duty as Branch Clerk of Court to keep it in her custody.[16] The Joint Manifestation[17] of seven (7) members of the court staff reads:

We, Loralei R. Victoria, Erlinda M. Verga. Fannie A. Magtibay, Lourdes Soriano, Sherwin Sansano, Alfonso Pe Benito, Jr., and Sotero Matias, all of legal ages and staff members of Branch 263, Regional Trial Court, Pasig City, jointly manifest to the Honorable Court that:

(1) All logbooks containing entries of our arrival in and departure from the office are being kept in the filing cabinet of our office;
(2) When the "anonymous complaint" was received by our Branch Clerk of Court sometime in July 2004, she asked for the logbook containing the entries pertinent to the complaint. However, the said logbook was not in the filing cabinet anymore;
(3) Despite efforts to locate the logbook, the same could no longer be found.

We are executing this joint manifestation for the information of the Honorable Court.

There is also sufficient evidence to support the charges that Atty. Diesta asked for commissioner's fee from Atty. Del Rosario and that the publications of judicial notices in Branch 263 were not submitted for raffle.

Tacla's logbook entries for September 1, 8, 16, 22 and 29, 2003,[18] and the entries on her daily time record for the month of September 2003[19] were markedly different. The deviations were noted by an OCA investigator who checked the records of the OCA Leave Division.[20]

The Revised Manual for Clerks of Court provides:

1.2
Attendance Records (Memo, Circular No. 4, June 15, 1973)
1.2.1.
Registry Book -Each Court shall provide itself with a registry hook with which to indicate the time in coming to and leaving the office of its personnel.
1.2.2
Daily Time Record (CS Form 48) - In addition, each personnel must be required to accomplish CS Form 48. The time appearing in Form 48 should tally with the time recorded in the registry book.
Clerks of Court are not required to keep daily time records of their attendance, in lieu thereof, the said officials are required to submit a certification of service within the period under pain of having their salaries withheld (Ruling of the Commissioner of Civil Service, 1st Indorsement, November 7, 1970, re: proper interpretation of Civil Service Rule XV, Sec. 4.)
1.2.3.
The Clerks of Court are held responsible for the custody and reliability of the time recorded in the registry book. These daily time records (Form 48) must be duly certified by the Judge or the Clerk of Court before they are sent to the proper authorities. (Underlining supplied)

Section 23, Rule XIV of the Omnibus Rules Implementing Book V of Executive Order No. 292[21] provides that administrative offenses are classified into grave, less grave and light, depending on the gravity of the nature of the act complained of. The less grave offenses of simple neglect of duty and of simple misconduct carry the penalty of suspension for one (1) month and one (1) day to six (6) months for the first offense.

We agree with the OCA finding that both Atty. Diesta and Tacla are guilty of the charges against them. However, we do not agree with the OCA recommendation that Atty. Diesta and Tacla be only reprimanded with stem warning that commission of similar acts in the nature shall be dealt with more severely. Both are guilty of less grave offenses and must be meted the corresponding penalties. Atty. Diesta is guilty of simple neglect of duty for losing the attendance logbook and is also guilty of simple misconduct for asking for commissioner's fee and for failing to have the publication of official notices raffled. She should be suspended for three (3) months. In view of Atty. Diesta's resignation on March 9, 2010, the penalty of suspension can no longer be imposed. In lieu of this penalty, she is fined the amount of Twenty Thousand Pesos (P20,000.00), to be deducted from whatever amount is due her as a result of her separation from the service.

With respect to Tacla, she is found guilty of simple misconduct for not faithfully accomplishing her daily time record and is suspended for one (1) month and one (1) day.

WHEREFORE, premises considered, Atty. Portia Diesta is found guilty of simple neglect of duty and simple misconduct and is FINED the amount of Twenty Thousand (P20,000.00), to be deducted from whatever amount is due her as a result of her separation from the service. Luz Santos-Tacla, Clerk III, of Pasig RTC, Branch 263, is found guilty of simple misconduct, and is SUSPENDED for one (1) month and one day with a STERN WARNING that commission of the same or similar acts in the future shall be dealt with more severely.

SO ORDERED.

Carpio Morales, (Chairperson), Bersamin, Villarama, Jr., and Sereno, JJ., concur.



[1] Rollo, pp. 6-9.

[2] Id. at 33-34.

[3] Id. 35-41.

[4] Id. at 81-84.

[5] Id. at 91.

[6] Id. at 557-586.

[7] Id. at 595-600.

[8] "Guidelines in the accreditation of newspapers and periodicals seeking to publish judicial and legal notices and other similar announcements and in the raffle thereof." Section 10 provides: "All notices, announcements and advertisements x x x shall be distributed for publication to accredited newspapers or periodicals by raffle. No such notices, announcements and advertisements may be assigned for publication without being raffled." Section 11 provides: "Orders issued by judges in cases that require publication of any notice or notices shall include a directive to the Branch Clerk of Court instructing the latter to furnish the Office of the Clerk of Court with a copy of the order so that such notice may be published in accordance with the provisions of P.D. No. 1079."

[9] Rollo, p. 89.

[10] Id. at 481-483.

[11] Id. at 89.

[12] Id. at 117.

[13] Id. at 599.

[14] Id. at 20.

[15] Id. at 145-146.

[16] Id. at 500-503.

[17] Id. at 339.

[18] Id. at 10, 13, 15, 18, and 20.

[19] Id. at 29.

[20] Id. at 89.

[21] Sec. 23. Administrative offenses with its (sic) corresponding penalties are classified into grave, less grave, and light, depending on the gravity of its (sic) nature and effect of said acts on the government service.

xxx

The following are less grave offenses with its (sic) corresponding penalties:

(a) Simple Neglect of Duty
1st Offense - Suspension for one (1) month and one (1) day to six (6) months. . .
(b) Simple Misconduct
1st Offense - Suspension for one (1) month and one (1) day to six (6) months. . .



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