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401 Phil. 604

FIRST DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 138518, December 15, 2000 ]

MARCELINA GACUTANA-FRAILE, PETITIONER, VS. ANGEL T. DOMINGO, BENJAMIN T. DOMINGO, ATTY. JORGE PASCUA AND THE PRESIDING JUDGE, RTC BRANCH 33, GUIMBA, NUEVA ECIJA, RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

PUNO, J.:

Does a lawyer's bungling of a case amount to extrinsic fraud sufficient to annul judgment?

The case at bar is a petition for review of the Court of Appeals resolutions dated March 10, 1999 and April 29, 1999 denying petitioner Fraile's petition for annulment of judgment[1] rendered by the respondent judge of Branch 33, Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Guimba, Nueva Ecija.

The dispute over the ownership of a parcel of land in Triala, Guimba, Nueva Ecija measuring 15 hectares, 2 ares and 39 centares spurred the present controversy.

The facts show that on March 29, 1996, petitioner Fraile filed a civil case for Quieting of Title and Damages against private respondents Angel T. Domingo and Benjamin T. Domingo, involving three parcels of land registered in her name under Transfer Certificates of Title (TCT) Nos. NT-229541, NT-229542 and NT-229543 of the Registry of Deeds of Nueva Ecija.  The case was raffled to Branch 33 of the RTC of Guimba, Nueva Ecija and docketed as Civil Case No. 879-G.  On August 11, 1997, while Case No. 879-G was pending, the private respondents Domingos also filed a case for Quieting of Title against petititioner Fraile involving the same parcels of land.  The latter case was also assigned to the respondent judge and docketed as Civil Case No. 955-G.

Petitioner Fraile hired private respondent Atty. Jorge Pascua as counsel for both Civil Cases Nos. 879-G and 955-G.  On September 1, 1997, Atty. Pascua filed a Motion to Dismiss Civil Case No. 955-G not on the ground of the pendency of Civil Case No. 879-G involving the same parties, subject matter and issues, but because of a decision earlier rendered by the RTC of Guimba, Nueva Ecija, reconstituting Fraile's titles over the subject parcels of land.  Respondent judge deferred ruling on the motion and instead ordered the joint hearing of the cases.  During the pre-trial conference, Atty. Pascua prevailed upon the petitioner Fraile to withdraw her Motion to Dismiss Civil Case No. 955-G as it would only delay the resolution of the case.

During the joint hearings, Atty. Pascua agreed to a continuous trial and the hearings for both cases were finished within four days, or from February 16, 1998 to February 19, 1998.  Atty. Pascua also allowed the private respondent Domingos to present their evidence ahead of the petitioner even if Fraile filed her case before the Domingos filed theirs.

Subsequently, on June 2, 1998, the respondent judge rendered a decision in favor of the Domingos.[2] Atty. Pascua received a copy of the decision and on the last day for filing an appeal, filed a Notice of Appeal and Motion for Reconsideration of the adverse decision.  In an Order dated July 23, 1998, respondent judge dismissed the Notice of Appeal and denied the Motion for Reconsideration for lack of proof of service to the adverse party and written explanation why service or filing thereof was not done personally, in violation of Rule 13 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure.[3] The pleadings likewise lacked a notice of hearing. The Notice of Appeal also failed to comply with Sec. 5, Rule 41 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure because it failed to specify the court to which the appeal was being taken.[4] Docketing fees were also not seasonably paid upon filing of the Notice of Appeal.[5] On August 8, 1998, Atty. Pascua filed another Motion for Reconsideration, but the motion was again denied for the same formal infirmities of the first Motion for Reconsideration.

As Atty. Pascua did not challenge the Orders dated July 23, 1998 and August 8, 1998, the trial court issued on October 15, 1998 a Writ of Execution of the June 2, 1998 decision.  Consequently, petitioner Fraile's TCT's over the subject parcels of land were cancelled by the Register of Deeds of Nueva Ecija.  Appalled by  the outcome of her cases, Fraile hired another lawyer, Atty. Renato M. Esguerra, and subsequently filed with the Court of Appeals a petition for annulment of the June 2, 1998 judgment citing the procedural lapses allegedly amounting to extrinsic fraud committed by her previous counsel, Atty. Pascua, viz:[6]

"The manner by which the cases were handled by petitioner's counsel, Atty. Jorge A. Pascua, by not filing a Motion to Dismiss Civil Case No. 955-G despite the pendency of Civil Case No. 879-G involving the same parties and the same subject matter; in filing a motion to dismiss instead based on an unfounded ground which is the reconstitution of petitioner's title which motion was later on withdrawn by petitioner's counsel himself; in consenting for (sic) a joint-trial which only lasted for four (4) days; in allowing private respondents Angel T. Domingo and Benjamin T. Domingo in presenting (sic) their evidence ahead of the petitioner despite the fact that their case was filed later than the case filed by herein petitioner; in filing a defective notice of appeal and defective motions for reconsideration and in not elevating nor advising herein petitioner to elevate said orders to the higher court for review are not MERE negligence on the part of petitioner's counsel but said acts constitute EXTRINSIC FRAUD deliberately done, in connivance with private respondents Angel and Benjamin Domingo, designed to defeat the cause of herein petitioner and to deprive her of her right to due process." (emphasis supplied)[7]

On March 10, 1999, the Court of Appeals dismissed the petition on the ground that the negligence of Atty. Pascua did not constitute extrinsic fraud, the remedy of Petition for Relief was not used in violation of Sec. 2,  Par. 2, Rule 47 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure,[8] and affidavits of witnesses supporting her cause of action were not submitted by petitioner as required by Sec. 4, Rule 47 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure.[9] The petitioner filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the March 10, 1999 resolution, but this was likewise denied for lack of merit in a resolution promulgated on April 29, 1999.  Hence, this petition for review on certiorari assailing the appellate court's March 10, 1999 and April 29, 1999 resolutions with the following assignment of errors:

"I

THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS GRAVELY ERRED IN HOLDING THAT THE ACTS OR OMISSIONS OR PROCEDURAL LAPSES BY ATTY.  JORGE PASCUA IN THE HANDLING OF PETITIONER'S CASE ARE NOT GROSS AND PALPABLE ENOUGH AS TO CONSTITUTE EXTRINSIC FRAUD.

II

THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS GRAVELY ERRED IN RULING THAT THE PETITIONER SHOULD HAVE FIRST AVAILED OF AND FILED A PETITION FOR RELIEF FROM JUDGMENT UNDER RULE 38 OF THE 1997 RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE.

III

THE HONORABLE COURT APPEALS (SIC) GRAVELY ERRED IN NOT CONSIDERING THE VERIFICATION AND EVIDENCE ON RECORD AS SUBSTANTIAL COMPLIANCE WITH SECTION 4 RULE 47 OF THE 1997 RULES OF CIVIL PROCEDURE."[10]

The applicable rule is Rule 47 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure, viz:

"Section 1. Coverage. - This Rule shall govern the annulment by the Court of Appeals of judgments or final orders and resolutions in civil actions of Regional Trial Courts for which the ordinary remedies of new trial, appeal, petition for relief or other appropriate remedies are no longer available through no fault of the petitioner.

Section 2.  Grounds for annulment. - The annulment may be based only on the grounds of extrinsic fraud and lack of jurisdiction.

Extrinsic fraud shall not be a valid ground if it was availed of, or could have been availed of, in a motion for new trial or petition for relief.

xxx

Section 4.  Filing and contents of petition. - The action shall be commenced by filing a verified petition alleging therein with particularity the facts and the law relied upon for annulment, as well as those supporting the petitioner's good and substantial cause of action or defense, as the case may be.

xxx

The petitioner shall also submit together with the petition affidavits of witnesses or documents supporting the cause of action or defense . . . "

Applying the foregoing rule to the case at bar, we find that petitioner Fraile's allegation of extrinsic fraud committed by her former counsel, Atty. Pascua, and the evidence presented in support thereof do not warrant a reversal of the appellate court's March 10, 1999 and April 29, 1999 resolutions.

It is well-settled that "(i)n order for fraud to serve as basis for annulment of a judgment, it must be extrinsic or collateral in character, otherwise there would be no end to litigations. Extrinsic fraud refers to any fraudulent act of the prevailing party which is committed outside the trial of the case, whereby the defeated party has been prevented from exhibiting fully his side of the case, by fraud or deception practised on him by his opponent."[11] Thus, it "refers to some act or conduct of the prevailing party which has prevented the aggrieved party from having a trial or presenting his case to the court, or was used to procure judgment without a fair submission of the controversy." (emphasis supplied)[12] This Court has not just once ruled that the fraud must be committed by the adverse party and not by one's own counsel.[13]

Petitioner's allegation that the acts of Atty. Pascua constitute extrinsic fraud "deliberately done in connivance with private respondents Angel and Benjamin Domingo, designed to defeat the cause of herein petitioner and to deprive her of her right to due process" (emphasis supplied)[14] is merely a conclusion drawn by petitioner Fraile and does not find support in the evidence on record.  To impute negligence on her counsel is one thing, to prove that such negligence was in collusion with the private respondents is another.  We cannot therefore subscribe to petitioner Fraile's contention.

On the other hand, the doctrinal rule is that the negligence of counsel binds the client because otherwise, "there would never be an end to a suit so long as new counsel could be employed who could allege and show that prior counsel had not been sufficiently diligent, or experienced, or learned."[15] We have, however, carved out exceptions to this rule as where the reckless or gross negligence of counsel deprives the client of due process of law, or where the application of the rule will result in outright deprivation of the client's liberty or property or where the interests of justice so require and relief ought to be accorded to the client who suffered by reason of the lawyer's gross or palpable mistake or negligence.[16] What must be determined therefore is whether the instant case falls under the above exceptions.

The Court of Appeals found that while the acts or omissions of Atty. Pascua may have been "indicative of professional lapses, inefficiency, carelessness and negligence," they constituted merely simple negligence and not gross or palpable negligence amounting to extrinsic fraud which would deprive her of her day in court.[17]

We agree.  It is worth noting that while the petitioner's cases were pending before the trial court, Atty. Pascua filed the required pleadings and presented evidence in support of petitioner's cause.  The respondent judge rendered a 15-page decision based on a careful and painstaking scrutiny of the evidence presented by petitioner and private respondents.  Petitioner may have doubted the soundness of certain acts of Atty. Pascua such as withdrawing the motion to dismiss Civil Case No. 955-G in order not to delay the proceedings, allowing the private respondents to present evidence ahead of her, and agreeing to a continuous trial which lasted for four days.  Atty. Pascua's negligence in filing a defective notice of appeal and defective motions for reconsideration and in not elevating nor advising herein petitioner to elevate adverse orders to the higher court for review is undisputed, but it cannot be said that there was "sheer absence of real effort on his part to defend his client's cause" amounting to gross negligence.[18] Nor was petitioner Fraile outrightly deprived of her property as she was given ample opportunity to adduce evidence on her behalf and to meet the evidence of the private respondents.  Absent any showing of irregularity in the proceedings, the continuous hearings which were finished in four days was not improper and was in fact laudable and consistent with the policy of speedy administration of justice. It cannot be gainsaid that the proceedings in the trial court satisfied the requirement that the petitioner be afforded due process of law.[19] The "essence of due process is to be found in the reasonable opportunity to be heard and submit any evidence one may have in support of one's defense. . . Where opportunity to be heard, either through oral arguments or pleadings, is accorded, there is no denial of procedural due process."[20] Petitioner's cause to annul the June 2, 1998 decision of respondent judge is left without a leg to stand on.   The Court of Appeals was therefore correct in denying petitioner Fraile's petition to annul the June 2, 1998 decision.

Anent petitioner's second and third assignment of errors, we find it unnecessary to discuss the same, having ruled that petitioner's allegation of extrinsic fraud as basis for a petition for relief or annulment of judgment has no merit.

A last word.  Apart from the mandate of Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility that "(a) lawyer shall serve his client with competence and diligence," the confidence and trust reposed by the client on his lawyer ought to put him always on his toes in protecting the interests of his client "as a good father of a family would be protective of his own family."[21] This responsibility of the lawyer cannot be overemphasized as ordinary laymen are not expected to be conversant with the intricacies of the law.  A lawyer's failure to live up to these dictates of the canons of the legal profession and of human relations make him answerable to both his profession and his client.  This decision is therefore without prejudice to whatever cause of action petitioner Fraile may have in law against her former counsel, Atty. Pascua.

IN VIEW WHEREOF, the petition is DENIED for lack of merit. The assailed Resolutions of the Court of Appeals are AFFIRMED in toto.  No costs.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., C.J., (Chairman), Kapunan, Pardo, and Ynares-Santiago, JJ., concur.



[1] Rollo, pp. 58-59; Resolution, p. 10.

[2] Rollo, p. 67. The dispositive portion of the Decision dated June 2, 1998 reads:

"WHEREFORE, judgment is hereby rendered in favor of Angel T. Domingo and Benjamin T. Domingo (plaintiffs in Civil Case No. 955-G, defendants in Civil Case No. 879-G) and against Marcelina Gacutana-Fraile (defendant in Civil Case No. 955-G, plaintiff in Civil Case No. 879-G), as follows:

1.  Declaring that the parcel of land described in Transfer Certificate of Title Nos. 835, NT-198264, NT-198265, and NT-198266 (,) Registry of Deeds of Nueva Ecija, is the same as Lot 647 of the Guimba Cadastre;

2.  Upholding the validity of Transfer Certificate of Title No. NT-198266, the title of Angel T. Domingo and Benjamin T. Domingo embracing and covering Lot 647;

3.  Quieting the title and ownership of Angel T. Domingo and Benjamin T. Domingo over Lot 647, embraced and covered by Transfer Certificate of Title No. NT-198266;

4.    Declaring as null and void Original Certificate of Title No. 557 in the name of Antero Esposo and its derivative titles, namely, Transfer Certificate of Title Nos. NT-229541, NT-229542 and NT-229543, Registry of Deeds of Nueva Ecija in the name of Marcelina Gacutana-Fraile and ordering the Register of Deeds of Nueva Ecija to cancel the said titles;

5.  Ordering Marcelina Gacutana-Fraile to pay Angel T. Domingo and Benjamin T. Domingo, the sum of P500,000.00 for moral damages and the sum of P100,000.00 for nominal damages and the sum of P50,000.00 as exemplary damages.

6.  Ordering Marcelina Gacutana-Fraile to pay Angel T. Domingo and Benjamin T. Domingo, the sum of P50,000.00 plus an honorarium of P3,000.00 per trial as and for attorney's fees.

SO ORDERED."

[3]  Rule 13 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure provides:

"xxx

Sec. 4.  Papers required to be filed and served. -- Every judgment, resolution, order, pleading subsequent to the complaint, written motion, notice, appearance, demand, offer of judgment or similar papers shall be filed with the court, and served upon the parties affected.

xxx

Sec. 11.  Priorities in modes of service and filing. -- Whenever practicable, the service and filing of pleadings and other papers shall be done personally.  Except with respect to papers emanating from the court, a resort to other modes must be accompanied by a written explanation why the service or filing was not done personally.  A violation of this Rule may be cause to consider the paper as not filed."

[4] Sec. 5, Rule 41 provides:

"Sec. 5. Notice of appeal. -- The notice of appeal shall indicate the parties to the appeal, specify the judgment or final order or part thereof appealed from, specify the court to which the appeal is being taken, and state the material dates showing the timeliness of the appeal."

[5] Rollo, pp. 23- 24, 82; Petition, pp. 13-14; Sec. 4, Rule 41 provides:

"Sec. 4. Appellate court docket and other lawful fees.  -- Within the period for taking an appeal, the appellant shall pay to the clerk of the court which rendered the judgment or final order appealed from, the full amount of the appellate court docket and other lawful fees.  Proof of payment of said fees shall be transmitted to the appellate court together with the original record or the record on appeal."

[6] Rollo, p. 24; Petition, p. 14.

[7] Rollo, p. 54.

[8] Sec. 2, Rule 47 provides:

"Sec. 2.  Grounds for annulment. --  The annulment may be based only on the grounds of extrinsic fraud and lack of jurisdiction.

Extrinsic fraud shall not be a valid ground if it was availed of or could have been availed of, in a motion for new trial or petition for relief."

[9] Rollo, p. 58; Resolution, p. 10.  Sec. 4, Rule 47 provides in relevant part, viz:

"The petitioner shall also submit together with the petition affidavits of witnesses or documents supporting the cause of action or defense . . ."

[10] Rollo, pp. 19-20; Petition, pp. 9-10.

[11] Salonga, et al. v. Court of Appeals, et al., 269 SCRA 534 (1997), quoting Santos v. Court of Appeals, 224 SCRA 673 (1993).

[12] Id.,  quoting  YbaƱez v. Court of Appeals, 253 SCRA 540 (1996).

[13] See Sanchez v. Tupas, et al., 158 SCRA 459 (1988), citing Velayo v. Shell Company of the Philippines, Ltd., et al., 105 Phil. 1114 (1959).

[14] Rollo, p. 54.

[15] Fernandez v. Tan Tiong Tick, 1 SCRA 1138 (1961), citing De Flores v. Reynolds, Fed. Case No. 3742, 16 Blatch [U.S.] 397, cited in Vivero v. Santos, et al., 98 Phil. 500 (1955).

[16] Apex Mining, Inc., et al. v. Court of Appeals, et al., G.R. No. 133750, November 29, 1999.  See also Alarcon v. Court of Appeals, et al., G.R. No. 126802, January 28, 2000.

[17] Rollo, p. 56; Resolution, p. 8.

[18] Salonga, et al. v. Court of Appeals, et al., 269 SCRA 534 (1997).

[19] Alba v. Nitorreda, 254 SCRA 753 (1996), citing Concerned Officials of the MWSS v. Hon. Ombudsman Conrado Vasquez, 240 SCRA 502.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Pineda, Legal and Judicial Ethics (1995), p. 201.

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