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448 Phil. 469

EN BANC

[ A.M. No. P-02-1545 (Formerly AM-OCA-IPI-99-595-P), April 02, 2003 ]

ZENAIDA C. GUTIERREZ, VERNA V. GALVEZ, EVELYN Z. MERRERA, VILMA L. MELENDEZ, LYDIA A. POLINTAN, RONALDO A. MATABANG, FELIX G. AUSTRIA, JR., AND RUBY R. ROSARIO, COMPLAINANTS, VS. RODOLFO V. QUITALIG, SHERIFF III & OFFICER-IN-CHARGE, MUNICIPAL TRIAL COURT IN CITIES, SAN CARLOS CITY, PANGASINAN, RESPONDENT.

R E S O L U T I O N

AUSTRIA-MARTINEZ, J.:

Before the Court is a complaint filed by Zenaida C. Gutierrez, Evelyn Z. Merrera, Lydia A. Polintan, Ruby R. Rosario, Verna V. Galvez, Vilma L. Melendez, Ronaldo A. Matabang and Felix G. Austria, Jr., all employees of the Municipal Trial Court in Cities, San Carlos City, Pangasinan, against Sheriff and Officer-in-Charge Rodolfo V. Quitalig for dishonesty, grave misconduct and conduct unbecoming a court employee.

In the joint Joint-Affidavit dated February 9, 1999, submitted to the Court, complainants allege the following: Respondent often indulges in drinking sprees with litigants and with his friends during office hours at the recreation area of the Hall of Justice or the canteen. He becomes vulgar, intemperate with his words and makes sexual comments towards the female staff every time he gets drunk. There were instances when they had to bring court clearances and other documents to be signed by him to the place where he was drinking. Sometime in October 1998, respondent brought home the logbook/timebook of the court in order to fill-up the dates when he was absent. Respondent sheriff does not deposit on time fiduciary funds with the Land Bank of the Philippines. There were instances when the accused and their bondsmen had to post their cash bond at the Office of the Clerk of Court of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) because respondent could not be found at the office. Some criminal case records and exhibits were either unaccounted for or were not in the office.[1]

In his letter dated May 3, 1999, addressed to the then Court Administrator Alfredo Benipayo, respondent denied the accusations hurled against him and explained that: the complaint was merely a ploy of Eduardo Rosario, a legal researcher in their office, to replace him as acting clerk of court; a report of the City Auditor of San Carlos City cleared him of financial accountability; a certification of Verna Galvez, Clerk IV, attested that all case records and exhibits of their branch were duly accounted for; he does not indulge in drinking sessions with litigants and friends during office hours; and if there were times that he drank alcohol, it was after office hours and in the company of RTC Judge Victor Llamas whose invitation he could not refuse.[2]

The Court in a Resolution dated November 12, 2000, referred the complaint to Executive Judge Bienvenido Estrada, RTC, San Carlos City for investigation, report and recommendation.[3]

However, pending investigation, the complainants filed a JOINT AFFIDAVIT OF DESISTANCE,[4] prompting Judge Estrada to hold thus:
“Based on my investigation and the evidence submitted, undersigned cannot find any iota of evidence to indict respondent Rodolfo V. Quitalig in view of the failure of the complainants to present their evidence and prove their charges. As a matter of fact, the complainants have jointly affirmed and confirmed their JOINT AFFIDAVIT OF DESISTANCE, prompting respondent to state categorically that he would no longer present his evidence to prove his innocence but he joined the manifestation of the complainants to dismiss this case.”[5]
However, in a letter received by the Court Administrator on May 15, 2001, complainant Ruby R. Rosario alleged that: the affidavit of desistance was prepared by the respondent himself; she only signed said affidavit because she was pressured by her officemates who thought that respondent has changed and will retire in August; respondent is back to his old ways of being rude and impolite; and the decision of Judge Estrada to dismiss the case against respondent is contrary to the ruling of this Court in Lapena vs. Pamarang[6] and Dionisio vs. Gilera[7] where it was held that the withdrawal of a complaint for lack of interest of a complainant does not necessarily warrant the dismissal of an administrative complaint.[8]

Hence, the Court, in another Resolution, dated February 4, 2002, referred the case to Acting Executive Judge Salvador P. Vedaña, RTC San Carlos City for reinvestigation, report and recommendation. The Court likewise resolved to docket the instant case as a regular administrative matter.[9]

On June 28, 2002, Executive Judge Vedaña submitted his First Indorsement, portions of which are quoted verbatim, as follows:
“In support to his comment, respondent, during the hearing denied all the accusations leveled against him. He denied the accusation of the complaining witnesses that he was drunk during office hours and doing the same at the recreation area of the Hall of Justice or at the canteen outside the premises of the Hall of Justice. He admitted that he used to drink but not during office hours and not at the premises of the Hall of Justice. He denied that once drunk, he did vulgar acts or uttered intemperate words to his office mates. He did not insinuate sexual overtures to a female staff. He just patted the back of one of the complainants because she was his “kumadre” and that was done during her birthday.

“He further declared that there were times when he signed clearances in the canteen because he normally goes directly to the canteen after serving subpoenas and writs of execution in far away places considering that he returns to the office at around 1:30 to 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon. He did not likewise bring the logbook at home for the purpose of filling it up in order to make it appear that he was present when in fact he was absent. He brought the logbook home because he received a letter from Atty. Corazon Molo directing him to furnish her with a Xerox copy of the logbook. He did not notice or observed the “X” mark placed “by complainant Zenaida Gutierrez in the logbook, particularly when he was absent or out of office.

“He testified that he had a hand in the deposit of Fiduciary Funds such as bail bonds and/or other funds before Mrs. Melendez was appointed as Cash Clerk. He, however, denied the accusation that he did not deposit the Fiduciary Fund at the Land Bank. He admitted that there were times when the accused and the bondsman would like to post cash bond and he was nowhere to be found but he was then on field work serving court processes. When Mrs. Melendez was not yet appointed as Cash Clerk, he received for about five (5) times, cash bonds. Because of his several duties, he sometimes kept the money in his drawer and not in the steel cabinet because the latter had no lock. The cash bond was kept in his drawer for about one (1) week before it could be deposited in the bank. He denied the accusation of the complainants that he still had to wait for another cash bond to be posted in order for him to deposit the cash bond which he received first.

“On the complainants’ accusations regarding respondent’s habitual drunkenness during office hours, impolite manners while drunk and tampering with the logbook and losing the same, the undersigned Investigating Judge finds that while the complainants were in unison in their accusations, they however failed to substantiate and concretely support the accusations and remained bare allegations. No particular dates were specified for the alleged drunkenness, neither was the logbook subject of their complaint ever presented. On these points, this Court hereby gives the benefit of doubt and resolves the issue in favor of respondent.

“However, on the accusation for fidelity of Fiduciary Funds, the undersigned Investigating Judge finds the evidence presented by the complainants, particularly the rundown of the deposits made during the incumbency of the respondent, to be sufficient to support the accusation.

“From the same rundown which covered the period June 13, 1995 to January 13, 2000, it was shown that the respondent had not religiously deposited his collections intact. What was apparent from the rundown was his habitual practice of lapping that is, using the current collections to cover for the deposit he made for his previous or prior collections.

“The reason put up by the respondent that he had to discharge multiple duties is too shallow and flimsy. There was no reason for him to keep his collections for one (1) week or more, more so to keep the same in his drawer as it was his bounden duty to religiously remit/deposit the same to the depositary bank.

“Every employee in the Judiciary should be an example of integrity, uprightness and honesty. Not only is he expected to be well-mannered, civil and considerate in his actuations, official or otherwise. As OIC-Clerk of Court, respondent Quitalig must be the role model for his co-employees so that he could be emulated by them in the performance of their duties.

“Again, he is being charged for not depositing Fiduciary Funds on time. The Honorable Supreme Court, in its per curiam resolution in A.M. Nos. P-00-1381 and P-00-1382, July 21, 2001 pronounced, `We have already said that Clerks of Court may not keep funds in their custody. All collections from bail bonds, rental deposits and other fiduciary collections shall be deposited within twenty four (24) hours by the Clerk of Court concerned upon receipt thereof, with the Land Bank of the Philippines. Undue delay in remitting collections amounts to no less than grave misfeasance if not malversation of funds. No protestation of good faith `can override the mandatory nature of the circulars designed to promote the full accountability for government funds.’”[10]

Court Administrator Presbitero J. Velasco, Jr. agrees with the findings of Judge Vedaña and recommends that respondent Sheriff Rodolfo V. Quitalig be FINED in the amount of Ten Thousand Pesos (P10,000.00) for grave misfeasance and serious misconduct prejudicial to the interest of the judicial service with a WARNING that a repetition of the same or similar offenses in the future shall be dealt with more severely.[11]
The Court agrees with the Court Administrator and the Investigating Judge but the amount of the fine should be much higher.

Time and again, this Court has pointed out the heavy burden and responsibility which court personnel are saddled with in view of their exalted positions as keepers of the public faith. They should therefore be constantly reminded that any impression of impropriety, misdeed or negligence in the performance of official functions must be avoided.[12] Those who work in the judiciary must adhere to high ethical standards to preserve the courts’ good name and standing.[13] They should be examples of responsibility, competence and efficiency, and they must discharge their duties with due care and utmost diligence since they are officers of the court and agents of the law. [14] Indeed, any conduct, act or omission on the part of those who would violate the norm of public accountability and diminish or even just tend to diminish the faith of the people in the judiciary shall not be countenanced. [15]

In this case, respondent is accused of drinking with party litigants and friends during office hours by no less than his fellow court employees. He is also charged with sometimes going to the office under the influence of alcohol. Some of the complainants also say that he makes sexual jokes and once made physical advances towards a female office mate when he was drunk. While Judge Vedaña held that since complainants failed to give specific dates as to when these incidents took place and therefore resolved the doubt in favor of the respondent, it is our view that as an employee of the judiciary, respondent has already failed to protect the image of the institution of which he is a part and plays an important role in the dispensation of justice. In his own testimony, he could not categorically deny that he sometimes drinks alcohol but merely states in defense that he does so outside of office hours and outside the premises of the Hall of Justice. He even admitted that he would sometimes drink within the court premises but explains it is only because he could not refuse the offer of an RTC Judge. He also could not deny that he touched the back of his female officemate but merely downplayed it, explaining that she was his “kumadre.”[16]

As enunciated by this Court:
“Employees of the judiciary…should be living examples of uprightness not only in the performance of official duties but also in their personal and private dealings with other people so as to preserve at all times the good name and standing of the courts in the community. The image of a court, as being a true temple of justice, is aptly mirrored in the conduct, official or otherwise, of the men and women who work thereat, from the judge to the least and lowest of its personnel.”[17]
Specifically, as a sheriff, respondent plays an important role in the administration of justice. He is a frontline representative of the justice system, being indispensably in close contact with the litigants. He should therefore be imbued with a sense of professionalism in the performance of his duties and his conduct should be geared towards maintaining the prestige and integrity of the court.[18]

More damning than his inappropriate conduct is his own admission that on several occasions he received cash bonds as acting Clerk of Court/Officer-in-Charge but failed to deposit the same to the authorized bank within the period required by the rules. In his own words, he admitted that he kept the cash bond in his drawer for a week before depositing them.[19] As correctly held by the investigating judge, this violates a clear mandate of this Court embodied in Circular No. 50-95.

Circular No. 50-95 mandates that all collections from bailbonds, rental deposits, and other fiduciary collections shall be deposited within twenty four (24) hours by the Clerk of Court concerned, upon receipt thereof, with the Land Bank of the Philippines.

As the Officer-in-Charge of the Office of the Clerk of Court, respondent occupies an important function and position in the judiciary.[20] And the fact that he is actually a Sheriff and merely occupies the position of a Clerk of Court in an acting capacity does not diminish the expectation from him to perform all the duties and responsibilities of a Clerk of Court. In the Report on the Financial Audit Conducted on the Books of Accounts of OIC Melinda Deseo, MTC General Trias Cavite,[21] the Court set aside the recommendation of the Office of the Court Administrator to merely admonish an Interpreter, at the same time OIC-Clerk of Court, who failed to comply with Circular 50-95. The Court held that her alleged lack of prior training and orientation in administering Fiduciary Fund collections cannot relieve her of administrative liability; and the Court ordered her suspension for six (6) months and one (1) day without pay.[22]

Clerks of court are the chief administrative officers of their respective courts.[23] They must show competence, honesty and probity since they are charged with safeguarding the integrity of the court and its proceedings.[24] They are judicial officers entrusted to perform delicate functions with regard to the collection of legal fees and are expected to correctly and effectively implement regulations such that even the undue delay in the remittances of amounts collected by them at the very least constitutes misfeasance.[25] Respondent, as acting Clerk of Court, is saddled with the same responsibility and is expected to serve with the same commitment and efficiency. Failing to meet these standards, we find the respondent administratively liable for dishonesty, grave misconduct and conduct unbecoming a court employee.

Based on the records, respondent had already retired from the service as of August 8, 2001 and was given clearance on November 28, 2001. In view of the gravity of his offenses, even if this is his first administrative infraction and although he was eventually able to deposit all the amounts that came to his possession, respondent would have been meted out at the very least, suspension of six months and one day if he were still an employee of the Court. In view of his retirement, we have no recourse but to impose on him a fine in the amount of P40,000.00.

WHEREFORE, finding respondent Rodolfo V. Quitalig guilty of dishonesty, grave misconduct and conduct unbecoming a court employee prejudicial to the interest of the judicial service, he is FINED the amount of Forty Thousand Pesos (P40,000.00) to be paid within thirty (30) days from receipt of notice.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., C.J., Bellosillo, Puno, Vitug, Mendoza, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Ynares-Santiago, Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio, Corona, Carpio Morales, Callejo, Sr., and Azcuna, JJ., concur.



[1] Rollo, pp. 3-4.

[2] Id., p. 13-14.

[3] Id., p. 22.

[4] Id., p. 45.

[5] Id., p. 53.

[6] A.M. No. P-00-1362, February 15, 2000.

[7] A.M. No. P-99-1330, August 12, 1999.

[8] Rollo, p. 33.

[9] Id., p. 102.

[10] Rollo, pp. 193-194.

[11] Rollo, p. 228.

[12] Firmalo vs. Quierrez, A.M. No. P-00-1401, January 29, 2002.

[13] Agarao vs. Judge Parentela, Jr.; AM-RTJ-00-1561, November 21, 2001.

[14] Aquino vs. Lavadia, A.M. No. P-01-1483, September 20, 2001.

[15] Firmalo vs. Quierrez, supra, note 12.

[16] TSN, May 29, 2002, p. 9.

[17] RE: ADMINISTRATIVE MATTERS OCA IPI NO. 97-228-P (JUDGE RAFAEL P. SANTELICES vs. LOIDA B. SAMAR, UTILITY AIDE, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT-LIBRARY, LEGAZPI CITY); and OCA IPI NO. 97-383-P (JUDGE RAFAEL P. SANTELICES vs. LOIDA B. SAMAR, OF THE SAME STATION) [A.M. No. 00-1394. January 15, 2002].

[18] Aquino v. Lavadia, supra, note 14, Tan vs. Dael, A.M. No. P-00-1392, July 13, 2000.

[19] TSN, May 29, 2002, p. 13.

[20] Cabanatan vs. Molina, A.M. No. P-01-1520, November 21, 2001.

[21] A.M. No. 99-11-157-MTC, August 7, 2000.

[22] Id., at p. 353.

[23] Report on the Financial Audit, supra note 21.

[24] Cabanatan supra note 20.

[25] Report, supra note 21.

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