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EN BANC

[ A.M. No. P-19-3972 (Formerly OCA I.P.I. No. 12 3971-P), July 09, 2019 ]

ATTY. LEANIE GALVEZ-JISON, COMPLAINANT, V. MAY N. LASPIÑAS[*] AND MAE VERCILLE H.[**] NALLOS, RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

PER CURIAM:

This resolves the Complaint[1] filed on August 3, 2012 by Atty. Leanie Galvez-Jison (complainant) against Legal Researcher May N. Laspiñas (Laspiñas) and Clerk III Mae Vercille A. Nallos (Nallos), both of Branch 40, Regional Trial Court (RTC), Silay City, Negros Occidental, for Serious Dishonesty and Grave Misconduct.

Antecedents

On August 3, 2012, complainant filed a letter-complaint for Serious Dishonesty and Grave Misconduct against Laspiñas and Nallos.[2]

Complainant filed a Petition for Change of Gender and Correction of Certificate of Live Birth on November 17, 2011 in behalf of her client, Geno Adelantar Reyes (Reyes). Later on, the petition was docketed as Spec. Proc. Case No. 2034 and raffled to Branch 40, RTC, Silay City, Negros Occidental. Hence, she paid all the legal fees before the Office of the Clerk of Court (OCC), RTC, Silay City and apprised her client to wait for the issuance of the order for publication coming from the trial court. However, to the surprise of complainant, the trial court issued an Order dated March 6, 2012 directing the complainant's client, Reyes, to pay for the publication fee or risk the dismissal of the petition. This came as a surprise since complainant already paid the publication fee when she filed the petition. She averred that because of the Order of the court, her client thought that she pocketed the money given to her for the payment of the fees were it not for the acknowledgment receipt she had which was issued by the OCC.[3]

After complainant conducted an investigation, she learned that Nallos claimed the publication fee from the OCC on December 1, 2011 by claiming that she was authorized to do so by former Branch Clerk of Court Karen Joy T. Gaston (former Branch Clerk Gaston [now a Judge at Branch 5, Municipal Trial Court in Cities, Bacolod City]. Nallos received the total amount of P3,520.00 and turned over the said amount to former Branch Clerk Gaston only in March 2012 when they discovered the trial court's Order dated March 6, 2012.[4]

Complainant averred that former Branch Clerk Gaston did not authorize Nallos to claim the publication fee from the OCC and that it was another court employee, Laspiñas, who gave such instruction. It is the complainant's position that both Laspiñas and Nallos should be administratively charged for their actions which prejudiced her client.[5]

Respondents' Positions

Nallos vehemently denied the complainant's accusations against her. She claimed that she was under the impression that she can receive the publication fee paid to the OCC being the clerk-in-charge of special proceedings cases. Besides, it has been a practice in their court for her to deliver the publication fee and the corresponding court order to the publisher concerned. Since the court has not yet issued any order when she received the money from the OCC, complainant and her client were not prejudiced. She also stressed that when former Branch Clerk Gaston asked for the money, she was able to immediately produce it. She further denied the allegation that she only remitted the money after she discovered that the court had issued the Order dated March 6, 2012 threatening to dismiss the petition if the publication fee remains unpaid stating that she does not have access to court records and that it is Cheryl Luzarita, a local government employee, who releases the orders of the court in civil cases, special proceedings and cadastral cases.[6]

Meanwhile, Laspiñas stressed that as a Legal Researcher, she had no participation in the publication fee anomaly paid by the complainant. She averred that handling of fees is different from her job description as a Legal Researcher and that she does not meddle in matters relating to civil cases, special proceedings and cadastral cases.[7]

Laspiñas further denied the charge that she and Nallos only remitted the money after discovering the Order of the court dated March 6, 2012. She stressed that her name was not mentioned in the narration of facts of the complainant and that it was the name of Nallos which was consistently mentioned therein. She also refuted the allegation that she instructed Nallos to receive the money from OCC, stating that it was merely hearsay.[8]

Furthermore, Laspiñas stated that the instant administrative complaint is malicious due to the fact that complainant Jison is a close friend of Judge Felipe G. Banzon, who is the respondent in an administrative case wherein she is the complainant.

The instant case was referred to Executive Judge Dyna Doll Chiongson-Trocio, (Judge Trocio) RTC, Silay City, for investigation, through a Resolution dated June 16, 2014.[9]

In her Investigation Report[10] dated April 6, 2015, Judge Trocio recommended the penalty of dismissal from service for Nallos, for patent act of dishonesty and grave misconduct. As for Laspiñas, Judge Trocio recommended the dismissal of the complaint finding that there is no direct evidence showing her participation in the receipt of the publication fee and misappropriation.[11]

Atty. Eric B. De Vera, Clerk of Court VI, OCC, RTC, Silay City, Negros Occidental testified that he received the publication fees in Spec. Proc. Case No. 2034 in the amount of P3,520.00 which was subsequently received by respondent Nallos being the clerk-in-charge of Branch 40, RTC, Silay City, Negros Occidental.[12]

Aileen Gamboa (Gamboa), the cashier at the OCC, testified that she issued a provisional receipt to the complainant for the paid publication fee. She further testified that it is a common practice in the OCC to turn over the publication fees to the assigned branch on the same day, or within the week after the raffle of the petition. She narrated that she usually gives the publication fees to the branch clerks of courts or to the clerks-in-charge, in the absence of the former. Gamboa stated that for Branch 40, it was Nallos who was in-charge of special proceedings cases and to whom the publication fee in Spec. Proc. Case No. 2034 was delivered.[13]

Another witness that was presented was former Branch Clerk Gaston. She testified that she did not authorize Nallos to get the publication fees from the OCC and that there was not an instance where Nallos was asked to do so. Former Branch Clerk Gaston also issued an Office Memorandum, directing Nallos to explain why she failed to remit the publication fees in a number of cases including Spec. Proc. Case No. 2034. Former Branch Clerk Gaston averred that Nallos admitted to her that she claimed the publication fees from the OCC. Nallos further admitted partially using the fees since her husband was unemployed at that time and pointed out that some of the amount went to Laspiñas for she was the one who instructed her to get the publication fees. Nallos also asked former Branch Clerk Gaston if she could repay the amounts on installment basis. Regarding the publication fee in Spec. Proc. Case No. 2034, the amount was returned only on March 20, 2012. Former Branch Clerk Gaston also stressed that Spec. Proc. Case No. 2034 was not the first and only time where the publication fee was not timely turned over to her by Nallos.[14]

In their defense, Nallos testified that she did not withdraw the publication fee from the OCC and that it was voluntarily given to her by Gamboa. However, Nallos admitted that she did not immediately endorse the said amount to former Branch Clerk Gaston and instead kept it because she was the one in-charge of bringing the amount to the publisher. She anticipated that the publication fee would be given back to her by the branch clerk to be delivered to the publisher. Nallos also admitted that she did not inform former Branch Clerk Gaston about her receipt of the publication fee because she forgot to do so. She also confessed that she used the money for her family. She only returned the amount after the issuance of the memorandum by former Branch Clerk Gaston. Nallos also denied the allegation of former Branch Clerk Gaston that she told her that it was Laspiñas who directed her to receive the publication fee from the OCC.[15]

OCA's Report and Recommendation

In the Memorandum dated August 16, 2015[16] the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) adopted the findings of Judge Trocio and recommended the penalty of dismissal from the service of Nallos and dismissal of the complaint for Laspiñas. To quote:

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, it is respectfully recommended for the consideration of the Honorable Court that:

1. OCA IPI No. 12-3971-P be RE-DOCKETED as a regular administrative matter, and respondent Mae Vercille H. Nallos, Clerk III, Branch 69, Regional Trial Court, Silay City, Negros Occidental, be found GUILTY of grave misconduct and dishonesty, and be DISMISSED from the service effective immediately, with forfeiture of all retirement benefits, except accrued leave credits, and with prejudice to her re-employment in any branch or agency of the government, including government-owned or controlled corporations, without prejudice to the criminal liability of respondent Nallos arising from the said infraction; and

2. [T]he instant complaint against May N. Laspiñas, Legal Researcher, Branch 40, Regional Trial Court, Silay City, [Negros] Occidental, be DISMISSED for utter lack of merit.[17]

Hence, the case was transmitted to this Court for review.

The Court's Ruling

Misconduct is a transgression or a wrongdoing under some established and definite rule of action, more particularly, unlawful behavior or gross negligence by the public officer. The misconduct must be grave, serious, important, weighty, momentous, and not trifling in order to warrant dismissal from the service. The misconduct must imply wrongful intention and not a mere error of judgment and must also have a direct relation to and be connected with the performance of the public officer's official duties amounting either to maladministration or willful, intentional neglect, or failure to discharge the duties of the office. In order to differentiate gross misconduct from simple misconduct, the elements of corruption, clear intent to violate the law, or flagrant disregard of established rule, must be manifest in the former.[18]

On the other hand, dishonesty is the concealment or distortion of truth, which shows lack of integrity or a disposition to defraud, cheat, deceive, or betray, or intent to violate the truth.[19] Civil Service Commission Resolution No. 06-0538[20] classifies dishonesty in three gradations, namely: serious, less serious or simple. In this case, petitioner was charged with serious dishonesty, which necessarily entails the presence of any of the following circumstances: (a) the dishonest act caused serious damage and grave prejudice to the Government; (b) the respondent gravely abused his authority in order to commit the dishonest act; (c) where the respondent is an accountable officer, the dishonest act directly involves property, accountable forms or money for which he is directly accountable and the respondent shows an intent to commit material gain, graft and corruption; (d) the dishonest act exhibits moral depravity on the part of respondent; (e) the respondent employed fraud and/or falsification of official documents in the commission of the dishonest act related to his/her employment; (f) the dishonest act was committed several times or in various occasions; (g) the dishonest act involves a Civil Service examination irregularity or fake Civil Service eligibility such as, but not limited to impersonation, cheating and use of crib sheets; and (h) other analogous circumstances.

Dishonesty, like bad faith, is not simply bad judgment or negligence, but a question of intention. In determining the intention of a person charged with dishonesty, scrutiny must be taken not only of the facts and circumstances giving rise to the act committed by the respondent, but also of his state of mind at the time the offense was committed, the time he might have had at his disposal for the purpose of meditating on the consequences of his act, and the degree of reasoning he could have had at that moment.[21]

Both grave misconduct and serious dishonesty, of which respondents were charged, are classified as grave offenses for which the penalty of dismissal is meted even for first time offenders.[22]

After a judicious study of the case, the Court finds no reason to depart from the findings and recommendation of the OCA that the evidence on record sufficiently demonstrate respondent Nallos' culpability for the charges and fully satisfy the standard of substantial evidence, which is defined as such amount of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, even if other minds equally reasonable might conceivably opine differently.[23]

A reading of respondent Nallos' refutation would show that she substantially admitted to the accusations against her. First, respondent Nallos contended that she did not withdraw the publication fee from the OCC and that it was voluntarily given to her. However, even if it was given to her voluntarily, as custodian of the funds, she should have immediately accounted for it with the Branch Clerk of Court. As mere custodian of the fee, she cannot appropriate the money as she has admitted. Her reason that she kept the money because she anticipated that the publication fee would be given back to her by the Branch Clerk to be delivered to the publisher is self-serving and flimsy. Even if that were the case, she still should have made it known to the persons higher in rank than her that she has the money and ask for instructions as to where the money should be safekept. Instead, respondent Nallos reasoned that she forgot to inform former Branch Clerk Gaston about her receipt of the publication fee. Moreover, it also took approximately four months before the publication fee taken by Nallos was returned. The long period of time before the said amount was remitted shows that there was really no intention on the part of Nallos to return the amount. In other words, such act can be considered as a mere afterthought.

As for respondent Laspiñas, this Court agrees with the dismissal of the complaint against her for lack of merit. First of all, there is no clear direct evidence presented against her. Nothing in the certifications issued by the OCC contained the name of Laspiñas. The only basis to implicate her was the testimony of former Branch Clerk Gaston that Nallos admitted to her that it was respondent Laspiñas who ordered her to get the publication fees from the OCC and that some of the money went to Laspiñas. However, later on, during the investigation of the case, Nallos repudiated this claim by former Branch Clerk Gaston. These facts cast serious doubts regarding the alleged involvement of Laspiñas in the case. Besides, it is highly unlikely that Nallos took orders from Laspiñas. It must be remembered that Laspiñas is a Legal Researcher of RTC, Branch 40. As such, she does not have the authority to command another staff of the said branch. She does not have the power to take care of administrative matters, such as the handling of funds, since these are matters within the responsibility of the branch clerk.

In Office of the Court of Administrator v. Isip,[24] we held that all court employees must practice a high degree of professionalism and responsibility at all times. Service in the judiciary is not only a duty, but also a mission. It cannot be overemphasized that everyone in the judiciary, from the presiding judge to the clerk, must always be beyond reproach, free of any suspicion that may taint the judiciary. Public service requires utmost integrity and discipline. No less than the Constitution mandates the principle that "a public office is a public trust and all public officers and employees must at all times be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency." It requires public officers to live up to the strictest standards of honesty, probity and moral righteousness. Accordingly, their conduct, at all times, must not only be characterized by propriety and decorum, but must also be above suspicion.[25]

WHEREFORE, respondent Mae Vercille H. Nallos, Clerk III, Branch 40, Regional Trial Court, Silay City, Negros Occidental is found GUILTY of grave misconduct and dishonesty, and is DISMISSED from the service immediately, with FORFEITURE of all retirement benefits, except accrued leave credits, and with prejudice to her reemployment in any branch or agency of the government, including government-owned or controlled corporations, without prejudice to the criminal liability of Nallos arising from the said infraction.

The instant complaint against May N. Laspiñas, Legal Researcher, Branch 40, Regional Trial Court, Silay City, Negros Occidental is DISMISSED for lack of merit.

SO ORDERED.

Bersamin (C.J.), Carpio, Peralta, Del Castillo, Perlas-Bernabe, Leonen, Jardeleza, Caguioa, A. Reyes, Jr., Gesmundo, J. Reyes, Jr., Hernando, Carandang, Lazaro-Javier, and Inting, JJ., concur.


[*] Also referred to as "May N. Las Piñas" in some parts of the rollo.

[**] Also referred to as "Vercille A. Nallos" in some parts of the rollo.

[1] Rollo, pp. 2-3.

[2] Id. at 128.

[3] Id. at 128-129.

[4] Id. at 129.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 129.

[7] Id. at 129-130.

[8] Id. at 130.

[9] Id. at 43-44.

[10] Id. at 119-125.

[11] Id. at 125.

[12] Supra note 8.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at 130-131.

[15] Id. at 131.

[16] Id. at 128-134.

[17] Id. at 134.

[18] Office of the Deputy Ombudsman for Luzon v. Dionisio, G.R. No. 220700, July 10, 2017, 830 SCRA 501, 514-515.

[19] Fajardo v. Corral, G.R. No. 212641, July 5, 2017, 830 SCRA 161, 169.

[20] Otherwise known as the "Rules on the Administrative Offense of Dishonesty," dated April 4, 2006.

[21] The Office of the Court Administrator v. Egipto, Jr., A.M. No. P-05-1938, November 7, 2017, 844 SCRA 131, 141.

[22] Revised Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, Rule 10, Sec. 50(A)(1) and (3).

[23] Fajardo v. Corral, supra note 19, at 168.

[24] 613 Phil. 32 (2009).

[25] Id. at 38-39.

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