400 Phil. 542

SECOND DIVISION

[ G.R. No. 134888, December 01, 2000 ]

RAM'S STUDIO AND PHOTOGRAPHIC EQUIPMENT, INC., PETITIONER, VS. COURT OF APPEALS AND SPS. CASTRO JOSE RIVERA AND GINA CYNTHIA HERNAL RIVERA, RESPONDENTS.

D E C I S I O N

BELLOSILLO, J.:

This is a Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 seeking to set aside the Decision and Resolution dated 20 February 1998 and 27 July 1998, respectively, of public respondent.  The Decision set aside the orders of the lower court dated 6 March 1997 and 24 June 1997, and the Resolution denied petitioners' motion for reconsideration.

Ram's Studio and Photographic Equipment, Inc. (RAM'S) is a domestic corporation owned and managed by Daniel J. Daffon. On 8 November 1994 private respondent Gina Cynthia Hernal contracted petitioner RAM'S to take a video coverage of private respondents' wedding ceremony and reception. The nuptial rites were scheduled at 6:00 o'clock p.m. on 27 January 1995 and yet at quarter past 5:00 o'clock p.m. the bride was still at her hotel room waiting for the photographers of petitioner. For failure of the photographers to arrive on time for their picture taking, private respondent Gina Cynthia Hernal was able to alight from the bridal car and commence her march to the altar only at 7:00 o'clock p.m.  Worse, when she claimed the videotape not long after she was informed that it was damaged.  True enough, when private respondents and their families viewed the videotape they saw nothing during the first thirty-minute play except a brownish-black screen with silhouettes of what appeared to be people.  Petitioner, through Mrs. Daffon, offered to retake the damaged portion free of charge and at the same time shoulder all the incidental expenses like make-up, etc., but the offer was rejected.

On 5 July 1995 private respondents filed a complaint for damages against petitioner before the Regional Trial Court of Muntinlupa City. On 23 August 1995 private respondents amended their complaint prior to the filing of any responsive pleading to the original complaint.

Twice petitioner moved for an extension of time to answer but failed to do so within the extended period.  On motion of private respondents, petitioner was declared in default on 22 January 1996.

After private respondents presented their evidence ex-parte, the lower court rendered a decision, the dispositive portion of which reads -

WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, judgment is hereby rendered in favor of the plaintiffs and against the defendant as follows:  1. To pay the amount of Five Thousand Nine Hundred Fifty Pesos (P5,950.00) as actual damages;  2. To pay Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P500,000.00) as moral damages; 3. To pay Five Hundred Thousand Pesos (P500,000.00) as exemplary damages; 4. To pay One Hundred Thousand Pesos (P100,000.00) plus Two Thousand Pesos (P2,000.00) per appearance by way of Attorney's Fees; and, 5. To pay the costs of suit.[1]

On 10 April 1996 counsel for petitioner received copy of the decision.  On 26 April 1996, i.e., one (1) day after the fifteen-day reglementary period within which to file an appeal and/or move for reconsideration or new trial had lapsed, petitioner filed a motion for new trial.  For this reason, private respondents moved for the issuance of a writ of execution and to deny petitioner's belated motion for new trial.

On 11 October 1996 the lower court granted the motion for execution and on 13 January 1997 denied the motion for reconsideration filed by petitioner.  Pursuant thereto the lower court issued on 14 January 1997 a writ of execution in favor of private respondents.

However in an order dated 6 March 1997 the lower court had a change of heart and granted petitioner's motion for new trial based on the following grounds -

From the records of this case, it appears that the Decision by default rendered on April 8, 1996 was received by the defendant's counsel, Atty. Orlando Alcaraz, on April 10, 1996.  A copy of the same Decision was served upon defendant itself on April 11, 1996.  On April 26, 1996, defendant's present counsel, Atty. Amadeo E. Balon Jr., filed by registered mail a Motion for New Trial. Counted from the receipt by defendant itself of the copy of the Decision, the Motion for New Trial was filed within the reglementary period.  However, counted from the receipt of Atty. Alcaraz, the said motion was filed one day late, but still well within the period within which a petition for relief from judgment under Rule 38, Section 2, may be filed.[2]

On 24 June 1997 the motion for reconsideration filed by private respondents was denied by the lower court thus forcing them to elevate the matter before this Court.  However in a resolution dated 1 October 1997, this Court referred the matter to the Court of Appeals for proper determination and disposition.[3]

On 20 February 1998 the Court of Appeals rendered its Decision setting aside the orders of the lower court dated 6 March 1997 and 24 June 1997.[4] In justifying its Decision it pointed out that petitioner's motion for new trial was filed after the lower court's judgment had already become final and executory.  It noted that the decision of the lower court dated 8 April 1996 was received by counsel for petitioner on 10 April 1996.  The motion for new trial was filed by registered mail on 26 April 1996 or one (1) day late.  Hence the judgment became final upon the expiration of the period to appeal  and no appeal had been duly perfected (Sec. 1, Rule 39, Rules of Court).[5]

Petitioner's motion for reconsideration was denied hence the instant petition for review.  The sole issue for resolution is the timeliness and propriety of petitioner's motion for new trial.

It is petitioner's position that the motion for new trial was filed well within the fifteen-day prescriptive period, contrary to the claim of private respondents.  It points out that the decision of the trial court dated 8 April 1996 was received by its counsel, Atty. Orlando Alcaraz on 10 April 1996 but he disappeared thereafter and was never heard of since then.   For its part, petitioner received its own copy of the decision on 11 April 1996 which petitioner handed over on the same date to its new counsel, Atty. Amadeo E. Balon.   Petitioner contends that since the date of receipt thereon was 11 April 1996, it had fifteen (15) days or until 26 April 1996 within which to file its motion for new trial.

In short, petitioner wants to impress upon us that the starting point of reckoning for the filing of the motion for new trial should be 11 April 1996, and not 10 April 1996 as held by the Court of Appeals.[6] Petitioner through counsel attributes its present woes to Atty. Alcaraz, its former counsel, who did not even have the courtesy of filing any formal withdrawal of appearance.  Petitioner now begs that it be given the chance to present its case and enable this Court to fully determine the  issues raised and thus abide by the principle laid down in Aguilar v. Court of Appeals that "losing liberty by default of an insensitive lawyer should be frowned upon despite the fiction that a client is bound by the mistakes of his lawyer.[7]

We deny the petition.  Settled is the rule that the perfection of an appeal in the manner and within the period permitted by law is not only mandatory but jurisdictional, and failure to perfect that appeal renders the challenged judgment final and executory.  This is not an empty procedural rule but is grounded on fundamental considerations of public policy and sound practice.  Record shows that petitioner's counsel received copy of the trial court's decision on 10 April 1996 but filed a motion for new trial one (1) day after the lapse of the fifteen-day prescriptive period.  As such, the judgment of the lower court ipso facto became final  when no appeal was perfected after the lapse of the reglementary period.  This procedural caveat cannot be trifled with, not even by this Court.

Petitioner's contention that the reckoning period for the filing of its appeal should be on 11 April 1996, the day when it was furnished copy of the decision, and not 10 April 1996, the date of receipt by its former counsel, is not correct.  Service of notice to the counsel of record is, for all intents and purposes, notice to the client.  Judicial conduct is guided by what appears on the record.  In the absence therefore of  a notice of  withdrawal or substitution of counsel, the court will rightly assume that the counsel of record continues to represent his client and receipt of notice by the former is the reckoning point of the reglementary period.

Granting arguendo that the motion for new trial was seasonably filed, still the records will show that the ground relied upon by petitioner is not meritorious.  The porousness of its reasons for its late filing of the answer resulting in a default judgment, which in turn prompted the filing of the motion for new trial, is clearly shown by respondent appellate court when it said -

Private respondent (petitioner herein) failed to establish extrinsic fraud in order to warrant new trial. Its claim that it was fraudulently induced by the petitioners (now private respondents) from filing the answer by false promises of an amicable settlement is contradicted by its statement that it was unable to file an answer due to its inability to secure the services of counsel x x x x Likewise, the initiative to settle the case emanated from the private respondent as proved by its correspondence to the petitioner's  counsel offering terms to that effect  x  x  x Thus, there is no reason to believe that the petitioners  "enveigled"  the private respondent from filing an answer when clearly, it was private respondent who was actively seeking the compromise.   In the meantime, the answer could have been filed.

x x x  (T)he Court is not prepared to accept the private respondent's argument that the traffic situation as well as the malfunctioning of its equipment are acts of God.  On the contrary, these are foreseeable events which  ordinary  prudence could  have  guarded against  x x x x  (italics supplied).[8]

We are reminded by petitioner that the award of damages is excessive, but then again, the judgment has become final and executory. A judgment which has acquired finality, as in this case, becomes immutable and unalterable, hence, may no longer be modified in any respect except to correct clerical errors or mistakes, all the issues between the parties being deemed resolved and laid to rest.[9] Obviously, for failure of petitioner to seasonably file its motion for new trial before the trial court, this case had become final and executory even before it reached the Court of Appeals.  Consequently, we need not postulate any further on the doctrine of finality of judgment for it is understood that at the risk of occasional errors all judgments must be terminated at some definite time and execution be effected as a matter of course.

Much as we commiserate with petitioner, we cannot grant the relief it seeks.   Petitioner was afforded by the Rules of Court enough avenues to answer the complaint and avert a default judgment; unfortunately, it failed to take advantage of its remedies and opted instead for a more precipitous track, including but not limited to a false promise of settlement.

WHEREFORE, the petition for review is DENIED.  The assailed Decision of respondent Court of Appeals affirming the decision of the trial court ordering petitioner  herein to pay private respondents P5,950.00 for actual  damages, P500,000.00 for moral damages, another P500,000.00 for exemplary damages, and P100,000.00 plus  P2,000.00 per appearance for attorney's fees, and to pay the costs of suit, is likewise AFFIRMED together with the denial to reconsider its Decision.  Costs against petitioner.

SO ORDERED.

Mendoza, Quisumbing, Buena, and De Leon, Jr., JJ., concur.



[1] Decision penned by Judge Alberto L. Lerma, RTC-Br. 256, Muntinlupa City.

[2] Annex "C;"  Records, p. 27.

[3] Id., p. 165.

[4] Decision penned by Associate Justice Hector L. Hofilena with the concurrence of Associate Justices Jesus M. Elbinias and Omar U. Amin; Rollo, pp. 25-29 (A).

[5] Rollo, p. 28.

[6] Id., p. 14.

[7] G.R. No. 114282, 28 November 1995, 250 SCRA 271, 374.

[8] Resolution dated 27 July 1998; Rollo, p. 31.

[9] Floro v. Llenado, G.R. No. 75723, 2 June 1995, 244 SCRA 713.



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