343 Phil. 105

EN BANC

[ A.M. No. P-96-1219, August 15, 1997 ]

COURT OF APPEALS VS. CLERK OF COURT MARCELO ESCALANTE, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, BRANCH 53, SORSOGON, SORSOGON.

D E C I S I O N

MELO, J.:

The present administrative case against Marcelo Escalante, Clerk of Court of the Regional Trial Court of the Fifth Judicial Region, Sorsogon, Sorsogon, Branch 53, stemmed from a petition for probate of the will of Henry Grant filed by Atty. Jose Bernabe with said court.

Henry Grant, an American citizen, died on October 6, 1993, in Legaspi City leaving a 4-page notarial will. Atty. Jose Bernabe, who was designated by Henry Grant to execute the will, lodged with the above mentioned court, a petition for probate of will which was docketed as Special Proceeding No. 93-5936.

The probate court then issued an Order dated March 16, 1994, giving Atty. Bernabe 15 days within which to file his formal written offer of documentary exhibits and thereafter, the case would be deemed submitted for resolution.

On April 12, 1994, a certain Gloria Sotto filed with the probate court a petition for relief from the March 16, 1994 Order and an Opposition to the probate of the will, contending, inter alia, that she was the nearest kin of the deceased and that the instituted heirs were all American citizens who have no intention of acquiring property in the Philippines. The probate court denied the petition in an Order dated June 21, 1994.

Sotto filed motions for reconsideration on after the other which were denied. On July 8, 1994, the probate court issued an Order allowing the probate of the last will and testament of Henry Grant.

Sotto then filed with the Court of Appeals a petition for nullification of the allowance of the last will and testament of Henry Grant (p. 2 Rollo). She prayed that the last will and testament of Henry Grant be declared to be fatally defective in form as it lacked the signature of Henry Grant and three attesting witnesses on the left margin of the first, second, and fourth pages thereof; that the probate thereof be declared null and void; and, that the late Henry Grant be disqualified from owning lands in the Philippines and his testamentary heirs be likewise disqualified from inheriting said lands (pp. 10-11, Rollo). The petition was docketed as CA-G.R. SP No. 35697.

In resolving the Sotto petition, the Court of Appeals was confronted with two conflicting photocopies of the last will and testament of Henry Grant.

The first was a photocopy of a true copy, certified by respondent Escalante, without any date and submitted by Sotto. It had no marginal signatures on the first, second and fourth pages, and no exhibit markings. The second was a certified xerox copy, certified by Tomas H. Moral for respondent Escalante, dated December 20, 1994, containing marginal signatures on the first, second, and fourth pages, and exhibit markings.

Due to such conflicting photocopies, the Court of Appeals issued a Resolution dated March 15, 1995 ordering respondent Escalante: a) to transmit to the court within ten days from notice, the original of the last will and testament of Henry Grant; b) to certify if there was any other copy different from that which was submitted to the probate court; and c) to explain why he had certified two apparently conflicting copies of Henry Grant’s last will and testament (p. 98, Rollo). In compliance with, respondent Escalante submitted original carbon copy of the last will and testament of Henry Grant, explaining that only an original carbon copy was submitted to the probate court inasmuch as the original could not be found (p. 99, Rollo).

The Court of Appeals, in a Resolution dated May 12, 1995, denied the Sotto petition and made the following findings concerning the apparently tampered photocopy of the true copy of the last will and testament of Henry Grant which was certified by respondent Escalante and submitted by Sotto in support of her petition, to wit:

After comparing the photocopies of the Will submitted by the parties to us with the said original carbon copy of the same, we have ascertained that the certified xerox copy submitted by the private respondent copy matches the carbon original, whereas the photocopy of a certified true copy submitted by the petitioner does not. Moreover, a close scrutiny of the photocopy attached by the petitioner to her Petition reveals marks thereon which indicate that the original thereof actually bore the necessary marginal signatures, but they were covered with a piece of paper when photocopied, to make it appear that they were not present. Such act of deceit and misrepresentation is highly reprehensible. (p. 109, Rollo)
In view of such finding, the Court of Appeals ordered Sotto’s counsel to show cause why they should not be disciplined for utilizing an apparently tampered photocopy of a certified true copy of the last will and testament of Henry Grant in support of their petition.

In his Compliance dated May 26, 1995, Atty. Ray M. Dorado denied any participation in tampering with the will, claiming that what he submitted were the very documents furnished by his client (p. 111, Rollo). Atty. Dorado likewise submitted the affidavit of Sotto together with a certified xerox copy of the last will and testament of Henry Grant dated January 23, 1995 and signed by respondent Escalante (p. 114, Rollo).

On the other hand, Sotto, in her motion for reconsideration suggested that a thorough investigation be made preferably by the NBI to determine who tampered with the documents, and at the same time to ascertain whether or not the signatures appearing in the last will and testament of Henry Grant submitted to the Court of Appeals were made after respondent Escalante had furnished her a copy thereof (p. 123, Rollo).

In a Resolution dated July 11, 1995, the Court of appeals admonished Atty. Dorado and denied Sotto’s motion for reconsideration (p. 129, Rollo).

In another Resolution promulgated on the same date, the Court of Appeals referred the case to the Office of the Court Administrator for investigation and proper action in view of the confusing situation cause by the certifications of different copies of the same will made by respondent Escalante. Said Resolution reads as follows:

In the instant case, we have been confronted with (4) varying copies of the alleged last will and testament of the deceased Henry Grant, to wit:

(1)           A photo-copy of a Certified True Copy, certified to by Marcelo Escalante, Clerk of Court, attached as Annex “C” to the petition (pp. 19-23, Rollo), without marginal signatures of the testator and his attesting witnesses, but which signatures appear to have been covered when the document was photocopied;

(2)           A Certified True Copy dated December 20, 1994, certified to by Tomas H. Moral for Marcelo E. Escalante, Clerk of Court, containing marginal signatures and exhibit markings (Exhibits “I” to “I-4” and submarkings) submitted by the respondents (pp. 67-71, Rollo);

(3)           A carbon original of the said last will and testament, sent to us by Clerk of Court Marcelo E. Escalante, pursuant to our Resolution dated March 15, 1995, with marginal signatures but different exhibit markings (Exhs. “J” to “J-4” and submarkings) (pp. 100-104, Rollo); and

(4)           A Certified Xerox Copy dated January 23, 1995, a Certified True Copy signed by Marcelo Escalante (pp. 117-121, Rollo) which appears to be the same as No. (1) above.

In view of this confusing situation which is apparently due to certifications of different copies of the same will by the Office of the Clerk of Court of the Regional Trial Court of Sorsogon, Branch 53, either out of malice or negligence, the Division Clerk is hereby ordered to refer the records of this case to the Office of the Court Administrator, for such investigation and action as it may deem proper to take.

(pp. 133-134, Rollo.)
In a Memorandum dated January 30, 1996, the Office of the Court administrator recommended that the resolutions of the Court of Appeals dated May 12 and July 11, 1995 be treated as an administrative complaint for alleged false certification against respondent Escalante and that the latter be ordered to show cause why he should not be administratively dealt with for making certifications on apparently different and conflicting copies of the last will and testament of deceased Henry Grant, within ten days from notice (p. 136, Rollo). A Resolution to such effect was issued by the Court on September 3, 1996 (p. 139, Rollo).

In his explanation dated September 30, 1996, respondent Escalante alleged that:
1.       No false certification was ever committed by him, since the two copies of the last will and testament certified to by him was copied from one and the same last will and testament in the custody of the Regional Trial Court Branch 53;

2.       A careful scrutiny of the two copies will reveal that the contents therein are identical and is a mere reproduction of the original last will and testament in the custody of the Court;

3.       The undersigned will never do such stupid act of certifying two different copies of last will and testament when the original of which is in the custody of the court attached to the record and is always available to those interested either to have it copied or merely to subject it to his scrutiny;

4.       One of the copies of the last will and testament alleged to have been falsely certified by him was photocopied without being removed from the voluminous records and the stitches was still intact making it impossible to open fully, the reason why the marginal signatures was not photocopied because the same was blocked by the nylon stitches;

5.       The undersigned begs the Honorable Court to carefully examine the copies as well as the original copy in the custody of the Court.

6.       It is never his attention to cause injustice to the parties in this case.

(pp. 140-141, Rollo.)
Said explanation was noted and referred to the Office of the Court Administrator for evaluation, report, and recommendation by the Court in a Resolution dated November 19, 1996 (p. 144, Rollo).

In a Memorandum dated March 21, 1997, the Office of the Court Administrator made the following findings and recommendation to wit:

Records reveal that the original carbon copy of the last will and testament of deceased Henry Grant submitted by his lawyer, petitioner Atty. Jose Bernabe, to the probate court in lieu of the original, contains the marginal signatures of the testator and his three attesting witnesses and the exhibit markings. The same is true with the copy certified by Tomas H. Moral on December 20, 1994 for the Clerk of Court Marcelo Escalante and the carbon original which was sent to the Court of Appeals by the respondent Clerk of Court in compliance with the Court of appeals resolution dated March 15, 1995. Both copies bear the marginal signatures and the exhibit markings.

It is highly suspicious therefore that a photocopy of the said document was submitted as evidence to the Court of Appeals without the marginal signatures and the markings specially so that the one who submitted it was the oppositor in the probate proceedings and the petitioner in the Appellate Court seeking for the nullification of the probated will.

To our mind there is more than meets the eye here. This could have been done intentionally by the petitioner (Gloria Sotto) to mislead the Appellate Court to give semblance to her claim that the will is void ab initio because it does not have the signatures of the testator and his 3 attesting witnesses as required by law. As between a carbon original of the last will and testament and a photocopy or xerox copy thereof , the former should be given more credence as truthful and faithful reproduction of the documents. It is of common experience that a copy which is merely xeroxed or photocopied can be easily tampered with to omit or add something in the document.

However, we may not find sufficient proof showing that respondent Clerk of Court had a direct hand in tampering of the document or that there was ill-motive in bad faith on his part. Nevertheless, he is still administratively liable for certifying a tampered document. It is certainly grossly negligent on his part to have certified as true copy a document purporting to be a copy of the last will and testament without first examining the said document by comparing it with the original to find out if it is really the true and faithful reproduction of the original in custody of the court. His explanation proferred earlier that the record are voluminous and the records could not be opened fully, the reason why the marginal signatures and exhibit markings were covered by the stitches on the photocopy shows his carelessness in allowing such document. As an officer of the court, he ought to know that the document has become part of the public record and will be used for all legal intents and purposes, so much so that any copy thereof shall be the true and faithful reproduction of the original before he makes any certification. His negligence in the performance of his duty has resulted to an untruthful document.

The principle laid down by the Honorable Court in Bautista vs. Joaquin, Jr., A.M. No. P-236, July 29, 1977, though not in four squares with the instant case may be applied, thus:
In the administration of justice, litigants repose their faith and trust in the authenticity and correctness of court records, and is the bounden duty of officials and employees of the court to maintain and uphold the confidence of the public. Any act which tends to undermine and corrode the public trust is a wrong doing which warrants administrative sanction the severity of which should be commensurate with the gravity of the act committed.

Under the civil Service Law, gross neglect of duty is penalized by 6 months suspension up to dismissal from the service. However, this is the firs offense of his nature by the respondent.

WHEREFORE, it is respectfully recommended that respondent Clerk of Court Marcelo Escalante, RTC, Branch 53, Sorsogon, Sorsogon be meted a penalty of one month suspension without pay to be effective immediately from notice. He be further warned that commission of similar negligence in the future will be severely dealth with.

(pp. 148-150, Rollo.)
The findings as well as the recommendation of the Office of the Court Administrator are well- taken.

We must once again emphasize that the conduct and behavior of everyone connected with an office charged with the dispensation of justice, from the presiding judge to the lowest clerk, should be circumscribed with the heavy burden of responsibility. Their conduct at all times, must not only be characterized by propriety and decorum but above all else must be above suspicion (Lloveras vs. Sanchez, 229 SCRA 302 [1994]). A clerk of court, like herein respondent Escalante, is a ranking and essential officer in any judicial system. His office is the hub of activities. He performs delicate administrative functions essential to the prompt and proper administration of justice. He keeps the records and seal, issues processes, enters judgments and orders, and gives, upon request, certified copies from the records (Juntilla vs. Branch COC-Teresita Calleja and Court Stenographer-Salome A. Montezon, P-96-1225, prom. Sept. 23, 1996; Angeles vs. Bantug, et al., 209 SCRA 413 [1992]).

In the present case, the Court finds respondent Escalante remiss in his duty when he certified as true copy a document purporting to be a copy of last will and testament of Henry Grant without first examining the said document by comparing it with the original on file to determine whether it is indeed a true and faithful reproduction of the original in custody of the probate court. Such failure constitutes gross negligence which warrants disciplinary sanction. Respondent Escalante explains that one of the copies of the last will and testament alleged to have been falsely certified by him was photocopied without being taken from the voluminous stitched records making it impossible to open fully the records and for this reason the marginal signatures were not photocopied because the same were blocked by the nylon stitches. As correctly observed by the Office of the Administrator, the explanation only shows respondent’s negligence and carelessness in permitting such document to be certified without first examining said document. Before certifying the document, Escalante should have compared it with the original so as to determine whether the copy is a faithful reproduction of the original in the custody of the court, this being the proper way in certifying as a true copy a particular document. As it is, respondent’s failure to observe due diligence in the performance of his functions resulted in the introduction of an unfaithful document, causing confusion as well as the delay in the speedy disposition of the case before the Court of Appeals.

As administration of justice is a sacred duty, this Court has continuously and assiduously condemned any omission or act which tends to undermine the faith and trust of the people in the judiciary (Alivia vs. Nieto, 251 SCRA 62 [1995]). Thus every employee or officer involved in this task should be circumscribe with the heavy burden of responsibility and their conduct must, at all times, be above suspicion. (Cunanan vs. Tuazon, 237 SCRA 380 [1994]).

ACCORDINGLY, for gross negligence, respondent Marcelo E. Escalante, Clerk of Court, Branch 53, Sorsogon, Sorsogon, is hereby SUSPENDED for one month wihout pay, effective immediately from notice. He is further warned that a repetition of similar offense shall be dealt with severely.
SO ORDERED.

Narvasa, C.J., Padilla, Regalado, Davide, Jr., Romero, Bellosillo, Puno, Vitug, Kapunan, Mendoza, Francisco, Hermosisima, Jr., Panganiban, and Torres, Jr., JJ., concur.



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