503 Phil. 288
WHEREFORE, the respondents are hereby ordered to reinstate the complainant to his former position, with full backwages from the time his salary was withheld until he is actually reinstated. As of this date, the complainant's backwages has reached the sum of P97,324.17. The respondents are further directed to pay the complainant his 13th month pay for 1998 in the sum of P3,611.89. The claims for allowance and unpaid commission are dismissed for lack of sufficient basis to make an award.Petitioner lodged an appeal with the NLRC, raising as a ground the lack of jurisdiction of the labor arbiter over respondent's complaint. Significally, this issue was not raised by petitioner in the proceedings before the Labor Arbiter. In its Decision dated 16 March 2001, the NLRC reversed the Labor Arbiter on the ground that thee latter had no jurisdiction over the case, it being a grievance issue properly cognizable by the voluntary arbitrator. The decretal portion of the NLRC Decision reads:
WHEREFORE, the decision under review is REVERSED and SET ASIDE, and a new one entered, DISMISSING the complaint for lack of jurisdiction.The motion for reconsideration having been denied on 18 May 2001, respondent elevated the case before the Court of Appeals (CA) through a petition for certiorari under Rule 65.
WHEREFORE, foregoing premises considered, the petition having merit, in fact and in law, is hereby GIVEN DUE COURSE. Accordingly, the challenged resolution/decision and orders of public respondent NLRC are hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE and the decision of the Labor Arbiter dated May 28, 1999 REINSTATED with a slight modification, that the 13th month pay be in the amount of P7,430.50. No costs.Petitioner sought reconsideration of the above Decision but the CA denied the motion in the assailed Resolution dated 27 June 2002. Hence, its recourse to this Court, elevating the following issues:
WHETHER OR NOT METROMEDIA IS ESTOPPED FROM QUESTIONING THE JURISDICTION OF THE LABOR ARBITER OVER THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THE CASE FOR THE FIRST TIME ONLY IN THEIR APPEAL BEFORE THE NLRC.Anent the first assignment of error, there are divergent jurisprudential doctrines touching on this issue. On the one hand are the cases of Martinez v. Merced, Marquez v. Secretary of Labor, Ducat v. Court of Appeals, Bayoca v. Nogales, Jimenez v. Patricia, Centeno v. Centeno, and ABS-CBN Supervisors Employee Union Members v. ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation, all adhering to the doctrine that a party's active participation in the actual proceedings before a court without jurisdiction will estop him from assailing such lack of jurisdiction. Respondent heavily relies on this doctrinal jurisprudence.II.
WHETHER OR NOT THE AWARD OF 13TH MONTH PAY BY THE LABOR ARBITER MAY BE MODIFIED, NOTWITHSTANDING THAT THE SAME WAS NEVER ASSIGNED AS AN ERROR.
Indeed, we agree with petitioner that private respondent was estopped from raising the question of jurisdiction before public respondent NLRC and the latter gravely abused its discretion in addressing said question in private respondents' favor. As early as Martinez vs. De la Merced, 174 SCRA 182, the Supreme Court has clearly ruled thus: "For it has been consistently held by this Court that while lack of jurisdiction may be assailed at any stage, a party's active participation in the proceedings before a court without jurisdiction will estop such party from assailing such lack of jurisdiction."We rule differently. A cursory glance at these cases will lead one to the conclusion that a party who does not raise the jurisdictional question at the outset will be estopped to raise it on appeal. However, a more circumspect analysis would reveal that the cases cited by respondent do not fall squarely within the issue and factual circumstances of the instant case. We proceed to demonstrate.. . . .
The same principle was adopted by the Highest Tribunal in the case of Alfredo Marquez vs. Sec. of Labor, 171 SCRA 337 and quoted in the latter case of ABS-CBN Supervisors Employees Union Members vs. ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation, 304 SCRA 497, where it was ruled that: "The active participation of the party against whom the action was brought, coupled with his failure to object to the jurisdiction of the court or quasi-judicial body where the action is pending, is tantamount to an invocation of that jurisdiction and a willingness to abide by the resolution of the case and will bar said party from later on impugning the court or body's jurisdiction."
. . . a party can not invoke the jurisdiction of a court to secure affirmative relief against his opponent and, after obtaining or failing to obtain such relief, repudiate or question that same jurisdiction (Dean vs. Dean, 136 Or. 694, 86 A.L.R. 79). In the case just cited, by way of explaining the rule, it was further said that the question whether the court had jurisdiction either of the subject-matter of the action or of the parties is barred from such conduct not because the judgment or order of the court is valid and conclusive as an adjudication, but for the reason that such a practice can not be tolerated—obviously for reasons of public policy.However, Tijam represented an exceptional case wherein the party invoking lack of jurisdiction did so only after fifteen (15) years, and at a stage when the proceedings had already been elevated to the Court of Appeals. Even Marquez recognizes that Tijam stands as an exception, rather than a general rule. The CA perhaps though felt comfortable citing Marquez owing to the pronouncement therein that the Court would not hesitate to apply Tijam even absent the extraordinary circumstances therein:
Furthermore, it has also been held that after voluntarily submitting a cause and encountering an adverse decision on the merits, it is too late for the loser to question the jurisdiction or power of the court . . . And in Littleton vs. Burges, 16 Wyo, 58, the Court said that it is not right for a party who has affirmed and invoked the jurisdiction of a court in a particular matter to secure an affirmative relief, to afterwards deny that same jurisdiction to escape a penalty.
". . . where the entertainment of the jurisdictional issue at a belated stage of the proceedings will result in a failure of justice and render nugatory the constitutional imperative of protection to labor."In this case, jurisdiction of the labor arbiter was questioned as early as during appeal before the NLRC, whereas in Marquez, the question of jurisdiction was raised for the first time only before this Court. The viability of Marquez as controlling doctrine in this case is diminished owing to the radically different circumstances in these two cases. A similar observation can be made as to the Bayoca and Jimenez cases.
As pointed out by petitioners, private respondents had at least three opportunities to raise the question of lack of preliminary conference first, when private respondents filed a motion for extension of time to file their position paper; second, at the time when they actually filed their position paper in which they sought affirmative relief from the Metropolitan Trial Court; and third; when they filed a motion for reconsideration of the order of the Metropolitan Trial Court expunging from the records the position paper of private respondents, in which motion private respondents even urged the court to sustain their position paper. And yet, in none of these instances was the issue of lack of preliminary conference raised or even hinted at by private respondents. In fine, these are acts amounting to a waiver of the irregularity of the proceedings. For it has been consistently held by this Court that while lack of jurisdiction may be assailed at any stage, a party's active participation in the proceedings before a court without jurisdiction will estop such party from assailing such lack of jurisdiction.The case of Ducat was categorical in saying that if the parties acquiesced in submitting an issue for determination by the trial court, they are estopped from questioning the jurisdiction of the same court to pass upon the issue. But this should be taken in the context of the "agreement" of the parties. We quote from said case:
Petitioner's filing of a Manifestion and Urgent Motion to Set Parameters of Computation is indicative of its conformity with the questioned order of the trial court referring the matter of computation of the excess to SGV and simultaneously thereafter, the issuance of a writ of possession. If petitioner thought that subject order was wrong, it could have taken recourse to the Court of Appeals but petitioner did not. Instead he manifested his acquiescence in the said order by seeking parameters before the trial court. It is now too late for petitioner to question subject order of the trial court. Petitioner cannot be allowed to make a mockery of judicial processes, by changing his position from one of the agreement to disagreement, to suit his needs. If the parties acquiesced in submitting an issue for determination by the trial court, they are estopped from questioning the jurisdiction of the same court to pass upon the issue. Petitioner is consequently estopped from questioning subject order of the trial court.Centeno involved the question of jurisdiction of the Department of Agrarian Reform Arbitration Board (DARAB). The Court did rule therein that "participation by certain parties in the administrative proceedings without raising any objection thereto, bars them from any jurisdictional infirmity after an adverse decision is rendered against them." Still, the Court did recognize therein that the movants questioning jurisdiction had actually sought and litigated for affirmative reliefs before the DARAB in support of a submitted counterclaim. No similar circumstance obtains in this case concerning the petitioner.
. . . .More importantly, estoppel cannot be invoked to prevent this Court from taking up the question of jurisdiction, which has been apparent on the face of the pleadings since the start of litigation before the Labor Arbiter. It is well settled that the decision of a tribunal not vested with appropriate jurisdiction is null and void. Thus, in Calimlim vs. Ramirez, this Court held:The jurisdiction of the Labor Arbiter was assailed in the cases of De Rossi v. NLRC and Union Motors Corporation v. NLRC during appeal to the NLRC. Since the same circumstance obtains in this case, the rulings therein, favorable as they are to the petitioner, are germane.
"A rule that had been settled by unquestioned acceptance and upheld in decisions so numerous to cite is that the jurisdiction of a court over the subject matter of the action is a matter of law and may not be conferred by consent or agreement of the parties. The lack of jurisdiction of a court may be raised at any stage of the proceedings, even on appeal. This doctrine has been qualified by recent pronouncements which stemmed principally from the ruling in the cited case of Sibonghanoy. It is to be regretted, however, that the holding in said case had been applied to situations which were obviously not contemplated therein. The exceptional circumstances involved in Sibonghanoy which justified the departure from the accepted concept of non-waivability of objection to jurisdiction has been ignored and, instead a blanket doctrine had been repeatedly upheld that rendered the supposed ruling in Sibonghanoy not as the exception, but rather the general rule, virtually overthrowing altogether the time honored principle that the issue of jurisdiction is not lost by waiver or by estoppel.. . . .
"It is neither fair nor legal to bind a party by the result of a suit or proceeding which was taken cognizance of in a court which lacks jurisdiction over the same irrespective of the attendant circumstances. The equitable defense of estoppel requires knowledge or consciousness of the facts upon which it is based. The same thing is true with estoppel by conduct which may be asserted only when it is shown, among others, that the representation must have been made with knowledge of the facts and that the party to whom it was made is ignorant of the truth of the matter (De Castro vs. Gineta, 27 SCRA 623). The filing of an action or suit in a court that does not possess jurisdiction to entertain the same may not be presumed to be deliberate and intended to secure a ruling which could later be annulled if not favorable to the party who filed such suit or proceeding in a court that lacks jurisdiction to take cognizance of the same, such act may not at once be deemed sufficient basis of estoppel. It could have been te result of an honest mistake or of divergent interpretation of doubtful legal provisions. If any fault is to be imputed to a party taking such course of action, part of the blame should be placed on the court which shall entertain the suit, thereby lulling the parties into believing that they pursued their remedies in the correct forum. Under the rules, it is the duty of the court to dismiss an action `whenever it appears that court has no jurisdiction over the subject matter.' (Section 2, Rule 9, Rules of Court) Should the Court render a judgment without jurisdiction, such judgment may be impeached or annulled for lack of jurisdiction (Sec. 30, Rule 132, Ibid), within ten (10) years from the finality of the same (Art. 1144, par. 3, Civil Code)."
Petitioner maintains that MICC can not question now the issue of jurisdiction of the NLRC, considering that MICC did not raise this matter until after the case had been brought on appeal to the NLRC. However, it has long been established as a rule, that jurisdiction of a tribunal, agency, or office, is conferred by law, and its lack of jurisdiction may be questioned at any time even on appeal. In La Naval Drug Corporation vs. Court of Appeals, 236 SCRA 78, 90, this Court said:We held in the Union Motors Case:
"Lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter of the suit is yet another matter. Whenever it appears that the court has no jurisdiction over the subject matter, the action shall be dismissed. This defense may be interposed at any time, during appeal or even after final judgment. Such is understandable, as this kind of jurisdiction is conferred by law and not within the courts, let alone the parties, to themselves determine or conveniently set aside."
The long-established rule is that jurisdiction over a subject matter is conferred by law. [Ilaw at Buklod ng Manggaggawa v. NLRC, 219 SCRA 536 (1993); Atlas Developer & Steel Industries, Inc. v. Sarmiento Enterprises, Inc., 184 SCRA 153 (1990); Tijam v. Sibonghanoy, 23 SCRA 29, 30 (1968)]. Estoppel does not apply to confer jurisdiction to a tribunal that has none over a cause of action. Where it appears that the court or tribunal has no jurisdiction, then the defense may be interposed at any time, even on appeal or even after final judgment. Moreover, the principle of estoppel cannot be invoked to prevent this court from taking up the question of jurisdiction.The rulings in Lozon v. NLRC addresses the issue at hand. This Court came up with a clear rule as to when jurisdiction by estoppel applies and when it does not:
Lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter of the suit is yet another matter. Whenever it appears that the court has no jurisdiction over the subject matter, the action shall be dismissed (Section 2, Rule 9, Rules of Court). This defense may be interposed at any time, during appeal (Roxas vs. Rafferty, 37 Phil. 957) or even after final judgment (Cruzcosa vs. Judge Concepcion, et al., 101 Phil. 146). Such is understandable, as this kind of jurisdiction is conferred by law and not within the courts, let alone the parties, to themselves determine or conveniently set aside. In People vs. Casiano (111 Phil. 73, 93-94), this Court, on the issue of estoppel, held:Verily, Lozon, Union Motors, Dy and De Rossi aptly resolve the jurisdictional issue obtaining in this case. Applying the guidelines in Lozon, the labor arbiter assumed jurisdiction when he should not. In fact, the NLRC correctly reversed the labor arbiter's decision and ratiocinated:
"The operation of the principle of estoppel on the question of jurisdiction seemingly depends upon whether the lower court actually had jurisdiction or not. If it had no jurisdiction, but the case was tried and decided upon the theory that it had jurisdiction, the parties are not barred, on appeal, from assailing such jurisdiction, for the same 'must exist as a matter of law, and may not be conferred by consent of the parties or by estoppel' (5 C.J.S., 861-863). However, if the lower court had jurisdiction, and the case was heard and decided upon a given theory, such, for instance, as that the court had no jurisdiction, the party who induced it to adopt such theory will not be permitted, on appeal, to assume an inconsistent position—that the lower court had jurisdiction. Here, the principle of estoppel applies. The rule that jurisdiction is conferred by law, and does not depend upon the will of the parties, has no bearing thereon. (Emphasis supplied)
What appears at first blush to be an issue which pertains to the propriety of complainant's reassignment to another job on account of his having contracted a private loan, is one which may be considered as falling within the jurisdiction of the Office of the Labor Arbiter. Nevertheless, since the complainant is a union member, he should be bound by the covenants provided for in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.In line with the cases cited above and applying the general rule that estoppel does not confer jurisdiction, petitioner is not estopped from assailing the jurisdiction of the labor arbiter before the NLRC on appeal.. . . .
Based on the foregoing considerations, it appears that the issue of validity of complainant's reassignment stemmed from the exercise of a management prerogative which is a matter apt for resolution by a Grievance Committee, the parties having opted to consider such as a grievable issue. Further, a review of the records would show that the matter of reassignment is one not directly related to the charge of complainant's having committed an act which is inimical to respondents' interest, since the latter had already been addressed to by complainant's service of a suspension order. The transfer, in effect, is one which properly falls under Section 1, Article IV of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and, as such, questions as to the enforcement thereof is one which falls under the jurisdiction of the labor arbiter."