536 Phil. 733

FIRST DIVISION

[ G.R. NO. 169898, October 27, 2006 ]

SPOUSES ANITA AND HONORIO AGUIRRE, PETITIONERS, VS. HEIRS OF LUCAS VILLANUEVA, NAMELY: JOSE T. VILLANUEVA, PABLO T. VILLANUEVA, PEDRO T. VILLANUEVA, RODOLFO T. VILLANUEVA, DELIA V. DELA TORRE, JUANITA V. INGLES, & SABELITO V. GELITO, RESPONDENTS.

DECISION

YNARES-SANTIAGO, J.:

This petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court assails the Decision[1] dated March 17, 2005 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CV No. 72530 which affirmed the Decision[2] dated August 6, 2001 of the Regional Trial Court of Kalibo, Aklan, Branch 8, in Civil Case No. 5745, declaring private respondents as absolute owners of the subject parcel of land. Likewise assailed is the September 20, 2005 Resolution[3] denying petitioners' motion for reconsideration.

A complaint for annulment or declaration of nullity of deed of exchange, tax declarations and recovery of ownership and possession with damages was filed by private respondents against petitioners.

Private respondents alleged that they are the legitimate children and grandson of the late spouses Lucas Villanueva and Regina Tupas Villanueva; that during the lifetime of Lucas Villanueva, he owned a parcel of residential land designated as Lot 764-A situated at Barangay Balabag, Malay, Aklan with an area of 140 square meters, more or less, and declared for taxation purposes under his name under Tax Declaration No. 252 (1947); that spouses Villanueva possessed the subject parcel of land during their lifetime openly, publicly and continuously in the concept of an owner and after their death, they were succeeded by their children; that sometime in August 1997, petitioners and their hired laborers fenced the whole land in question without the knowledge and consent of private respondents; that when confronted by private respondents concerning the fencing of the land, petitioners alleged that they acquired the same through inheritance from their father, Eutiquiano Salazar, who in turn purchased the land from the late Ciriaco H. Tirol by virtue of a Deed of Exchange of Real Property.

In their Answer,[4] petitioners claimed that petitioner Anita S. Aguirre is the lawful owner and actual possessor of the land in question, it being a portion of a bigger parcel of land she inherited from her deceased parents Eutiquiano Salazar and Regina Supetran Salazar who bought the land from Ciriaco H. Tirol per Deed of Exchange of Real Property[5] dated December 31, 1971 and registered in the Office of the Register of Deeds of Aklan; that the parcel of land is included under Tax Declaration No. 4033 (1953) in the name of Trinidad vda. de Tirol and the same is in the possession of the Tirol family as owner thereof continuously, openly and adversely even before the second world war; that the land had been surveyed as part of Cadastral Lot 764, NP-06-000001, Malay Cadastre, in the name of Eutiquiano Salazar by the Bureau of Lands; that the land has been declared under Tax Declaration No. 1264 (1974) and subsequent tax declarations in the name of Eutiquiano Salazar; that the land was first fenced with bamboos in 1981 and with cement hollow blocks in 1985 without any opposition from private respondents; and that the action is barred by prescription and private respondents are guilty of laches in failing to assert their alleged right of ownership after the lapse of more than fifty (50) years since it was possessed by the heirs of the late Trinidad vda. de Tirol.

On August 6, 2001, the trial court rendered judgment, the dispositive portion of which reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, judgment is hereby rendered:
  1. Declaring the plaintiffs the lawful owners and entitled to possession of the land in question identified as Lot 764-A in the Commissioner's Sketch marked Exhibit "L", and as owners, are entitled to the possession of the same;

  2. Ordering the defendants to restore possession of the land in question to the plaintiffs;

  3. Ordering the defendants to pay the plaintiffs the sum of One Thousand Eight Hundred Pesos (P1,800.00) by way of litigation expenses, and another sum of Fifteen Thousand Pesos (P15,000.00) as reimbursement for attorney's fees; and

  4. Ordering the Provincial Assessor of Aklan to issue a new tax declaration of the land in question in the name of the plaintiffs upon compliance of the requirements of that office and upon payment of appropriate taxes on the land including back taxes, if any.
For insufficiency of evidence, plaintiffs claim for moral damages is denied and for lack of merit, defendants counterclaim is DISMISSED.

With cost against the defendants.

SO ORDERED.[6]
The trial court noted that the tax declarations in the name of Trinidad vda. de Tirol and the survey plan did not establish the fact that Ciriaco Tirol is the owner and possessor of the land in question, thus, he has no right to transfer ownership of the same to Eutiquiano Salazar; that petitioners were not possessors in good faith since they knew as early as 1954 that private respondents were in possession of the land; that petitioners did not acquire the land via extraordinary acquisitive prescription considering that their possession only lasted for 26 years from 1971 up to 1997 when private respondents first instituted the complaint.

On March 17, 2005, the Court of Appeals rendered a decision denying petitioners' appeal and affirming in toto the trial court's decision.

Petitioners' motion for reconsideration was denied hence this petition raising the following issues:
  1. THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN NOT FINDING THAT THE AGUIRRES HAD ACQUIRED TITLE OVER THE DISPUTED PROPERTY VIA ORDINARY ACQUISITIVE PRESCRIPTION;

  2. THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN NOT FINDING THAT THE VILLANUEVAS� CAUSE OF ACTION HAD BEEN BARRED BY PRESCRIPTION;

  3. THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN REFUSING TO APPLY THE EQUITABLE RULE ON LACHES;

  4. THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN FINDING THAT THE VILLANUEVAS WERE IN "POSSESSION" AND "OWNERSHIP" OF THE DISPUTED PROPERTY PRIOR TO THE EXECUTION OF THE DEED OF EXCHANGE BETWEEN CIRIACO TIROL AND THE AGUIRRES' ASCENDANT-PREDECESSOR IN 1971;

  5. THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN RULING THAT THE AGUIRRES HAVE NOT PROVED THE ROOT OF THEIR RIGHT OF OWNERSHIP OVER THE DISPUTED PROPERTY; AND

  6. THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN NOT APPRECIATING FOR THE AGUIRRES THE FACT THAT THE LATTER HAD "JUST TITLE," AND HAD BEEN IN POSSESSION OF THE DISPUTED PROPERTY "IN GOOD FAITH" SINCE 1971.[7]
We find merit in the petition.

This Court is not a trier of facts. However, if the inference drawn by the appellate court from the facts is manifestly mistaken, as in the instant case, we can review the evidence in order to arrive at the correct factual conclusions based on the record.[8]

Prescription, in general, is a mode of acquiring (or losing) ownership and other real rights through the lapse of time in the manner and under conditions laid down by law, namely, that the possession should be in the concept of an owner, public, peaceful, uninterrupted and adverse. Acquisitive prescription is either ordinary or extraordinary. Ordinary acquisitive prescription requires possession in good faith and with just title for 10 years. Without good faith and just title, acquisitive prescription can only be extraordinary in character which requires uninterrupted adverse possession for 30 years.[9]

Thus, for ordinary acquisitive prescription to set in, possession must be for at least 10 years, in good faith and with just title. Possession is "in good faith" when there is a reasonable belief that the person from whom the thing is received has been the owner thereof and could thereby transmit his ownership.[10] There is "just title" when the adverse claimant comes into possession of the property through any of the modes recognized by law for the acquisition of ownership or other real rights, but the grantor is neither the owner nor in a position to transmit the right."[11]

In the instant case, we find sufficient evidence to support petitioners' claim that the requirements for ordinary prescription are present.

The trial court found that petitioners' possession was for more than 10 years and with just title, thus:
There is no question that the defendants have been in public, and uninterrupted possession of the land in question in the concept of an owner for a span of twenty six (26) years from the time the land in question was included in the deed of exchange in 1971 up to the time the plaintiffs complained in 1997 (Exh. "K"). There is also no question that defendants' possession of the land in question was with just title. Just title in the sense that the defendants acquired the land in question by way of exchange which is one of the modes recognized by law in acquiring ownership.[12]
Contrary however to the findings of the trial court, petitioners possessed the property in good faith. Petitioner Anita Aguire's father, Eutiquiano Salazar, bought the subject property from Ciriaco Tirol, whose claim on the property is founded on the following documents: (1) Tax Declaration No. 729 in the name of Trinidad vda. de Tirol for the year 1945 (Exhibit "4"); (2) Tax Declaration No. 4033 in the name of Trinidad vda. de Tirol for the year 1953 (Exhibit "4-A"); and (3) the survey plan approved by the Bureau of Lands in 1952 (Exhibit "6"). Thus, petitioners honestly believed that ownership of the subject parcel of land was transmitted to Anita by succession from his deceased father, and who thereafter possessed the property and exercised dominion over it.

Likewise, the trial court's finding that petitioner Anita Aguirre was not a possessor in good faith since she knew as early as 1954 that private respondents were in possession of the disputed land has no basis. Anita Aguirre testified that Magdalena Tupas built a house in the controverted property in 1957 with the permission of Bernardo Escalante, the administrator of the Tirols.[13]

To prove their ownership, petitioners presented Tax Declaration No. 1264 for the year 1974 (Exhibit "4-B") and other tax declarations (Exhibits "4-C, "4-D", "5" and submarkings) for the year 1980 to 1994, in the name of Eutiquiano Salazar declaring the subject land for taxation purposes. While tax declarations and receipts are not conclusive evidence of ownership and do not prove title to the land, nevertheless, when coupled with actual possession, they constitute evidence of great weight and can be the basis of a claim of ownership through prescription.[14]

Records also show that Lucas Villanueva, private respondents' predecessor-in-interest, did not actually possess the subject property during his lifetime. Private respondent Delia Villanueva Dela Torre, testified that her parents while still alive resided in Sitio Din-iwid, Balabag, Malay, Aklan, about less than a kilometer away from the land in question.[15] Neither did any of the private respondents ever reside therein.[16] The actual possession by the private respondents rests solely on the possession of Magdalena Tupas and her husband for eight years allegedly with the permission of Regina Tupas Villanueva. However, the testimonies of Rubio Sastre and Magdalena Tupas regarding the actual possession of Lucas Villanueva through planting of trees and gathering of fruits cannot be given full weight and credence because the witnesses were of tender years then, barely seven or twelve years old, and did not have discernment of the concept of possession and ownership. Moreover, no evidence was presented on how Lucas Villanueva acquired the land in question from Eusebio Sacapano, the uncle of Regina Tupas Villanueva. In addition, Tax Declaration No. 252 for the year 1947 (Exhibit "C") in the name of Lucas Villanueva does not have probative value since it was executed four years after the death of Lucas Villanueva in 1943. Tax receipts submitted by the private respondents in payment for the year 1986 up to 1996 were actually paid on the same day, February 20, 1996 by his son Dionito Villanueva.[17]

On the other hand, after buying the property in 1971, petitioners possessed the same in the concept of an owner. They peacefully occupied it, built fences, planted plants and used the same as ingress and egress towards their cottages. Having been in continuous possession and enjoyment of the disputed land in good faith and with a just title since 1971 until 1997, petitioners doubtlessly obtained title by ordinary acquisitive prescription.

Moreover, the action is barred by laches which is defined as the failure to assert a right for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time, warranting a presumption that the party entitled to assert it has either abandoned or declined to assert it. This equitable defense is based upon grounds of public policy, which requires the discouragement of stale claims for the peace of society.[18]

In the instant case, private respondents knew as early as 1981 that petitioners are building fences in the perimeter of the disputed land but did not take action to assert their rights over the subject parcel of land. They waited 16 long years to oust petitioners from the possession of the land. Definitely, laches had already set in.

WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The Decision dated March 17, 2005 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CV No. 72530, affirming the decision of the Regional Trial Court of Kalibo, Aklan, Branch 8, in Civil Case No. 5745, is hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Petitioners are hereby DECLARED as lawful owners of the subject property through acquisitive prescription.

SO ORDERED.

Panganiban, C.J., (Chairperson), Austria-Martinez, Callejo, Sr., and Chico-Nazario, JJ., concur.



[1] Rollo, pp. 57-62. Penned by Associate Justice Isaias P. Dicdican and concurred in by Associate Justices Vicente L. Yap and Enrico A. Lanzanas.

[2] Id. at 82-108. Penned by Judge Eustaquio G. Terencio.

[3] Id. at 63-64.

[4] Id. at 76-81.

[5] Id. at 73-74.

[6] Id. at 107-108.

[7] Id. at 19-20.

[8] Heirs of Flores Restar v. Heirs of Dolores R. Cichon, G.R. No. 161720. November 22, 2005, 475 SCRA 731,739.

[9] Heirs of Segunda Maningding v. Court of Appeals, 342 Phil. 567, 574 (1997); See also CIVIL CODE, Arts. 1117, 1134 & 1137.

[10] Id., Art. 1127.

[11] Id., Art. 1129.

[12] Rollo, p. 105.

[13] TSN, May 16, 2000, p. 15.

[14] Heirs of Flores Restar v. Heirs of Dolores R. Cichon, supra note 8 at 741.

[15] TSN, October 8, 1999, p. 7.

[16] Id. at 25-26.

[17] TSN, December 2, 1999, p. 13.

[18] Vda. De Rigonan v. Derecho, G.R. No. 159571, July 15, 2005, 463 SCRA 627, 648.



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