587 Phil. 435

EN BANC

[ A.M. No. 2007-25-SC, September 18, 2008 ]

RONNIE C. DELA CRUZ, COMPLAINANT, VS. REDENTOR A. ZAPICO, QUIRINO V. ITLIONG II, AND ODON C. BALANI, RESPONDENTS.

DECISION

LEONARDO-DE CASTRO, J.:

This administrative case stemmed from a complaint-affidavit dated November 29, 2007 filed with the Office of Administrative Services (OAS) of this Court by Ronnie C. Dela Cruz,[1] against Redentor A. Zapico,[2] Quirino V. Itliong II,[3] and Odon C. Balani[4] for grave misconduct, conduct unbecoming a Court employee, and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.

The complaint recounts an altercation involving the parties which happened on the evening of November 14, 2007 at the Peking Wok Restaurant, along Arkansas Street, between Orosa and Bocobo Streets, Ermita, Manila. Complainant allegedly went there at around 11:30 p.m. to fetch his girlfriend, Rubylyn C. Badinas (Rubylyn), who worked as a cashier in the said restaurant. When complainant arrived at the restaurant, respondents were having a drinking session at a table in front of the cashier's counter. Rubylyn purportedly heard respondents Itliong and Balani talking about complainant and saying: "Ang sama makatingin, o!" "Kabago-bago pa lang sa Court, ang yabang na."[5] Rubylyn told complainant to just ignore the respondents' remarks. To avoid any untoward incident, complainant just moved to a table in the corner of the restaurant, behind the cashier's counter to wait for Rubylyn whom he invited to go to the Caliente Bar on Orosa Street. After a while, complainant decided to go ahead to Caliente Bar and suggested to Rubylyn that she just follow him there.

Complainant further alleged that when he passed by respondents' table upon leaving the restaurant, both respondents Itliong and Balani suddenly uttered invectives at him: "Putang Ina mo!" "Ano, hanggang tingin ka lang pala eh!" "Ano, papalag ka ba?" Complainant just ignored their utterances and continued walking towards the door. Respondent Zapico allegedly followed complainant outside, then shouted invectives and attacked the latter. Complainant fell to the ground and while lying down, all three respondents allegedly mauled him. Complainant claims that he tried to defend himself by using his arms and kicking his legs. The mauling allegedly ended when people restrained the parties and stopped the fight.

Thereafter, complainant proceeded to the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) Emergency Room for treatment and medico-legal examination. In the Medico-Legal Certificate issued by PGH, complainant was found to have suffered physical injuries which, "will require medical attendance for a period of less than nine (9) days."[6] When complainant reached home, he requested his friend and officemate Samuel Galope to take photos of his injuries.[7] The following day, he went to the Manila Police District Station 2 and had the incident entered into the police blotter.[8] Due to the injuries he suffered, complainant was not able to report for work for two (2) days.

On December 5, 2007, the OAS issued a Memorandum to respondents, directing them to submit their Comment/Explanation within five (5) days from receipt of the complaint-affidavit. Upon written request of respondents, the OAS granted them an extension of fifteen (15) days, or until December 27, 2007, within which to submit their comments.

In his Comment/Explanation dated December 21, 2007, respondent Zapico disputed complainant's version of the incident. Although he admitted that he was with his co-respondents Itliong and Balani at the Peking Wok Restaurant on the evening of November 14, 2007, he insisted that complainant was the one who initiated the altercation when the latter passed by their table. When complainant was barely out of the glass door with the door still open, he allegedly raised both his hands and made two dirty-finger signs and shouted "fuck you" to respondents. Thus, Zapico called complainant back to clarify what he meant. When complainant returned towards Zapico's direction, the former was already enraged and continuously shouting invectives, with his finger pointed at the latter [Zapico].

Respondent Zapico further maintained that it was complainant who first started throwing punches but he [Zapico] was able to parry them. He added that because complainant was under the influence of liquor, he missed hitting him [Zapico] which enraged complainant even more. Zapico claimed that he and complainant exchanged blows, with both sides being able to hit or land punches on the other. Zapico alleged that the fighting stopped when his co-respondents restrained him and Rubylyn pulled complainant away from Zapico. Even after they were already parted, complainant allegedly tried to follow Zapico inside and uttered, "Kilala kita Reden, may Admin tayo, ipapaadmin kita, kay Justice Carpio ako." Respondent Zapico further averred that both respondents Itliong and Balani merely helped stop the fight and did not join him in fighting the complainant.

In their separate Comment/Explanation dated December 21, 2007, co-respondents Itliong and Balani corroborated respondent Zapico's narration, reiterating that it was only respondent Zapico and complainant who engaged in a fistfight.

Moreover, all three respondents argued that the incident, which took place after office hours, was purely personal in character and in no way related to office work. Thus, they prayed for the dismissal of the instant administrative complaint not only for lack of merit, but also for want of jurisdiction of the OAS to entertain and take cognizance of the same.

In his Reply dated January 7, 2008, complainant maintained his previous statements in his complaint-affidavit. He insisted that he did not give any provocation and even avoided the three respondents, but they still hurled invectives at him and attacked him. He additionally argued that the OAS has jurisdiction over the complaint, citing Pablejan v. Calleja[9] wherein the Court held that "[e]mployees of the judiciary should be living examples of uprightness not only in the performance of their official duties, but also in their personal and private dealings with other people, so as to preserve at all times the good name and standing of courts in the community."

In their separate Rejoinders, respondents reiterated that the fight occurred after office hours, outside the court premises and was not work-related. Thus, they insisted and prayed that the case be dismissed. Moreover, respondents Itliong and Balani maintained that they did not actually participate in the fistfight but they only stopped respondent Zapico and complainant from hitting each other.

In its Memorandum dated April 17, 2008, the OAS found only respondent Zapico guilty of conduct unbecoming a court employee, thus:
In the present case, this Office submits that the Court can take cognizance of the same, pursuant to its mandate in the exercise of its over-all supervision as administrator of Court personnel, including the responsibility of imposing discipline upon erring officials and employees.

The allegation of the respondents that it was the complainant who made the provocation and immediately delivered the attack deserves scant consideration. Regrettably, respondent have not presented any evidence and witnesses to rebut the complainant's claim and sufficiently establish any defense relating to the incident so as to tilt the scale of justice in their favor. Neither does this Office see any reason that would show that complainant and his witnesses have any motive whatsoever to concoct a false statement against them except to seek for justice.

Anent the complaint against respondents Itliong and Balani, herein complainant, however, has failed to substantiate his allegations thereto. This Office submits the dismissal of the administrative case against Messrs. Itliong and Balani for lack of merit.

This Office expresses its inability to pin down respondents for the physical injuries sustained by the complainant since they can be the subject of a separate criminal case which requires proof beyond reasonable doubt. Be that as it may, the wrong committed against all the parties to the incident and who may be liable therefore will be determined at the proper time and forum.

We remind the respondents that their employment in this Court is not a status symbol or a badge to be brandished around for all to see, but a sacred duty and, as ordained by the Constitution, a public trust. They should be more circumspect in how they conduct themselves in and outside the office. After all, they do not stop becoming judiciary employees once they step outside the gates of the Supreme Court.

Under Rule XIV, Section 22 of the Omnibus Rules Implementing Book V of Executive Order No. 292 and Other Pertinent Civil Services laws, simple misconduct is classified as less grave offense that carries the penalty of suspension ranging from one (1) month and one (1) day to six (6) months for the first offense and the penalty of dismissal for the second offense.

This Office noted, however, the presence of mitigating circumstances such as respondent's length of service of 16 years in the Court; his "Very Satisfactory" (VS) performance ratings for the past three consecutive semesters; and this being the first administrative charge filed against him. It is recommended that he be severely reprimanded.

Premises considered, this Office respectfully recommends that Mr. Redentor A. Zapico, Executive Assistant I, Office of the Chief Justice, be SEVERELY REPRIMANDED for conduct unbecoming of a court employee who acted beyond the tolerable bounds of good manners and propriety in public, with a warning that a repetition of the same or similar act will be dealt with more severely.

Insofar as the complaint filed against Messrs. Quirino V. Itliong II, Judicial Staff Assistant III, Philippine Judicial Academy; and Odon C. Balani, Utility Worker II, Office of the Clerk of Court Second Division, it is recommended that the same be dismissed for lack of merit.[10]
The issue for resolution is whether or not the conduct of respondents shows that they are liable for the offenses charged and warrants the imposition of administrative sanctions.

Anent the preliminary issue of whether the OAS has jurisdiction over the complaint and may take cognizance of the present case, we rule in the affirmative. It is beyond cavil that this Court has the right to discipline erring employees by virtue of its administrative supervision of all courts and court personnel.

The fact that the incident complained of was not related to respondents' work or official duties and took place after office hours and outside the Court does not warrant the dismissal of the case, as respondents contend. This Court has held that employees of the judiciary should be living examples of uprightness not only in the performance of their official duties, but also in their personal and private dealings with other people, so as to preserve at all times the good name and standing of courts in the community.[11] Employees in the government service are bound by the rules of proper and ethical behavior and are expected to act with self-restraint and civility at all times, even when confronted with rudeness and insolence.[12]

We agree with the following pronouncement of the OAS:
We remind the respondents that their employment in this Court is not a status symbol or a badge to be brandished around for all to see, but a sacred duty and, as ordained by the Constitution, a public trust. They should be more circumspect in how they conduct themselves in and outside the office. After all, they do not stop becoming judiciary employees once they step outside the gates of the Supreme Court. (citing Lorenzo v. Lopez, A.M. No. 2006-02-SC, October 15, 2007; emphasis supplied)
Anent the administrative liability of respondents, we uphold the findings and recommendation of the OAS with modification.

Misconduct generally means wrongful, improper, unlawful conduct motivated by a premeditated, obstinate, or intentional purpose.[13] Any transgression or deviation from the established norm of conduct, work- related or not, amounts to a misconduct.[14]

The image of a court of justice is necessarily mirrored in the conduct, official or otherwise, of the men and women therein, from the judge to the least and lowest of its personnel; hence, it becomes the imperative and sacred duty of each and everyone in the court to maintain its good name and standing as a true temple of justice.[15] The conduct of court personnel must be, and also perceived to be, free from any whiff of impropriety, with respect not only to their duties in the judiciary but also in their behavior outside the court.[16] Their behavior and actuations must be characterized by propriety and decorum and should at all times embody prudence, restraint, courtesy and dignity. Simply put, they must always conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the public's respect for the judiciary.

With respect to respondent Zapico, we agree with the finding of the OAS that his outburst of temper and act of attacking the complainant, despite the lack of evidence of sufficient provocation on the part of complainant tended to degrade the dignity and the image of the judiciary. Such belligerence on the part of Zapico and his infliction of multiple, visible injuries on complainant are clear deviations from the established norm of conduct, even if it is not work-related, and amounts to misconduct. He undeniably fell short of the high standards of propriety and decorum expected of employees of the judiciary. Thus, the recommendation of the OAS finding respondent Zapico guilty of simple misconduct is well-taken.

Section 52(B)(2) of the Revised Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service[17] provides:
Section 52. Classification of Offenses.-- Administrative offenses with corresponding penalties are classified into grave, less grave or light, depending on their gravity or depravity and effects on the government service.

B. The following are less grave offenses with the corresponding penalties:

x x x

2. Simple misconduct

1st offense -- Suspension (1 mo. 1 day to 6 mos.)

2nd offense -- Dismissal
Under the above provision, it classifies simple misconduct as a less grave offense punishable by suspension of one month and one day to six months for the first offense. However, as recommended by the OAS, we shall appreciate as mitigating circumstances the following: (a) respondent's sixteen (16) years of service in the Court; (b) his Very Satisfactory (VS) rating for the past three consecutive semesters; and (c) this instance being his first time to have been charged administratively. This is also in consonance with Section 53 of the Revised Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service which provides that in the determination of the penalties to be imposed, the extenuating, mitigating, aggravating or alternative circumstances may be considered.

Thus, the penalty of suspension for one (1) month and one (1) day should be imposed upon respondent Zapico for the commission of the first offense of simple misconduct with a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar acts in the future will be dealt with more severely.

With respect to respondents Itliong and Balani, while we agree with the OAS that complainant failed to substantiate his allegation that respondents Itliong and Balani participated in the "mauling" of complainant, we find that their actuations in this case are not above reproach. In their respective comments, they admit that Itliong indeed told Zapico that complainant allegedly gave Zapico "a hard look" or was "sizing [Zapico] up from head to toe." Even Zapico narrated in this own comment that his co-respondents told him that complainant gave him a "bad stare" and "sized him up."[18] All this tended to corroborate complainant's and Rubylyn's statements that she [Rubylyn] heard respondents Itliong and Balani make remarks, such as: "Ang sama makatingin, o!" "Kabago-bago pa lang sa Court, ang yabang na." Such statements contributed to, if not precipitated, the tension between complainant and respondent Zapico. This Court likewise notes with disfavor the fact that although Itliong and Balani did not appear to have helped in the attack on complainant, they failed to timely intervene between their friend Zapico and complainant to prevent the incident from progressing to such a stage that complainant, their co-employee, even sustained injuries.

Respondents Itliong and Balani should be admonished for their deplorable conduct, which likewise falls short of the high standards of decorum and propriety expected of them.

IN VIEW WHEREOF, respondent Redentor A. Zapico is hereby SUSPENDED for One (1) Month and One (1) Day without pay while respondents Quirino V. Itliong II, and Odon C. Balani are REPRIMANDED for their improper conduct, with a warning to said respondents that a repetition of the same or similar offense shall be dealt with more severely in the future.

SO ORDERED.

Puno, C.J., Quisumbing, Corona, Carpio Morales, Tinga, Chico-Nazario, Velasco, Jr. Nachura, Reyes, and Brion, JJ., concur.
Ynares-Santiago, Carpio, Austria-Martinez, and Azcuna, JJ., on official leave.



[1] Legislative Staff Assistant II of the House of Representative Electoral Tribunal (HRET), detailed in the Office of Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio.

[2] Court Stenographer IV, Public Information Office, detailed in the Office of the Chief Justice.

[3] Judicial Staff Assistant III, Philippine Judicial Academy.

[4] Utility Worker II, Office of the Clerk of Court, Second Division.

[5] Complaint-affidavit, rollo, p.145.

[6] Id., at, 154.

[7] Id., at, 156-159.

[8] Id., at 155.

[9] A.M. No. P-06-2102, January 24, 2006.

[10] Rollo, pp. 7-8.

[11] Pablejan v. Calleja, A.M. No. P-06-2102, January 24, 2006, 479 SCRA 562, 570 citing Santelices v. Samar, 373 SCRA 78 (2002).

[12] Orfila v. Arellano, A.M. Nos. P-06-2110 & P-03-1692, February 13, 2006, 482 SCRA 280, 300, citing Rona Quiroz v. Cristeta Orfila, 338 Phil. 51; 272 SCRA 324.

[13] Office of the Court Administrator v. Paderanga, A.M. No. RTJ-01-1660, August 25, 2005, 468 SCRA 21, 35-36.

[14] Re: Disciplinary Action against Antonio Lamano, Jr., of the Judgment Division, Supreme Court, A.M. No. 99-10-10-SC, November 29, 1999, 319 SCRA 351.

[15] Asensi v. Villanueva, A.M. No. MTJ-00-1245, January 19, 2000, 322 SCRA 255.

[16] Macinas v. Arimado, A.M. No. P-04-1869 (Formerly OCA I.P.I. No. 03-1764-P), September 30, 2005, 471 SCRA 162, citing Francisco v. Laurel, 413 SCRA 327.

[17] Promulgated by the Civil Service Commission (CSC) through Resolution No. 99-1936 dated August 31, 1999 and implemented by CSC Memorandum Circular No. 19, Series of 1999.

[18] Rollo, p. 132.



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