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FIRST DIVISION

A. C. No. 3919 January 28, 1998

SOCORRO T. CO, Complainant, vs. ATTY. GODOFREDO N. BERNARDINO, Respondent.

 

BELLOSILLO, J.:

This is an administrative complaint for disbarment filed by complainant Socorro T. Co, a businesswoman, against Atty. Godofredo N. Bernardino charging him with unprofessional and unethical conduct indicating moral deficiency and unfitness to stay in the profession of law.

Socorro T. Co alleged that in October 1989, as she was following up the documents for her shipment at the Bureau of Customs, she was approached by respondent, Atty. Godofredo N. Bernardino, introducing himself as someone holding various positions in the Bureau of Customs such as Executive Assistant at the NAIA, Hearing Officer at the Law Division, and OIC of the Security Warehouse. Respondent offered to help complainant and promised to give her some business at the Bureau. In no time, they became friends and a month after, or in November of the same year, respondent succeeded in borrowing from complainant P120,000.00 with the promise to pay the amount in full the following month, broadly hinting that he could use his influence at the Bureau of Customs to assist her. To ensure payment of his obligation, respondent issued to complainant several postdated Boston Bank checks: No. 092601 dated 1 December 1989 for P21,950.00, No. 092602 dated 4 December 1989 for P6,750.00, No. 092615 dated 15 January 1990 for P65,000.00 and No. 092622 dated 15 January 1990 for P10,000.00 (Exhs. "A-3," "B," "C," "D," respectively). Respondent also issued a postdated Urban Development Bank check No. 051946 dated 9 January 1990 for P5,500.00 (Exh. "E"). However, the checks covering the total amount of P109,200.00 were dishonored for insufficiency of funds and closure of account.

Pressed to make good his obligation, respondent told complainant that he would be able to pay her if she would lend him an additional amount of P75,000.00 to be paid a month after to be secured by a chattel mortgage on his Datsun car. 1 As complainant agreed respondent handed her three (3) copies of a deed of chattel mortgage which he himself drafted and six (6) copies of the deed of sale of his car with the assurance that he would turn over its registration certificate and official receipt. The agreement was not consummated as respondent later sold the same car to another.

Despite several chances given him to settle his obligation respondent chose to evade complainant altogether so that she was constrained to write him a final demand letter dated 22 September 1992 2 preceding the filing of several criminal complaints against him for violation of BP Blg. 22. 3 Complainant
also filed a letter-complaint dated 5 October 1992 with the Office of the Ombudsman. 4

It may be worth mentioning that a certain Emelinda Ortiz also filed several criminal and civil cases against respondent similarly involving money transactions. 5 Ms. Ortiz claimed that respondent had volunteered to sell to her a 20-footer container van filled with imported cotton fabric shirting raw materials from the Bureau of Customs warehouse for P600,000.00 in time for the holidays. However, despite her successive payments to respondent totalling P410,000.00, the latter failed to deliver the goods as promised. Worse, respondent's personal check for P410,000.00 representing reimbursement of the amount he received from Ms. Ortiz was returned dishonored for insufficiency of funds.

By way of defense, respondent averred that he gave the checks to complainant Co by way of rediscounting and that these were fully paid when he delivered five cellular phones to her. He brushed aside the allegations of complainant and Ms. Ortiz as ill-motivated, vague, confusing, misleading and full of biases and prejudices. Although he is married he insinuated a special relationship with the two (2) women which caused him to be careless in his dealings with them.

On 3 March 1993 the Court referred this administrative case to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for investigation, report and recommendation.

On 17 May 1997 the IBP issued a resolution recommending the suspension of respondent from the practice of law for six (6) months based on the following findings -

1. No receipt has been produced by respondent showing that the face value of the subject checks has been paid or that the alleged five (5) units of cellular phones have been delivered to the complainant;

2. The Decision in the criminal cases that were filed vis-a-vis the subject bouncing checks and wherein he was acquitted clearly shows that his acquittal was not due to payment of the obligation but rather that private complainant knew at the time the accused issued the checks that the latter did not have sufficient funds in the bank to cover the same. No violation of BP Blg. 22 is committed where complainant was told by the drawer that he does not have sufficient funds in the bank; and

3. Respondent subsequently paid the complainant as shown by a receipt dated 26 August 1995 . . . and the release of real estate mortgage . . . If it is true that he had already paid his obligation with five (5) cellular phones, why pay again?

The general rule is that a lawyer may not be suspended or disbarred, and the court may not ordinarily assume jurisdiction to discipline him for misconduct in his non-professional or private capacity (In Re Pelaez, 44 Phil. 5569 [1923]). Where, however, the misconduct outside of the lawyer's professional dealings is so gross a character as to show him morally unfit for the office and unworthy of the privilege which his licenses and the law confer on him, the court may be justified in suspending or removing him from the office of attorney (In Re Sotto, 38 Phil. 569 [1923]).

The evidence on record clearly shows respondent's propensity to issue bad checks. This gross misconduct on his part, though not related to his professional duties as a member of the bar, puts his moral character in serious doubt. The Commission, however, does not find him a hopeless case in the light of the fact that he eventually paid his obligation to the complainant, albeit very much delayed. 6

While it is true that there was no attorney-client relationship between complainant and respondent as the transaction between them did not require the professional legal services of respondent, nevertheless respondent's abject conduct merits condemnation from this Court. Thus we held in Lizaso v. Amante 7 where Atty. Amante enticed complainant to invest in the casino business with the proposition that her investment would yield her an interest of 10% profit daily, and Atty. Amante not only failed to deliver the promised return on the investment but also the principal thereof (P5,000.00) despite complainant's repeated demands -

As early as 1923, however, the Court laid down in In Re Vicente Pelaez [44 Phil. 567 (1923)] the principle that it can exercise its power to discipline lawyers for causes which do not involve the relationship of an attorney and client . . . In disciplining the respondent, Mr. Justice Malcolm said: . . . As a general rule, a court will not assume jurisdiction to discipline one of its officers for misconduct alleged to have been committed in his private capacity. But this is a general rule with many exceptions . . . The nature of the office, the trust relation which exists between attorney and client, as well as between court and attorney, and the statutory rules prescribing the qualifications of attorneys, uniformly require that an attorney shall be a person of good moral character. If that qualification is a condition precedent to a license or privilege to enter upon the practice of the law, it would seem to be equally essential during the continuance of the practice and the exercise of the privilege. So it is held that an attorney will be removed not only for malpractice and dishonesty in his profession, but also for gross misconduct not connected with his professional duties, which shows him to be unfit for the office and unworthy of the privileges which his license and the law confer upon him . . . . 8

Ten years later, in Piatt v. Abordo 9 where the erring lawyer was suspended for one year from the practice of law for attempting to engage in an opium deal, Justice Malcolm reiterated that an attorney may be removed not only for malpractice and dishonesty in his profession, but also for gross misconduct not related to his professional duties which show him to be an unfit and unworthy lawyer. "The courts are not curators of the morals of the bar. At the same time the profession is not compelled to harbor all persons whatever their character, who are fortunate enough to keep out of prison. As good character is an essential qualification for admission of an attorney to practice, when the attorney's character is bad in such respects as to show that he is unsafe and unfit to be entrusted with the powers of an attorney, the courts retain the power to discipline him . . . . Of all classes and professions, the lawyer is most sacredly bound to uphold the law . . . and to that doctrine we give our unqualified support." 10

Finally, reference is made to Rule 1.01, Chapter 1, entitled The Lawyer and Society of the Code of Professional Responsibility which requires that "a lawyer shall not engage in unlawful, dishonest, immoral or deceitful conduct." "Conduct," as used in this Rule, is not limited to conduct exhibited in connection with the performance of professional duties.

In the case at bar, it is glaringly clear that the procurement of personal loans through insinuations of his power as an influence peddler in the Bureau of Customs, the issuance of a series of bad checks and the taking undue advantage of his position in the aforesaid government office constitute conduct in gross violation of Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility.

The recommended suspension of respondent for six (6) months is less than what he justly deserves. His propinquity for employing deceit and misrepresentations as well as his cavalier attitude towards incurring debts without the least intention of repaying them is reprehensible. This disturbing behavior cannot be tolerated most especially in a lawyer who is an officer of the court.

WHEREFORE, respondent ATTY. GODOFREDO N. BERNARDINO is SUSPENDED FOR ONE (1) YEAR from the practice of law with warning that repetition of the same or similar acts will merit a more severe penalty. Let copies of this Decision be furnished all courts in the land, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the Office of the Bar Confidant and spread in respondent's personal records.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., Vitug and Kapunan, JJ., concur.


Endnotes:

1 Exh. "F," Complainant's Offer of Exhibits, p. 32.

2 Exh. "I," id., pp. 35-36.

3 Crim. Cases Nos. 99914-99918, Exhs. "M" to "Q," id., pp. 62-71.

4 Exh. "W," id., pp. 77-80.

5 Annex "J," IBP Records, Vol. III, pp. 37-38.

6 Report and Recommendation, Adm. Case No. 3919.

7 Adm. Case No. 2019, 3 June 1991, 198 SCRA 1.

8 Id., pp. 9-11

9 58 Phil. 350 (1933).

10 Id., pp. 351-352.




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