A. M. No. MTJ-00-1310 - December 18, 2001
ROSALINDA PUNZALAN AND RAINIER PUNZALAN, complainants, v. JUDGE RUBEN R. PLATA, Respondent.
Respondent Judge Ruben Plata is a judge and a father. As a judge, he is hidebound to the judicial canon that he should "avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all his activities."1 As a father, he has a moral duty to care for and protect his family. In his effort to defend his family at the expense of propriety, he sullied his judicial robe and must therefore pay the price.
On February 18, 1998, Precioso R. Perlas and Ma. Teresa C. Manansala, on behalf of complainants Rosalinda B. Punzalan and Rainier B. Punzalan, filed with the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) a Sworn Complaint against respondent judge for grave misconduct, lack of moral character and oppressive conduct unbecoming a judge.
The following facts gave rise to this complaint.
On August 15, 1997, an information for attempted homicide allegedly committed against Rainier Punzalan on August 13, 1997, was filed against Michael Plata. It was filed, on complaint of the victim, in the Metropolitan Trial Court, Branch 60, Mandaluyong City, and docketed as Criminal Case No. 66879. The accused therein, twenty-year old Michael Plata, is the son of respondent Judge Plata. Michael Plata appealed to the Chief State Prosecutor the resolution in I.S. No. 97-10732 upon which the information in Criminal Case No. 66879 was based. On June 18, 1998, the Chief State Prosecutor set aside the said resolution upon finding that the testimonies of the prosecution witnesses were conflicting, and more importantly, that Dencio dela Peña voluntarily, spontaneously, and knowingly admitted that it was he who accidentally shot Rainier Punzalan on August 13, 1997. The Chief State Prosecutor directed the City Prosecutor of Mandaluyong to cause the withdrawal of the information for attempted homicide against Michael Plata.2 Rainier Punzalan moved for reconsideration of the Chief State Prosecutor's June 18, 1998 resolution, but this was denied by former Justice Secretary Serafin Cuevas on February 8, 1999.3
After the information against Michael Plata was filed and while it was not yet withdrawn, numerous cases were filed by respondent's wife Rosario, his son Michael and his driver Robert Cagara, the Platas' house boarder Dencio dela Peña and Rolando Curampes, against herein complainant Rosalinda, her sons Rainier and Randall, and the latter's friends who were eyewitnesses to the shooting incident. The Platas and the Punzalans were neighbors in Hulo Bliss, Mandaluyong City. Complainants allege that, by taking advantage of his legal expertise and experience as a former prosecutor of Pasay City and of his judicial connections and influence, respondent judge orchestrated the filing of the following groundless cases to harass and retaliate to the Punzalans and their eyewitnesses:
Other cases were filed without preliminary investigation conducted by the Mandaluyong City prosecutors who, complainants allege, are "obviously friendly" to respondent judge, viz:
For maliciously causing the filing of these allegedly unfounded cases, complainants seek the dismissal of respondent judge on the following grounds, viz:
On March 2, 1998, Precioso Perlas filed a Supplemental Administrative Complaint informing the OCA that the daughter of respondent judge, Kathy Rose J. Plata, filed a 14th case, Criminal Case No. MC 98-319, entitled "People v. Avelino 'Bobby' Serrano" for attempted murder against one of complainants' eyewitnesses. Complainants allege that the case was filed upon the instigation of respondent judge.
In his Comment dated April 3, 1998, respondent judge denied the charges against him and narrated his version of what happened after the stabbing of complainant Rainier Punzalan, viz:
Respondent judge denies having exerted influence over the Mandaluyong City prosecutors who filed the set of cases without preliminary investigations as he claims that he does not even know them. He stressed that he had no participation in the filing of all the cases cited by complainants, except for I.S. No. 97-11766, the robbery charge filed by his son where he (Judge Plata) had to file a Supplemental Affidavit as he was the registered owner of the vehicle subject of the robbery.6
On February 24, 1999, the Second Division of the Court resolved to refer the instant case to Executive Judge Fe Albano Madrid, Regional Trial Court, Santiago City, Isabela for investigation, report and recommendation.7 In compliance thereto, Judge Madrid submitted a one-page report dated July 19, 1999 without making findings of fact and conclusions of law nor making a recommendation therein, viz:
The report did not include a copy of the compromise agreement between the complainants and respondent judge.
On September 6, 1999, the OCA received a copy of an "Urgent Ex-Parte Motion to Revive" dated August 16, 1999 filed by the complainants before the investigating judge seeking to revive the investigation on the respondent judge as he did not comply with his undertakings in the compromise agreement dated July 16, 1999. The agreement stipulated that in the spirit of neighborliness, herein complainants and respondent judge agreed to amicably settle their differences with the respondent judge undertaking to pay the complainants P180,000.00 in four equal monthly installments payable on July 31, 1999, August 31, 1999, September 30, 1999, and October 31, 1999, and to withdraw or cause the withdrawal of the cases he, his wife, and his son Michael Plata filed against the complainants, Randall Punzalan, and their eyewitnesses. For their part, the complainants undertook to cause the withdrawal of the instant administrative case and the attempted homicide case against Michael Plata.9
The Court issued a resolution on December 15, 1999, returning the instant case to Executive Judge Madrid for a more thorough fact-finding investigation. Judge Madrid conducted the investigation and submitted a report dated April 6, 2000 wherein she recommended that respondent judge be "admonished to be more upright in his dealings with others."11
On July 3, 2000, the Court noted the report of Judge Madrid12 and referred the instant case to the OCA for evaluation, report, and recommendation. In its Memorandum dated August 7, 2000,13 the OCA adopted the findings of the investigating judge that, while the complainants in the above-mentioned fourteen cases were family members and companions of the respondent judge, this circumstance does not of itself render the respondent judge administratively liable for aiding in the filing of allegedly groundless cases. There is no evidence to prove the participation of respondent judge in the filing of these cases nor is there evidence to show that he exerted influence over the Office of the Prosecutor in Mandaluyong to get favorable actions and recommendations. The OCA observed that it was Atty. Rodel A. Cruz, lawyer of respondent judge's family, who prepared and signed the pleadings and other documents relative to the said fourteen cases. The OCA also noted that 3rd Assistant City Prosecutor Susante J. Tobias' dismissal of eleven out of the thirteen cases for lack of sufficient basis in fact and in law as stated in her July 28, 1998 Joint Resolution14 shows that respondent judge did not exert influence over the prosecutor for her to act in his favor. On appeal to the DOJ, then Justice Secretary Artemio Tuquero, in his March 23, 2000 resolution, modified this Joint Resolution and directed the City Prosecutor of Mandaluyong City to file informations for slight oral defamation, light threats, attempted homicide, malicious mischief and theft.15 On motion for reconsideration, Secretary Tuquero reversed his March 23, 2000 resolution and in his June 6, 2000 resolution, directed the City Prosecutor of Mandaluyong City to withdraw the above informations. 16 In a motion for reconsideration dated July 3, 2000, Michael Plata sought reconsideration of the June 6, 2000 resolution with respect to the cases for grave oral defamation and theft and malicious mischief where respondent Judge submitted a Supplemental Affidavit as registered owner of the vehicle subject of the theft.
The OCA found nothing illegal nor improper with respondent judge's tolerance of his family's filing of numerous criminal cases as every person, including his family members, has a right to seek judicial recourse for his grievance. Respondent judge even admitted that he advised his family not to take the law into their own hands and "to seek redress for whatever grievance they may have within the confines of our judicial processes."17
Congruent with the finding of the investigating judge, the OCA found that the failure of respondent judge to comply with the July 16, 1999 compromise agreement was tainted with bad faith. The OCA noted, viz:
"Respondent bound himself to pay the sum of P180,000.00 payable in four (4) monthly installments in consideration for the withdrawal of the criminal case for attempted homicide and herein administrative case but he reneged on said promise. Adding insult to injury, respondent merely rationalized that he was financially hard-up and claimed that herein complainant was only after monetary compensation and not really (sic) to exact judicial relief. Respondent judge's explanation of financial difficulties cannot be countenanced. Compromise agreement entails reciprocal concessions, non-compliance of (sic) which raises doubt as to respondent's sincerity and honest desire to avoid a litigation or put an end to one already commenced."18
Canon 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct mandates that "a judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities." Rule 2.01 and Rule 2.04 of the Code provide, viz:
The personal behavior of the judge, not only while in the performance of his duties but also outside the court, must be beyond reproach for he is the visible representation of the law and of justice.20 Thus, the above canon enjoins judges to avoid not only impropriety, but even the appearance of impropriety in all their conduct, whether in their public or private life.21 The proscription includes a judge's meddling with judicial processes in courts other than his own and acting in a manner that would arouse suspicion that he is meddling with such court processes.
The records show that the complainants failed to adduce evidence that respondent judge participated in the filing of the fourteen allegedly retaliatory and harassment suits against the complainants and their eyewitnesses, except in the case for robbery/theft filed by his son Michael where respondent judge filed a Supplemental Affidavit as registered owner of the vehicle subject of the case. Even assuming that contrary to his testimony, respondent judge was in fact aware that his family and companions would file the subject fourteen cases, such awareness does not necessarily amount to wittingly or willingly promoting or giving aid or consenting to the filing of groundless, false or unlawful suits.
There is also a dearth of evidence with respect to complainants' allegation that respondent judge took advantage of his legal expertise and experience as a former prosecutor and exerted influence upon the Mandaluyong City prosecutors to secure favorable actions and recommendations. In fact, as pointed out by the OCA, eleven of the alleged harassment suits were dismissed by 3rd Assistant City Prosecutor Susante J. Tobias in her July 28, 1998 Joint Resolution for lack of sufficient basis in fact and in law.22
We, however, find improper respondent judge's execution of the July 16, 1999 compromise agreement. Worthy of notice is the subject matter of the compromise agreement, which, among others, is the dismissal of the instant administrative case in consideration of P180,000.00 and the withdrawal of the cases filed against the complainants and their eyewitnesses. It cannot be gainsaid that public office is a public trust and this truism is no more applicable than to the office of a judge23 for he is a visible representation of law and justice. The dignity of a public office cannot be bought nor compromised. Thus, in Bais v. Tugaoen,24 the Court frowned upon the complainant's affidavit of desistance and in spite of it, proceeded with the complaint against the erring judge.
Section 5, Rule 139-B of the Rules of Court pertaining to the disbarment and discipline of lawyers provides, viz:
In Bolivar v. Simbol,25 the Court, citing In re Davies,26 ruled that the discipline of lawyers cannot be cut short by a compromise or withdrawal of charges, viz:
Lawyers are officers of the court tasked with aiding the court in its dispensation of justice. There are weightier reasons why investigations and complaints against judges should not be settled or compromised for judges not only aid in the dispensation of justice but dispense justice themselves. Respondent judge's execution of a compromise agreement to have the instant administrative case dismissed is glaringly improper and should not be countenanced.
As though respondent judge's execution of the compromise agreement was not sufficient impropriety to merit reproof, he even failed in bad faith to comply with his undertakings in the agreement. He rationalized that he was not able to pay the first installment when it fell due because his plan to secure financial assistance from a friend and to sell or mortgage his lot in Muntinlupa did not materialize. Without these other financial resources, his salary as a judge, according to him, was not sufficient to cover the installment amount. There is a dearth of evidence, however, to prove his efforts to secure financial assistance from his friend and to sell or mortgage his lot in Muntinlupa. Respondent judge also miserably failed to remedy the situation and show good faith in trying to comply with the terms of the compromise agreement. He could have requested from the complainants a few days extension for payment of the first installment or he could have partially paid the first installment as his means would permit him, but these he did not do. These omissions of respondent judge, coupled with the absence of evidence on his efforts to raise the first installment amount, lead us to conclude that respondent judge was even in bad faith in not complying with the provisions of the compromise agreement.
WHEREFORE, respondent Judge Ruben R. Plata is ordered to pay a FINE in the amount of Five Thousand Pesos (P5,000.00) and STERNLY WARNED that a repetition of the same or similar acts in the future will be dealt with more severely.
Davide, Jr., C .J ., Kapunan, Pardo, and Ynares-Santiago, JJ ., concur.
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