Republic of the Philippines
A.M. No. RTJ-00-1557 - April 25, 2002
ATTY. LETICIA E. ALA, Complainant, vs. JUDGE LEOCADIO H. RAMOS, JR., Regional Trial Court of Burauen, Leyte, Branch 15, respondent.
R E S O L U T I O N
DE LEON, JR., J.:
Before us is an administrative complaint against Judge Leocadio H. Ramos, Jr., former acting presiding judge of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Tacloban City, Branch 8, and Atty. Irene T. Pontejos-Cordeta, clerk of court of said branch. The complainant, Atty. Leticia E. Ala, is counsel for the defendant in Civil Case No. 95-02-16, entitled "Atty. Federico N. Triste v. Testate Estate of Spouses Francisco S. Apostol and Eugenia Yerro-Apostol," an action for attorney's fees pending before Branch 8.
Atty. Ala alleges that when Judge Ramos was assigned to Branch 8 the pending incidents were:
On December 8, 1998, Judge Ramos issued an order declaring all pending incidents submitted for resolution. However, up to the time he was re-assigned to the RTC of Manila, Branch 38, in April/May 1999, said pending incidents remained unresolved.
Atty. Ala further complains that during the incumbency of Judge Ramos, the records of the case disappeared. She makes reference to her letter dated September 6, 19992 to Judge Ramos, requesting the return of the records to Branch 8 in view of a scheduled hearing the following week. She recounted therein that Judge Ramos twice told her that the records were with him.3 Atty. Ala ended by warning Judge Ramos that if the records were not located before the next hearing, she would be constrained to bring the matter to the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA). Atty. Ala states that up to the date she filed the instant administrative complaint, Judge Ramos has not replied to the aforesaid letter.
As for Atty. Cordeta, Atty. Ala narrates that in June 1999, plaintiff filed a Motion to Set Case for Hearing. Atty. Cordeta, however, failed to include the setting prayed for in the court's calendar. Then on July 30, 1999, Atty. Ala made her appearance in connection with plaintiff's second Motion to Set Case for Hearing. Having traveled all the way from Manila, she fumed when nobody could explain why the case was not included in the court's calendar. It was then 10:30 a.m. and Atty. Cordeta had not yet reported for work.
Upon the initiative of Atty. Cordeta, Atty. Ala was later summoned to the chambers of Executive Judge Frisco T. Lilagan. Plaintiff was likewise present, supposedly to attend the hearing of his motion. Atty. Ala contends that it was on this occasion that the records of Civil Case No. 95-02-16 were found to be missing4 and Executive Judge Lilagan was first apprised of the motions which Atty. Cordeta did not include in the court's calendar. Atty. Ala maintains that neither were the parties nor their counsels notified of the missing records and/or the hearing dates for plaintiff's motions if the court was not inclined to hear them on the dates requested.
In his Comment,5 Judge Ramos admits that plaintiff's Second Motion for Reconsideration was submitted for resolution on December 8, 1998. He, however, failed to resolve the same because he was assigned to hear a criminal case in Basey, Samar, another case in Oras, Eastern Samar, and later designated as acting judge of the RTC of Manila, Branch 38. Judge Ramos asserts that he left the records of Civil Case No. 95-02-16 with Branch 8, and that he had no hand in its loss.
For her part, Atty. Cordeta explains6 that on June 2, 1999, plaintiff filed a Motion to Set Case For Hearing. The notice of hearing stated that it shall be submitted for the court's appropriate action on June 14, 1999 at 8:30 a.m. The motion was not included in the court's calendar for said date since Executive Judge Lilagan, who was designated as acting presiding judge of Branch 8, only started hearing the cases of said branch on June 21, 1999. In fact, on June 14, 1999,7 neither Atty. Ala nor plaintiff made their appearances, indicating that they knew that there was no scheduled hearing for that day.
On July 19, 1999, plaintiff filed another Motion to Set Case for Hearing, praying that his Motion for Reconsideration of the order declaring him non-suited be set for hearing and argument on July 30, 1999. The notice of hearing stated that the motion shall be submitted for the court's appropriate action on July 22, 1999 at 8:30 a.m. This second Motion to Set Case for Hearing was not included in the court's calendar for July 22, 1999 as date requested fell on a Thursday, which was not a motion day. According to Atty. Cordeta, Executive Judge Lilagan instructed her that cases assigned to Branch 8 shall be heard on Mondays and Tuesdays, those from his permanent station in Branch 34 shall be on Wednesdays and Thursdays while motions from both branches shall be on Fridays. Atty. Cordeta asserts that both counsels were informed of this schedule such that plaintiff and Atty. Ala did not make their appearances on July 22, 1999. Instead, Atty. Ala appeared on July 30, 1999 when neither she nor plaintiff filed any motion or pleading which was set for hearing on that date. Records will show that no notices of hearing for July 30, 1999 were sent to the parties and their counsel. Neither did the court issue any order granting plaintiff's prayer in his second Motion to Set Case for Hearing that his Motion for Reconsideration be heard on July 30, 1999. Atty. Cordeta opined that Atty. Ala should not assume that all motions shall be automatically granted, or that they shall be heard on the dates requested since the hearing of cases is always subject to the availability of the judge and the court's calendar.
Atty. Cordeta also points out that on July 29, 1999, Atty. Ala sent Atty. Edna Maceda, clerk of court of Branch 6, to inquire from Branch 8 whether plaintiff's motion8 was included in the calendar for the next day. The court interpreter, Ms. Aurorita Bangoy, explained that it was not included in the calendar because the date stated in the notice of hearing was July 22, 1999, which was a Thursday. As such, plaintiff's request that his second Motion for Reconsideration be heard on July 30, 1999 was not granted.9
Atty. Cordeta denies that she had not yet reported for work by 10:30 a.m. She contends that she arrived at 9:00 a.m., and that shortly afterwards, Atty. Ala, accompanied by Atty. Tarcelo Sabarre, Jr., came barging into the office demanding an explanation why the motion of plaintiff was not included in the calendar. Ms. Bangoy vainly tried to explain but instead of listening, Atty. Ala allegedly threatened everyone with an administrative complaint and ordered everyone to reimburse her traveling expenses. To substantiate her claim, Atty. Cordeta attached the affidavits of Ms. Bangoy and the staff of Branch 8.10
With respect to the allegation that she did not send notices regarding the "missing" case records, Atty. Cordeta explains that since April 1999, Atty. Ala knew that they were in the custody and physical possession of Judge Ramos, who took them from the office without her knowledge. This is evident from Atty. Ala's letter dated September 6, 1999. The records were only declared missing on September 27, 1999 when counsels were allowed to reconstitute them in open court.11 For Atty. Cordeta, to send out a notice, even when not required by the rules, would have been superfluous and unnecessary.
Atty. Ala counters the statements of Atty. Cordeta.12 She asserts that when a court is not predisposed to hear a motion on the date requested, written notices to this effect must be sent to all parties. Atty. Cordeta, however, failed to issue such a notice. Atty. Ala claims that she was only informed of the hearing on July 30, 1999 through Atty. Maceda, stressing that notice of a hearing's cancellation should not by mere word of mouth. She further explains that she did not make her appearance on July 14, 1999 because she had moved to dispense with it, and as for the hearing on July 22, 1999, Atty. Maceda informed her of the same by phone.13 Despite the absence of any formal notice therefor, she nonetheless attended the hearing on July 30, 1999 because she "wanted a stop to the court's inefficiency."14
Atty. Ala also refutes the claim of Atty. Cordeta that on July 30, 1999 she was already at the court by 10:30 a.m. She states that she walked in at 10:30 a.m., Atty. Sabarre was already in the staff room together with only three (3) members of the staff. She discounts the credibility of the affidavits submitted by Atty. Cordeta for being self-serving and merely executed at her behest.
Atty. Ala likewise maintains that Atty. Cordeta should have immediately gathered the records of the case when plaintiff filed his Motion to Set Case for Hearing on June 2, 1999, which were followed by other motions filed by plaintiff and herself. These motions should have alarmed Atty. Cordeta and led her to report the matter to Executive Judge Lilagan. Even assuming that Judge Ramos took the records of the case without her knowledge and consent, Atty. Cordeta should have been detected this as early as June 1999. She also should have inventoried the records when Judge Ramos left Branch 8 considering that as official custodian thereof, missing records would be her responsibility.
Upon the endorsement of the OCA, this case was referred to one of its consultants for investigation, report and recommendation. In the meantime, however, Atty. Cordeta filed a Manifestation15 with the OCA that the records of Civil Case No. 95-02-16 were deemed reconstituted on December 14, 1999.16 Moreover, in an Order dated August 7, 2000,17 Judge Salvador Y. Apurillo finally disposed of the case, rendering judgment in favor of the defendant. Atty. Cordeta added that plaintiff's appeal was already being processed for transmittal to the Court of Appeals. To this Manifestation, Atty. Ala filed a Vehement Opposition18 but also prayed that the instant administrative complaint be decided with dispatch.
In a Memorandum dated May 18, 2001, Retired Justice Conrado M. Molina reported:
Justice Molina recommended that Judge Ramos be fined Five Thousand Pesos (
The findings of Justice Molina as to the liability of Judge Ramos for the missing case records are well taken. In her letter dated September 6, 1999,19 Atty. Ala recounted that Judge Ramos told her before Holy Week and again on July 22, 1999 that he still had possession of the case records. In the affidavit of Ms. Bangoy dated September 17, 1999,20 she stated, among others, that on July 29, 1999 she had informed Atty. Maceda that said case records were still in the custody and possession of Judge Ramos. Also, in a letter dated August 27, 1999 addressed to Judge Ramos,21 Atty. Cordeta requested the return of the case records at the soonest possible time.22 This letter was replete with details when Judge Ramos took the records, the previous requests for its return, and the searches conducted at his chambers in Burauen, Leyte and at his house in Tacloban City all of which both proved fruitless. It appears from the foregoing that Judge Ramos was the person who was last in possession of the records of Civil Case No. 95-02-16, and that even after his re-assignment to Manila, he failed to turn them over to the court resulting in their apparent loss. To the mind of this Court, such lack of circumspection by Judge Ramos renders him liable for simple misconduct.
In Re: Report on the Judicial Audit, RTC Brs. 4 and 23, Manila,23 we reiterated the proscription in Section 14, Rule 136 of the Rules of Court that "[n]o record shall be taken from the clerk's office without an order of the court except as otherwise provided by [the] rules." We also stressed therein that Article 226 of the Revised Penal Code punishes any public officer who removes, conceals or destroys documents or papers officially entrusted to him. With such heavy responsibilities, judges are therefore expected to exercise utmost diligence and care in handling the records of cases.
While Justice Molina made no finding on the matter, it has not escaped our attention that Judge Ramos should also be held accountable for failing to resolve plaintiff's Second Motion for Reconsideration of the Order dated May 22, 1998 for an unreasonable period of time. Said motion was submitted for resolution on December 8, 1998 but even after more than five (5) months, or until his re-assignment to the RTC of Manila, Branch 38, pursuant to Administrative Order No 4-99 dated May 14, 1999, it remained unresolved. We note from the Order dated August 7, 2000 of Judge Apurillo that plaintiff's Second Motion for Reconsideration was only denied on May 15, 2000.24
We also find need to point out that although Atty. Ala alleges that defendant's Manifestation and Motion dated June 7, 1997 as well as its Omnibus Motion dated May 8, 1998 were also left unresolved by Judge Ramos, no evidence has been presented in support of the allegation. The case chronology25 prepared and submitted by Atty. Ala, and more specifically the proceedings subsequent to December 8, 1998, do not refer to the two (2) motions of defendant. Even the Comment of Judge Ramos is silent about the matter, admitting only that he failed to resolve plaintiff's Second Motion for Reconsideration. Accordingly, we are constrained to limit the liability of Judge Ramos for failing to resolve that Second Motion for Reconsideration.
We nonetheless reiterate that judges should dispose of the court's business promptly and decide cases within the prescribed reglementary period. That a judge had been given additional work as acting presiding judge in other courts, as in the case of Judge Ramos, cannot justify his failure to resolve any pending incident. In Casia v. Gestopa,26 we already held a similar contention as unmeritorious. We even reminded respondent judge therein that:
As to the penalty to be imposed upon respondent Judge Ramos, this Court cannot totally adopt the recommendation of Justice Molina. On September 11, 2001, we promulgated Administrative Matter No. 01-8-10-SC, amending Rule 140 of the Rules of Court on the discipline of justices and judges by classifying the offenses committed by them and prescribing a scale of penalties therefor. Under the amended rule, simple misconduct and undue delay in resolving the pending incidents in Civil Case No. 95-02-16 are both classified as less serious charges.28 If found guilty of a less serious charge, the penalty prescribed is suspension from office, without salary and other benefits, for not less than one (1) month nor more than three (3) months, or a fine of more than Ten Thousand Pesos (
In the case of Atty. Cordeta, the Court agrees with investigating Justice Molina of OCA that the charges against her should be dismissed. The Motion to Set Case for Hearing filed on June 2, 199930 was submitted for appropriate action by the trial court on June 14, 1999 at 8:30 a.m. As of that date, no judge had yet been assigned to preside over Branch 8 on account of the re-assignment of respondent Judge Ramos to Manila. Executive Judge Lilagan only began to assume the post of acting presiding judge of Branch 8 on June 21, 1999,31 or seven (7) after the date requested by plaintiff for hearing his motion. Atty. Cordeta cannot, therefore, be expected to calendar a motion on a specific date when no judge has yet assumed presiding in Branch 8 where such a motion was pending.
With respect to the Motion to Set Case for Hearing filed on July 19, 1999,32 the notice of hearing specified therein that the same was submitted for appropriate action by the trial court on July 22, 1999 at 8:30 a.m., not July 30, 1999. An examination of the said motion shows that July 30, 1999 was the date requested by plaintiff-movant for the hearing of his Motion for Reconsideration of the Order dated May 22, 1998 in the event the court should favorably act on his Motion to Set Case for Hearing.33 This is evident from the fact that plaintiff's request for a hearing on July 30, 1999 for his Motion for Reconsideration was stated in the prayer of the Motion to Set Case for Hearing and not in the notice of hearing of the Motion for Reconsideration. The Rules of Civil Procedure provide that:
In the case at bar, plaintiff did not send any notice of hearing for July 30, 1999. It also does not appear that plaintiff's Motion to Set Case for Hearing was acted upon, considering that it was submitted for appropriate action by the trial court on a Thursday, which was not a motion day. Hence, there was no reason for Atty. Cordeta to include that motion pertaining to Civil Case No. 95-02-16 in the court calendar for July 30, 1999.
As for Atty. Ala, she should not have assumed that there would be a hearing on July 30, 1999 especially when she was not even served any notice to that effect. Atty. Ala even gives conflicting accounts as to the purpose of her appearance in court on said date. In her Letter-Complaint, she asserts that she had gone to Tacloban City to attend the hearing of plaintiff's Motion for Reconsideration. In her Reply, however, she later states that her purpose was to put an end to the inefficiency of the court. Be that as it may, any inconvenience that Atty. Ala may have experienced, as a consequence of attending a hearing that did not exist in the first place, is attributable to her alone.
Atty. Ala also faulted Atty. Cordeta for failing to notify the parties that the records of Civil Case No. 95-02-16 were missing. Atty. Cordeta became aware that the records of the case were still with respondent Judge Ramos in June 1999 following the conduct of a semi-annual inventory of the cases assigned to Branch 8. Immediately thereafter, Atty. Cordeta made several verbal requests to Judge Ramos for the return of the said records of the case. At that point, to declare that the records of the case were "missing" would have been drastic. Moreover, no practical purpose would be served by notifying Atty. Ala of their whereabouts since up until July 22, 1999, she knew that they were with respondent Judge Ramos, having been told of the same by Judge Ramos himself.
Prudence dictates that whenever the records of a case are misplaced or lost, the clerk of court should promptly inform the presiding judge of such fact to enable him to take such steps as may be necessary under the circumstances. In this case, it cannot really be determined when Atty. Cordeta apprised Executive Judge Lilagan that the records of Civil Case No. 95-02-16 were still in the custody of Judge Ramos, that efforts were exerted to recover them, and that such efforts yielded negative results. Atty. Ala insists that Executive Judge Lilagan first learned that the records of the case were missing on July 30, 1999, a month after taking over Branch 8 of RTC, Tacloban City. Apart from this bare assertion, however, no other evidence has been adduced to substantiate the claim. Consequently, we cannot rely on it as basis for holding Atty. Cordeta administratively liable.
WHEREFORE, the Court resolves to FINE Judge Leocadio H. Ramos, Jr. in the amount of Ten Thousand Pesos (
The complaint against Atty. Irene T. Pontejos-Cordeta is hereby DISMISSED for lack of merit.
Bellosillo, Mendoza, Quisumbing, and Corona, JJ., concur.
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