G. R. No. 144314* - November 21, 2002
SKIPPERS PACIFIC, INC., and SKIPPERS MARITIME SERVICES, LTD., Petitioners, vs. MANUEL V. MIRA (DECEASED), substituted by DELFA F. MIRA and ANNE MARIE F. MIRA,** and THE COURT OF APPEALS, Respondents.
D E C I S I O N
This is a petition for review of the decision1 of the Court of Appeals, dated June 29, 2000, in CA-G.R. SP No. 53079, which affirmed the resolution2 of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), promulgated on March 15, 1999, in NLRC CA No. 016616-98 (NLRC OCW Case No. M-97-084057). The NLRC affirmed the decision of the Labor Arbiter holding that private respondents dismissal from employment was illegal. Also assailed is the appellate courts resolution3 of August 3, 2000, which denied petitioners motion for reconsideration for lack of merit.
Petitioner Skippers Maritime Services Ltd., (SMS) is a foreign corporation based in Athens, Greece and is the owner of the ship M/V Rita V, a Panama-registered vessel of 5,262 gross registered tons. Petitioner Skippers United Pacific, Inc. (SUPI) is the local crewing/manning agent of SMS for said vessel.
Private respondent Manuel V. Mira was the captain of M/V Rita V. During the pendency of this case, private respondent died of cardiovascular disease.4 In our resolution5 of June 18, 2001, we granted the motion to substitute the deceased private respondent with his surviving spouse, Delfa F. Mira, and sole child, Anne Marie F. Mira.
The facts of this case are not in dispute:
On March 20, 1997, private respondent was hired by SUPI for and on behalf of its principal, SMS, to serve as Master of the latters vessel, the M/V Rita V. Private respondents contract was for a period of six (6) months. During said period of employment, he was to receive a basic salary of US$1,900.00, an owners bonus of US$200.00, overseas allowance of US$442.00 and vacation leave with pay of US$158.00, all on a monthly basis.
On March 22, 1997, private respondent took command of the M/V Rita V in Singapore. Barely in his second month of service, he received two telex messages dated May 14, 19976 and May 16, 19977, ordering him to turn over command of the ship to its former Master, Capt. Achilles Puaben, and advising him that he would be transferred to another vessel on June 10, 1997.
On May 22, 1997, private respondent was repatriated back to the Philippines. Shortly thereafter, he inquired from SUPI about the details of his transfer to another vessel. SUPI and the SMS representative in the Philippines, Filippo Karabatsis, assured him that he would be redeployed on June 10, 1997.
June 10, 1997 came and went, but private respondent remained without assignment. Every time he would follow up his transfer, he was just told to sit tight and wait. Private respondent then formally wrote Karabatsis and Gloria Almodiel, SUPI General Manager, on July 25, 1997 and again on July 28, 1997, about his transfer to another ship, but nothing resulted.
On August 15, 1998, private respondent filed a complaint for illegal dismissal and non-payment of the salaries and allowances owing on the unexpired portion of his contract. In his sworn complaint, docketed as NLRC NCR Case No. M-97-08-4057, private respondent averred that he was dismissed without just cause nor due process.
Petitioners countered that private respondent was dismissed for cause in accordance with Philippine Overseas Employment Administration Memorandum Circular No. 55, series of 1996. Petitioners averred that on April 27, 1997, they received a letter-petition from several crewmembers of M/V Rita V stating that: (1) private respondent had been causing discontent among the crew; (2) he altered official receipts by increasing the amounts indicated therein so he could collect from SMS the excess of the real cost of the goods brought for the vessels provisions; (3) he declared as lost the ships funds amounting to US$4,000.00 but then shortly afterwards sent money to his wife in the Philippines; and (4) he planned to repatriate several members of the engine crew to the Philippines. Petitioners alleged that private respondent was dismissed due to these charges.
Private respondent denied any knowledge of said letter-petition, saying it was the first time he had heard of it. Petitioners failed to present the original of the letter-petition in question before the Labor Arbiter.
On July 30, 1998, the Labor Arbiter decided NLRC NCR Case No. M-97-08-4057 in this wise:
WHEREFORE, as we sustain the illegality of complainants dismissal, we order respondent Skippers United Pacific, Inc., both in its personal capacity and as agent of the foreign principal to pay complainant his salary for the unexpired portion of his contract but limited to three months pursuant to Section 10 of R.A. 8042, in the amount of US$5,700.00 (US$1,900 x 3) plus the sum of US$570.00 by way of 10% attorneys fees since compelled to litigate, complainant had to engage the services of counsel, payments to be made in their peso equivalent at the rate of payment.
All other claims are dismissed for lack of merit.
Petitioners appealed the Labor Arbiters decision on the ground that it was devoid of factual and legal bases. The appeal was docketed as NLRC CA No. 016616-98.
On March 15, 1999, the Third Division of the NLRC dismissed petitioners appeal, thus:
WHEREFORE, consistent with the foregoing, the instant appeal is dismissed for lack of merit and the assailed decision affirmed en toto.
Petitioners moved for reconsideration on the ground that the NLRC failed to appreciate loss of trust and confidence as a basis for terminating the services of the private respondent. On May 12, 1999, the NLRC denied petitioners motion for reconsideration for want of merit.10
Petitioners then filed a special civil action for certiorari with the Court of Appeals, docketed as CA-GR SP No. 53079, contending that the NLRC acted with grave abuse of discretion amounting to want or excess of jurisdiction in affirming the judgment of the Labor Arbiter.
On June 29, 2000, the appellate court decided CA-G.R. SP No. 53079 as follows:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, the instant petition for certiorari is hereby DENIED DUE COURSE and accordingly DISMISSED for lack of merit. The assailed Resolution of public respondent National Labor Relations Commission dated May 12, 1999 is AFFIRMED and REITERATED.
Needless to state, the prayer of petitioners for the issuance of a writ of preliminary injunction and/or temporary restraining order is DENIED for lack of factual and legal bases.
Hence, the instant petition for review anchored on the following issues:
a. WHETHER OR NOT THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN RULING THAT THERE WAS NO JUST CAUSE IN TERMINATING THE SERVICES OF THE PRIVATE RESPONDENT;
b. WHETHER OF NOT THE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN RULING THAT SECTION 1712 OF THE STANDARD FORMAT IS INAPPLICABLE IN THIS CASE.13
Petitioners formulation may be reduced to one issue: Did the Court of Appeals err in affirming the NLRCs decision that private respondent was illegally dismissed?
Petitioners contend that the Court of Appeals erred in ruling that there was no just cause for private respondents dismissal. Citing the letter-petition allegedly signed by certain officers and crewmembers of M/V Rita V, petitioners insist that the acts of dishonesty and embezzlement of company funds complained of warrant the penalty of dismissal. Moreover, said the petitioners, assuming that these acts of dishonesty were not substantiated, nonetheless private respondents actions created divisiveness among the crew, and this more than justified the termination of private respondents employment.
For his part, private respondent points out that at all three levels below Labor Arbiter, NLRC, and Court of Appeals petitioners could not produce an original copy of the alleged letter-petition. Hence, said letter must be deemed spurious or fabricated, especially as it only came out after private respondent had filed a complaint for illegal dismissal. Private respondent further points out that petitioners fail to raise any question of law whatsoever in their petition for review.
The court a quo made the following observations when it sustained the NLRCs findings, that private respondent was illegally dismissed:
As for the legality of the act of dismissal, We find that there is no just cause for private respondents termination. Clearly, the allegations contained in the letter-petition do not at all amount to substantial evidence. The acts mentioned therein are based purely on speculations, conjectures, and hearsay. The letter petition is itself clear on this matter. The signatories thereto merely attributed their statements to information they learned through the grapevine or from conclusions reached without adequate basis. For example, the allegation regarding the missing US$4,000.00. It was thereon alleged that private respondent lost the said amount and even tried to put the blame on the crewmembers. Not long after though, private respondent sent an undisclosed amount to his wife in Manila. The signatories thereto are insinuating that private respondent misappropriated the money allegedly lost by sending the same to his wife. Thus, they put one (1) and one (1) together to arrive at a clearly speculative conclusion. Furthermore, the statement concerning the alleged padding of official receipts was not supported by any other evidence except their allegation that somebody leaked said information to those on board M/V Rita V. This is pure hearsay. Not even the chief cook could attest to the truthfulness of such act since he did not see private respondent do such alteration of official receipts to reflect a much higher cost of goods bought nor was he ever told personally of such misdeed14
On the second assigned error, petitioners assail the finding of the Court of Appeals that the manner of effecting petitioners dismissal was illegal. Petitioners insist that even without furnishing the seafarer with notice of dismissal, it may be effected under Section 17 (D) of what is called the Standard Format in cases where giving a notice will prejudice the safety of the crew and vessel. Petitioners aver that giving notice to private respondent would have been disastrous to both crew and vessel, as private respondent, being at the time the vessels Master, could sabotage its operations and sow divisiveness among the crewmembers.
Private respondent submits that Section 17 (D) is inapplicable since the new Master who replaced him failed to comply with its requirements. In short, petitioners arguments are baseless and unfounded.
As to this matter, the Court of Appeals opined:
The safety of the crew or the vessel would not be imperiled by the sole act of informing him of the charges against him. Private respondent is not a dangerous or menacing individual. There are no positive indications that he would compromise the safety of his crew or the seaworthiness of the vessel just so he could get his way. Besides, petitioners could have required him to dock the vessel at the nearest port where petitioner principal has a representative or at least where the proper authorities could be notified of any contingency without first informing him of the reason therefore. Then the proper notices and investigation to thresh out the truth regarding the allegations against private respondent could have been effected.15
The appellate court concluded that private respondent had been illegally dismissed based on evidence adduced before the Labor Arbiter and later the NLRC. We see no reason to disturb the appellate courts findings, which are amply supported by the evidence. It clearly shows that petitioners relied on sheer surmises and hearsay in dismissing private respondent. An employer can terminate the services of an employee only for valid and just causes, which must be supported by clear and convincing evidence.16 The employer has the burden of proving that the dismissal was for a valid and just cause.17 In the present case, petitioners utterly failed to establish by convincing evidence private respondents culpability. No original of the letter-petition allegedly submitted to them by crewmembers of the vessel was ever produced by petitioners. The acts allegedly complained of therein were not substantiated at all. Failure to discharge this burden of proof substantially means that the dismissal was not justified and therefore, illegal.18 For dismissal to be valid, the evidence must be substantial and not arbitrary and must be founded on clearly established facts.19 A condemnation of dishonesty and disloyalty cannot arise from suspicions spawned by speculative inferences.
Petitioners submission, that private respondent was dismissed because of loss of trust and confidence, is quite belated. This issue could not be raised for the first time on appeal. Moreover, loss of trust or breach of confidence must have some basis, and without said basis cannot be successfully invoked as a ground for dismissal.20 Otherwise put, there must be some breach of duty on the part of the employee and the same must be supported by substantial evidence.21
Not only must the reasons for dismissing an employee be substantiated, the manner of his dismissal must be in accordance with governing rules and regulations. Otherwise the termination itself would be grossly defective, and illegal.22 This means that the requirements of due process must be observed. The employer is required to furnish the concerned employee with two written notices before his dismissal: (1) the notice which apprises the employee of the particular acts or omissions for which his dismissal is sought; and (2) the subsequent notice of the employers decision to dismiss him.23 This procedure is mandatory; otherwise the order of dismissal is void.24
Note that under Section 17 of what is termed the Standard Format, the "two - notice rule" is indicated. An erring seaman is given a written notice of the charge against him and is afforded an opportunity to explain or defend himself. Should sanctions be imposed, then a written notice of penalty and the reasons for it shall be furnished the erring seafarer. It is only in the exceptional case of clear and existing danger to the safety of the crew or vessel that the required notices are dispensed with; but just the same, a complete report should be sent to the manning agency, supported by substantial evidence of the findings.
Nothing on record supports petitioners allegations that the giving of a notice to private respondent posed a clear and present danger to crew and vessel. He who invokes an exemption from a rule must by convincing and credible evidence show why the exemption should apply to him. On this score, petitioners failed to adduce pertinent evidence. Further, nothing on record shows that the Master, who replaced private respondent, or any other officer of M/V Rita V or of petitioners, submitted "a complete report to the manning agency substantiated by witnesses, testimonies, and any other documents" supporting a finding of clear and existing danger to the ship and the company. Hence, we are constrained to agree that the manner of dismissal by petitioners of private respondent was devoid of due process, hence illegal.
Third, as pointed out by private respondent, the present petition raises no question of law. The errors assigned by petitioners concern findings of the appellate court that sustain the conclusion of the labor tribunal. In brief, what petitioners raise are questions of fact. There is a question of fact when the doubt or difference arises as to the truth or the falsehood of the alleged facts.25 The Supreme Court is not a trier of facts, more so in labor cases,26 in view of the dictum that findings of fact of the NLRC are accorded great respect and even finality by this Court. Rule 45 of the Rules of Court, Section 1,27 provides that only questions of law shall be raised, which must be distinctly set forth in the petition. A question of law exists when there is doubt or controversy as to what the law is on a certain state of facts.28 A question of law does not involve any examination of the probative value of the evidence submitted by the parties.29 As a general rule, in a petition for review, it is not the function of the Supreme Court to weigh all over again the evidence already considered in proceedings below.
Private respondent, for his part, avers that the Court of Appeals erred in citing Section 10 of Republic Act No. 804230 as applicable to him.
Private respondent argues that his contract of employment was for six (6) months. However, he was able to work for only two (2) months because he was recalled by petitioners for transfer to another vessel. The transfer did not materialize for reasons known only to the petitioners. Hence, according to private respondent, the Court of Appeals erred when it sustained the ruling of the NLRC affirming the judgment of the Labor Arbiter that Section 1031 of Republic Act No. 8042 applies to him. Private respondent submits that said ruling of the appellate court is contrary to prevailing jurisprudence, i.e., that the award of claims for unpaid salaries should cover the entire unexpired portion of the employment contract, which is four months, and not just three months.
In Marsaman Manning Agency, Inc. vs. NLRC,32 involving Section 10 of Republic Act No. 8042, we held:
[W]e cannot subscribe to the view that private respondent is entitled to three (3) months salary only. A plain reading of Sec. 10 clearly reveals that the choice of which amount to award an illegally dismissed overseas contract worker, i.e., whether his salaries for the unexpired portion of his employment contract or three (3) months salary for every year of the unexpired term, whichever is less, comes into play only when the employment contract concerned has a term of at least one (1) year or more. This is evident from the words "for every year of the unexpired term" which follows the words "salaries x x x for three months." To follow petitioners thinking that private respondent is entitled to three (3) months salary only simply because it is the lesser amount is to completely disregard and overlook some words used in the statute while giving effect to some. This is contrary to the well-established rule in legal hermeneutics that in interpreting a statute, care should be taken that every part or word thereof be given effect since the lawmaking body is presumed to know the meaning of the words employed in the statute and to have used them advisedly. Ut res magis valeat quam pereat.33
It is not disputed that private respondents employment contract in the instant case was for six (6) months. Hence, we see no reason to disregard the ruling in Marsaman that private respondent should be paid his salaries for the unexpired portion of his employment contract.34
WHEREFORE, the instant petition is DENIED. The assailed decision of the Court of Appeals dated June 29, 2000 in CA-G.R. SP No. 53079, and the resolution of the appellate court dated August 3, 2000, denying petitioners motion for reconsideration, are AFFIRMED with MODIFICATION. Petitioners Skippers United Pacific, Inc., and Skippers Maritime Services, Ltd., are hereby ORDERED (1) to pay jointly and severally the heirs of deceased private respondent Manuel V. Mira namely his surviving spouse, Delfa F. Mira, and their child, Anne Marie F. Mira his salaries for four (4) months, representing the unexpired portion of his employment contract, at the rate US$1,900.00 monthly at its peso equivalent at the time of actual payment, and (2) reimburse to said heirs the private respondents placement fee with twelve percent (12%) interest per annum conformably with Section 10 of Republic Act No. 8042, as well as (3) attorneys fees of ten percent (10%) of the total monetary award. Costs against petitioners.
Bellosillo, (Chairman), Mendoza, and Callejo, Sr., JJ., concur.
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