G. R. No. 149416 - March 14, 2003
CARMELITA V. SANTOS, Petitioner, vs. SAN MIGUEL CORPORATION, Respondent.
This petition for review on certiorari1 filed by Carmelita V. Santos challenges the Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP 64223 dated July 4, 2001 and its Resolution dated August 9, 2002.2
The factual milieu is as follows:
On September 15, 1987, respondent San Miguel Corporation (SMC) appointed petitioner Carmelita V. Santos as Finance Director of its Beer Division for Luzon Operations.
On September 6, 1989, respondent's Cash Department issued a Memorandum prohibiting the encashment of personal checks at respondent's Plants and Sales Offices.3 The Memorandum reads:
On January 10, 1991, respondent SMC, through its Cash Management Department, noticed that petitioner encashed her three (3) personal checks in various Metro Manila Sales Offices, thus:
On January 24, 1991, respondent commenced an audit investigation of the personal checks encashed by petitioner at its sales offices. Pending the audit investigation, petitioner agreed to take a fifteen-day vacation leave from January 25 to February 14, 1991.
On January 29, 1991, petitioner received from respondent an inter-office memorandum requiring her to explain in writing why no disciplinary action should be taken against her in view of her unauthorized encashment of her three personal checks at respondent's sales offices.4
In a reply-memorandum dated January 31, 1991, petitioner admitted that she encashed three personal checks at respondent's sales offices but claimed that such act was not irregular since all personnel in respondent's Beer Division were allowed to encash their personal checks at any sales office upon clearance from the region management concerned. She stated that her encashment of personal checks had prior clearance. She further clarified that only two of the three checks she encashed were dishonored for insufficiency of funds, but she promptly funded the checks upon receipt of notice of such dishonor, thereby causing no damage to respondent.5
Meanwhile, respondent obtained a copy of the audit results and learned that aside from petitioner's reported encashment of three personal checks, she had previously encashed fifty (50) personal checks from June 13, 1989 to January 19, 1991 in varying amounts, from P1,500.00 to P20,000.00, which were not endorsed by the Sales Operations Manager or the Region Finance Officer. Additionally, petitioner encashed two other personal checks in the amounts of P150,000.00 on December 12, 1990, and P100,000.00 on December 27, 1990.6
After receiving such report, respondent SMC formed an Investigating Panel to conduct a full-blown investigation of petitioner's encashment of personal checks and to determine: (1) whether the region management gave prior consent to the transactions; (2) whether the person or persons who accepted or encashed the personal checks were in fact authorized to do so; (3) if there is any policy, procedure and/or accommodation for the encashment of personal checks and the extent/amount and frequency of such; and (4) the loss or damage accruing to respondent, if any.7 The Investigating Panel was composed of Ernesto S. Escalante, SMC Director of Human Resources and Administration, as Chairman, and Jesus Domingo and Jo Christie Punsalang, as members.
In the meantime, on or February 15, 1991, petitioner returned from her vacation leave and reported for work. To her surprise, she found that she had been transferred from her room on the 16th Floor of the Pacific Star Building to a cubicle on the 19th Floor of the same building. There, she shared a space with the secretary of respondent's Quality Service Manager and spent each day doing nothing for no assignment was given to her.
Subsequently, petitioner received two inter-office memoranda8 informing her of the commencement of an administrative investigation pertaining to her encashment of her personal checks and that she was relieved of her present assignment/position until the conclusion of the investigation.9
At the first investigative hearing on February 27, 1991, petitioner appeared but requested a postponement of five days to enable her to submit a supplemental letter to the Investigating Panel.
On March 5, 1991, petitioner submitted a letter-explanation accusing respondent of prejudging her case. She claimed to have been unceremoniously relieved of her duties and forced to go on vacation leave effective January 25, 1991. She demanded that she be re-assigned to her former position as Finance Director within three (3) days from notice.10
At the next scheduled hearing on March 6, 1991, petitioner appeared without her counsel. Considering her desire to be assisted by counsel during the investigation, the hearing was reset to March 15, 1991.
On March 15, 1991, petitioner called the Investigating Panel by phone, expressing her doubts on its impartiality. Despite notice, she refused to attend subsequent hearings. The Investigating Panel considered her refusal as a waiver of her right to be heard and thus continued the investigation in her absence.
On March 21, 1991, the Investigating Panel reported its findings as follows:
The Investigating Panel recommended that petitioner Santos be terminated from employment. The Panel further advised the management to reprimand the regional finance officer and sales operations manager who permitted the encashment of petitioner's personal checks.
In a memorandum dated April 5, 1991, respondent adopted the findings of the Investigating Panel and informed petitioner of her termination from employment for abuse of position as Finance Director, engaging in highly irregular transactions to the detriment of the company and employer's loss of trust and confidence. 12
Five days before the end of the administrative investigation, or on March 15, 1991, petitioner filed with the Labor Arbiter a complaint for constructive dismissal against respondent SMC and Ernesto S. Escalante, Chairman of the Investigating Panel. The complaint was later amended to illegal dismissal.13
On April 24, 1996, Labor Arbiter Dominador M. Cruz rendered judgment dismissing the complaint for lack of merit,14 thus:
On June 10, 1996, petitioner interposed an appeal to the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC).16 Respondent, for its part, filed a partial appeal.
On June 30, 1999, the NLRC promulgated a decision reversing that of the Labor Arbiter.17 The NLRC held that respondent SMC was estopped from questioning petitioner's encashment of personal checks, having allowed such practice for several years prior to the present case. Further, respondent deprived petitioner of due process by belatedly including her prior encashments in the administrative complaint, upgrading the charge to abuse of position. This effectively deprived her of her right to be notified of a clear statement of the cause for termination and prevented her from refuting a more serious charge. The NLRC likewise doubted the impartiality of the Investigating Panel considering that it was formed after she had been constructively dismissed by demotion. The NLRC disposed of the case in this manner:
On September 8, 1999, respondent SMC filed with the NLRC a motion for reconsideration19 but it was denied in a resolution dated December 29, 2000.20
On April 6, 2001, respondent filed with the Court of Appeals a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Revised Rules of Court, with prayer for a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction, docketed as CA-G.R. SP No. 64223.21
On July 4, 2001, the Court of Appeals rendered its Decision annulling and setting aside that of the NLRC,22 thus:
Petitioner filed with the Court of Appeals a motion for reconsideration,23 but the same was denied on August 9, 2001.24
Hence, this recourse.
Petitioner basically raises the issue that respondent SMC dismissed her from employment without just cause and violated her right to due process.
The petition is bereft of merit.
Under the Labor Code, a valid dismissal from employment requires that: (1) the dismissal must be for any of the causes expressed in Article 282 of the Labor Code and (2) the employee must be given an opportunity to be heard and to defend himself.25 Article 282(c) of the same Code provides that "willful breach by the employee of the trust reposed in him by his employer" is a cause for the termination of employment by an employer.26 This ground should be duly established.27 Substantial evidence is sufficient as long as such loss of confidence is well-founded or if the employer has reasonable ground to believe that the employee concerned is responsible for the misconduct and her act rendered her unworthy of the trust and confidence demanded of her position.28 It must be shown, though, that the employee concerned holds a position of trust.29 The betrayal of this trust is the essence of the offense for which an employee is penalized.30
Petitioner argues that her position as Finance Director of respondent's Beer Division is not one of trust but one that is merely functional and advisory in nature. She possesses no administrative control over the plants and region finance officers, including cashiers. She reports to two superiors.
Petitioner's argument is misplaced. As Finance Director, she is in charge of the custody, handling, care and protection of respondent's funds. The encashment of her personal checks and her private use of such funds, albeit for short periods of time, are contrary to the fiduciary nature of her duties.
Moreover, petitioner has functional control over all the plant and region finance officers, including cashiers, within the Luzon Operations Area. In fact, she is the highest ranking managerial employee for the finance section of the Luzon Beer Division Operations. Obviously, her position is a factor in abetting the encashment of her personal checks.
Indeed, we find substantial ground for respondent's loss of confidence in petitioner. She does not deny encashing her personal checks at respondent's sales offices and diverting for her own private use the latter's resources. The audit investigation accounted for all the checks she encashed, some of which were dishonored for insufficiency of funds. The Investigating Panel concluded that petitioner not only encashed her personal checks at respondent's sales offices, but also used company funds to temporarily satisfy her insufficient accounts. This Court has held that misappropriation of company funds, although the shortages had been fully restituted, is a valid ground to terminate the services of an employee of the company for loss of trust and confidence.31
Petitioner contends that she was "singled out in this case" for refusing to accede to the sexual advances of her superior, Francisco Gomez de Liano. She also cites the prolonged practice of other payroll personnel, including persons in managerial levels, who encashed personal checks but remained unpunished by respondent. She asserts that her administrative superiors even encouraged her to encash her checks at the nearest sales office since her appearance at the bank for encashment would entail undue digression from her daily work routine.
Prolonged practice of encashing personal checks among respondent's payroll personnel does not excuse or justify petitioner's misdeeds. Her willful and deliberate acts were in gross violation of respondent's policy against encashment of personal checks of its personnel, embodied in its Cash Department Memorandum dated September 6, 1989. She cannot feign ignorance of such memorandum as she is duty-bound to keep abreast of company policies related to financial matters within the corporation. Equally unmeritorious are her claims that the acts complained of are regular, being with the knowledge and consent of her superiors, Francisco Gomez de Liano and Ben Jarmalala, and that she is being charged because she resisted the sexual advances of her superior. Suffice it to state that she could have proved these matters during the investigation had she attended the proceedings.
On petitioner's contention that she was denied due process - To be sure, an employee cannot be dismissed from employment without according to him the constitutional right to due process whether he be a rank and file or a managerial employee.32 Failure to comply with the procedural requirements for terminating one's employment taints the dismissal with illegality. This procedure is mandatory and any judgment reached by management without that compliance can be considered void and inexistent.33
In this case, petitioner was required to explain in writing why no disciplinary action should be taken against her. She was also notified that a full-blown administrative investigation will be conducted and was advised that she should be represented by counsel. She submitted to the Investigating Panel a letter-explanation and a supplemental response to the administrative complaint against her. At her request, the investigation was postponed twice to enable her to procure the services of counsel. Yet, she vehemently refused to participate in the administrative investigation. She cannot now claim denial of due process considering that she was afforded the opportunity to be present (with counsel) during the investigation and to present her evidence. The essence of due process is that a party be afforded a reasonable opportunity to be heard and to submit any evidence he may have in support of his defense.34
The Labor Code provides the following procedure to be observed in terminating the services of an employee based on just causes as defined in Article 282 of the Code:
Procedural due process requires the employer to give the employee two notices. First is the notice apprising him of the particular acts or omissions for which his dismissal is sought. Second is the subsequent notice informing him of the employer's decision to dismiss him.35
Records show that the petitioner received the required twin notices. The first notice states:
The above notice was followed by a more detailed supplemental notice, thus:
The second notice, given after the conclusion of the administrative investigation, enumerates the administrative offenses committed by petitioner and informs her that her employment is terminated "for just and valid cause," thus:
In sum, in dismissing petitioner, respondent SMC did not deprive her of her right to due process. Her dismissal is with just cause. Her encashment of her three personal checks at respondent's sales offices violated respondent's trust and confidence reposed in her, even without considering her other fifty personal checks she encashed at respondent's sales offices. An employer cannot be compelled to retain an employee who is guilty of acts inimical to the interests of the employer.39 A company has the right to dismiss its employees as a measure of protection, more so in the case of supervisors or personnel occupying positions of responsibility. 40
WHEREFORE, the petition is DENIED. The assailed Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP 64223 dated July 4, 2001 and its Resolution dated August 9, 2002 are AFFIRMED.
Puno, (Chairman), Panganiban, Corona and Carpio-Morales, JJ., concur.
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