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FIRST DIVISION

A. M. No. RTJ-02-1717 - May 28, 2004
(formerly A.M. OCA IPI No. 00-1107-RTJ)

FERMA PORTIC, Complainant, vs. JUDGE VICTORIA VILLALON-PORNILLOS, as Presiding Judge, Regional Trial Court, Branch 10, Malolos, Bulacan, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

CARPIO, J.:

The Case

This is a complaint for Abuse of Authority and Neglect of Duty filed by complainant Ferma Portic ("complainant") against respondent Judge Victoria Villalon-Pornillos ("respondent Judge") of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 10, Malolos, Bulacan ("Branch 10").

The Facts

Complainant is the defendant in Criminal Case No. 05-M-97 ("Case No. 05-M-97") for estafa pending in respondent Judges sala with one Anastacia Cristobal ("Cristobal") as private complainant. During the trial, the National Bureau of Investigation ("NBI") examined a petty cash voucher1 bearing Cristobals signature to determine its authenticity. The NBI compared the signature with Cristobals specimen signatures in other documents.2 The NBI found Cristobals signature in the voucher authentic but the prosecution, wanting a second opinion, moved for its examination by the Philippine National Police ("PNP") in Camp Olivas, San Fernando, Pampanga. Respondent Judge granted the prosecutions motion in the Order of 5 October 19983 ("5 October 1998 Order") requiring one Elladora Constantino, NBI Examiner III, to return to Branch 10 all the documents in the NBIs possession. Respondent Judge amended her Order by issuing the Order of 9 November 1998 ("9 November 1998 Order"). This amended Order required one Eliodoro M. Constantino of the NBI Questioned Documents Division to bring the documents to Branch 10, testify on his findings on the documents examination, and afterwards deliver the documents to Camp Olivas.4

Branch 10 received the documents on 22 November 1998. However, Mario B. Lopez ("Lopez") and Glenn B. Umali ("Umali"), Acting Clerk of Court and Clerk, respectively, of Branch 10, released the original documents to Cristobals cousin5 who allegedly undertook to transmit them to Camp Olivas. The release of the original documents to Cristobals cousin violated respondent Judges 9 November 1998 Order. This prompted complainant to file administrative charges against Lopez and Umali,6 which this Court referred to Executive Judge Danilo A. Manalastas ("Executive Judge Manalastas") of the Regional Trial Court, Malolos, Bulacan for investigation, report, and recommendation. During the investigation, Lopez testified that respondent Judge approved the release of the documents.

Because of Lopezs testimony, complainant filed this case. Complainant alleges that respondent Judge had denied her motions for reinvestigation, reduction of bail, dismissal of Case No. 05-M-97 (demurrer to evidence) and voluntary inhibition. Complainant adds that she sought reconsideration of the Order dated 31 July 2000 ("31 July 2000 Order") denying her demurrer to evidence and that she also filed a supplementary motion for inhibition but respondent Judge failed to resolve these motions. Complainant also alleges that respondent Judge has unduly delayed the disposition of Case No. 05-M-97.

In her Comment dated 24 November 2000, respondent Judge denied complainants allegations. Respondent Judge asserted that she never ordered Lopez or Umali to release the documents to any unauthorized party. Respondent Judge denied orally amending the 5 October 1998 and 9 November 1998 Orders. Respondent Judge disclosed that Lopez has a history of usurping her judicial functions7 and his malfeasance in an election protest case prompted her to revoke his designation as Acting Clerk of Court of her sala.8

On the 31 July 2000 Order, respondent Judge stated that her finding of prima facie case against complainant was based on the facts and the applicable law. Respondent Judge explained that contrary to complainants claim, she had acted on complainants motion for reconsideration to the 31 July 2000 Order and on the supplemental motion for inhibition, which the Order of 13 November 2000 denied.

On complainants allegation that she had unduly delayed the proceedings in Case No. 05-M-97, respondent Judge attributes any delay to complainants numerous motions on which the prosecution had to be heard. Complainant also refused without justification to present her evidence after the prosecution had rested its case. In addition, the case was re-assigned four times to different prosecutors.9

In the Resolution of 5 August 2002, we referred this case to Associate Justice Rebecca De Guia-Salvador ("Justice Salvador") of the Court of Appeals for investigation, report and recommendation.

The Investigating Justices Findings

In her Report ("Report") dated 4 March 2003, Justice Salvador recommended the dismissal of the complaint for lack of merit. The Report reads in pertinent parts:

Anent the charge of abuse of authority which purportedly underlied the denial of complainants motions for reinvestigation, reduction of bail and demurrer to evidence, respondent Judge acted clearly within the judicial capacity inherent in her position. Long and well-settled is the rule that, when required to exercise his judgment or discretion, a judicial officer is not liable as long as he acts in good faith; bad faith is, therefore, the source of liability. In the absence of any showing of fraud, dishonesty or corruption as in the case at bench, the acts of a judge in his official capacity does not amount to misconduct even if such acts are erroneous. Moreover, the law provides ample judicial remedies against errors or irregularities committed by a trial court in the exercise of its jurisdiction. The ordinary remedies include a motion for reconsideration and appeal, while the extraordinary remedies are, inter alia, the special civil actions of certiorari, prohibition or mandamus, a motion for inhibition, or a petition for change of venue, as the case may be.

With her resolution of complainants motion for reconsideration and voluntary inhibition on November 13, 2000, there is, on the other hand, no more cause to hold respondent Judge liable for the charge of neglect of duty and/or delaying the trial of Criminal Case No. 05-M-97. Significantly, whatever exceptions complainant harbored against said order had already been effectively rendered moot and academic when respondent Judge issued the Order dated June 6, 2000, voluntarily inhibiting herself from further hearing and resolving the case. By refusing to present her evidence and repeatedly moving for deferment of the scheduled trial in the case, complainant was, moreover, partly responsible for the delay she now gratuitously imputes against respondent Judge.

Neither can respondent Judge be held liable for partiality in supposedly allowing the documents questioned in the case to be entrusted to Max Cristobal, a relative of the private complainant in Criminal Case No. 05-M-97. As admitted by complainant in her affidavit dated December 5, 2002 and during the hearing of January 7, 2003, she had no personal knowledge of the truth or falsity of the charge except thru x x x testimony elicited from Mario Lopez during the hearing conducted on August 31, 2000 in Adm. Matter No. [P-01-1452]x x x

As the sole evidence relied upon on so grave a charge against respondent Judge, however, [Lopezs] testimony hardly inspires credence. Aside from the fact that the declaration was not even corroborated by Glenn Umali, the witness co-respondent in Adm. Matter No. [P-01-1452] who, contrariwise, named him as the one who turned over the questioned documents to Max Cristobal, Mario Lopez also contradicted himself [during the investigation] x x x

Viewed in the light of the October 29, 2002 affidavit executed by his co-employees to the effect that respondent Judge has never amended any previously issued Order except in writing and the latters categorical denial of knowledge and approval [of the documents release], the ineluctable conclusion which could be drawn in the premises is that, in excess of the directive contained in respondent Judges Order dated October 5, 1998, Mario Lopez unilaterally decided to entrust the questioned documents to Max Cristobal. As former Acting Branch Clerk of Court of respondent Judges sala, Mario Lopezs propensity therefore has been more than amply demonstrated in similar incidents in at least two cases pending before Branch 10 of the Regional Trial Court of Malolos, Bulacan, viz: (a) Civil Case No. 35-M-92, entitled "Julian Francisco vs. Sps. Pelagio and Gregoria Francisco"; and, (b) EPC No. 11-M-98, entitled "Lorna Silverio vs. Jaime Viceo." That Mario Lopezs attempt at self-exculpation by implicating respondent Judge could also be retaliatory is indicated by the open censure he was subjected in the aforesaid cases as well as the latters revocation of his appointment as Acting Branch Clerk of Court of her sala.10

The Ruling of the Court

The Report is well-taken.

Administrative charges against members of the judiciary must be supported at least by substantial evidence.11 Failure to do so will result in the dismissal of the complaint for lack of merit.12

Here, complainant has presented no credible proof to support her charges against respondent Judge. On her claim that respondent Judge ordered the unauthorized release of the documents in question, complainants sole evidence is the following testimony of Lopez in A.M. No. P-01-1452:

COURT [EXECUTIVE JUDGE DANILO A. MANALASTAS]

x x x [D]espite your knowledge that Max Cristobal was interested in the outcome of the action and most likely, a sympathizer of Anastacia Cristobal, you entrusted to him the original copies of the questioned documents?

x x x x

MARIO LOPEZ

Yes, Your Honor.

COURT

Why?

MARIO LOPEZ

Considering that it was the prosecution that was requesting for that second opinion, considering that it was the prosecution that was requesting for the said documents to be further re-examined, we entrusted the documents to Max Cristobal with his own undertaking indicated at the dorsal side of the xerox copies of the documents transmitted by the NBI, Your Honor.

COURT

Nevertheless and because of your knowledge of the interest of Max Cristobal in the outcome of this action, you knew very well and it could not have escaped your cognizance of the fact that by entrusting these questioned documents to him, that will give him an opportunity to either switch these with other documents or do something that may adversely affect the interest of the accused, Mrs. Portic considering that there was already a prior finding by the NBI regarding these questioned documents favorable to Mrs. Portic?

MARIO LOPEZ

After all, Your Honor, the documents that were brought by Mr. Cristobal were the documents being presented by the prosecution, Your Honor.

COURT

Nevertheless, that gave him an opportunity to either tamper with it or switch it with other documents or do other things that could adversely affect the interest of the private complainant herein?

MARIO LOPEZ

What we did was with the cognizance of the Court itself, Your Honor.

COURT

What do you mean? Was there a particular order on the part of the presiding judge of Branch 10 authorizing Max Cristobal to himself hand carry these questioned documents?

MARIO LOPEZ

Although there was no written order, Your Honor

COURT

Was there an order?

MARIO LOPEZ

There was a verbal order, Your Honor.

COURT

There was a verbal order by whom?

MARIO LOPEZ

By the Presiding Judge, Your Honor.

COURT

And is that contained in the minutes of the proceedings?

MARIO LOPEZ

That is not contained, Your Honor, but the act of allowing or authorizing or entrusting those documents to Max Cristobal was brought to the attention of the presiding judge herself.13

As found by Justice Salvador, however, Lopezs testimony is not credible. In the latter part of his testimony, Lopez no longer claimed that respondent Judge authorized him to release the documents. Instead, Lopez testified that what he did was based on "common practice" in Branch 10. However, on further questioning by Executive Judge Manalastas, Lopez later admitted that he erred in releasing the documents, thus:

COURT

Nevertheless, despite your knowledge that he was interested in overturning the early or initial finding of the NBI you entrusted these documents to Max Cristobal?

MARIO LOPEZ

Based on common practice, Your Honor.

COURT

What common practice? Was it the practice to entrust to a party or sympathizer of a party original copies of the documents that could enable that party to either destroy the evidence, switch the evidence or impair its value? Is it common practice to allow a party to handle documents that will give him opportunity to discredit its value? Is there a practice to that effect?

MARIO LOPEZ

None, Your Honor.

COURT So what practice are you talking about?

MARIO LOPEZ

The practice of just entrusting a person who will make an undertaking before the court, Your Honor.

COURT

But if the party has an interest in the outcome of the litigation, is there such a practice? If that will give him opportunity to tamper with the evidence, is there such a practice?

MARIO LOPEZ

It may not be a practice, Your Honor, but it may be an error on the part of your humble servant.

COURT

So, you admit that you committed an error in entrusting these documents to Max Cristobal?

MARIO LOPEZ

It may be a human error for that matter, Your Honor.14 (Emphasis added)

In their counter-affidavit in A.M. No. P-01-1452, Lopez and Umali did not mention that respondent Judge orally ordered the release of the documents to a relative of Cristobal. They merely relied on the so-called "ordinary practice" claimed by Lopez in his testimony, thus:

We allowed the prosecution through Max Cristobal to handcarry the documents to Camp Olivas, San Fernando, Pampanga, considering that it was the prosecution [which] requested x x x the second opinion from Camp Olivas, San Fernando, Pampanga xxxx [;]

We exercise[d] utmost diligence in allowing the prosecution to handcarry the subject documents by making him sign with his undertaking that the documents [would] actually reach intact the addressee as borne out by the records showing that he (Max Cristobal) received the original documents to be brought to Camp Olivas;

It has been an ordinary practice in our court that parties may be allowed to handcarry notices, documents or other processes of the court for purposes of expediency and early disposition of the case.15 (Emphasis added)

In contrast, respondent Judge presented in her favor the joint affidavit16 of all the members of her staff (including Umali) attesting that "never had there been any instance in any case raffled to Branch 10 that [respondent Judge] ever gave any verbal Order amending any previous x x x Order."

Based on the evidence, the Court gives credence to respondent Judges claim that she gave no order for the release of the documents other than in the manner stated in her 9 November 1998 Order. Moreover, respondent Judge enjoys the presumption that she is innocent of the charge against her17 and that she has performed her duties regularly and in good faith.18 During the investigation of this case, complainant, apart from manifesting that she was no longer interested in pursuing this case, admitted that "she has no personal knowledge on the truthfulness" of Lopezs claim against respondent Judge.19 There is reason to believe, as Justice Salvador noted, that Lopez wanted to retaliate against respondent Judge for revoking his designation as Acting Clerk of Court of Branch 10 by falsely testifying that she authorized him to release the documents.

Neither did complainant present any proof to support her claim that respondent Judge unreasonably delayed the proceedings in Case No. 05-M-97. On the contrary, the records show that respondent Judge attended to the various incidents of the case with reasonable dispatch. Respondent Judge did this even in the face of complainants numerous motions, the requirement to hear the prosecution on these motions, and the successive transfer of Case No. 05-M-97 to four different prosecutors. Complainant herself needlessly prolonged the proceedings by unjustifiably refusing to present her evidence, prompting respondent Judge to warn her that her continued refusal would be deemed a waiver of her right to do so.20

Complainant has not cited any ground to hold respondent Judge administratively liable for denying her motions for reinvestigation, reduction of bail, dismissal, and voluntary inhibition. At any rate, the rule is that disciplinary proceedings do not complement, supplement, or substitute judicial remedies. An inquiry into the administrative liability of a judge may be resorted to only after the available remedies have been exhausted and decided with finality.21 There is nothing on record to suggest that complainant first availed of such remedies before filing this administrative case.

WHEREFORE, we DISMISS the complaint against respondent Victoria Villalon-Pornillos, Presiding Judge of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 10, Malolos, Bulacan, for lack of merit.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr.*, Panganiban**, Ynares-Santiago, and Azcuna, JJ., concur.


Endnotes:

* On official leave.

** Acting Chairman.

1 Marked as Exh. 1.

2 Certificate of Income Tax Withheld on Compensation received by the BIR on 27 February 1989; Certification of Deposit No. 91/19 dated 29 April 1991; Prudential Bank Check No. 380567 dated 15 September 1992; Bank of the Philippine Islands Check Nos. 009572 dated 4 February 1994, 009573 dated 25 March 1994, 009576 dated 24 June 1994, 009694 dated 28 April 1995, 009696 dated 5 May 1995, 009697 dated 12 May 1995, 009699 dated 15 May 1995, 105033 dated 22 May 1995, 105055 dated 23 May 1995; Letter dated 13 October 1995 addressed to Mr. Manolo Tingson; and Receipts marked as Exh. 1-J, Exh. 1-I, Exh. 1-G, and Exh. 1-H, all dated 24 May 1997.

3 Exh. 4.

4 Exh. 5.

5 Max Cristobal.

6 Docketed as A.M. No. P-01-1452. In the Decision dated 11 July 2001, the Court dismissed the complaint against Umali for lack of merit but found Lopez guilty of grave misconduct and fined him P10,000, with warning that a repetition of a similar act will be dealt with more severely.

7 In the hearing of 7 March 1996 in Civil Case No. 35-M-92 ("Julian Francisco v. Spouses Pelagio and Gregoria Francisco"), Lopez, at the instance of one of the parties, entered into the minutes of the proceedings matters which had not been brought to the attention of respondent Judge for which Lopez was chastised in open court.

8 Respondent Judge revoked Lopezs designation in the Memorandum of 15 November 1999 in EPC No. 11-M-98 ("Lorna Silverio v. Jaime Viceo") for "attempt[ing] to blackmail [respondent Judge by] pressur[ing] her [to] delay x x x the promulgation of the Judgment in EPC No. 11-M-98 x x x[;] hoodwinking the other staff members into signing prepared Affidavits, the contents of which are wrongfully premised on false rumors that your Presiding Judge received money from a litigant [which Affidavits were] x x x attached to a Motion for Inhibition [filed in this case] x x x[;] refus[ing] to read the Decision dated November 11, 1999, rendered that day, x x x and making a thumbs down sign, [and] vigorous[ly] shaking [his]head, x x x[;] fail[ing] to return with the records of this case [the draft copy of the Judgment which was] apparently made available to a party x x x [and] using the Judges chamber as site of a closed-door conference [i]n November 1999 with a party and representative/s in violation of office memoranda".

9 Rollo, pp. 98-118.

10 Report, pp. 4-5, 10.

11 Lachica v. Judge Flordeliza, 324 Phil. 534 (1996).

12 Castro v. Bullecer, Adm. Matter No. 145 CFI, 11 June 1975, 64 SCRA 289.

13 Exh. B-3 to B-6 (TSN, 31 August 2000, pp. 12-15 ).

14 Exh. B (TSN, 31 August 2000, pp. 31-32).

15 Portic v. Lopez, 413 Phil. 310 (2001).

16 Exh. 13.

17 See Atty. Geocadin v. Hon. Peña, 195 Phil. 344 (1981).

18 Martin v. Vallarta, A.M. No. MTJ-90-495, 12 August 1991, 200 SCRA 469.

19 Exh. A.

20 Order dated 27 November 2000 (Exh. 9).

21 Caguioa v. Laviña, A.M. No. RTJ-00-1553, 20 November 2000, 345 SCRA 49; Atty. Flores v. Hon. Abesamis, 341 Phil. 299 (1997).




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y">21 Caguioa v. Laviña, A.M. No. RTJ-00-1553, 20 November 2000, 345 SCRA 49; Atty. Flores v. Hon. Abesamis, 341 Phil. 299 (1997).




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