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[G.R. No. 147048.June 27, 2001]

SAN MIGUEL CORP.vs.CRISTALES

SECOND DIVISION

Gentlemen:

Quoted hereunder, for your information, is a resolution of this Court dated JUN 27 2001.

G.R. No. 147048(San Miguel Corporation v. Maximino G. Cristales.)

Petitioner San Miguel Corporation is engaged in the production and sale of food and beverage. It has several plants and sales offices nationwide, one of which is the Himamaylan Sales Office in Himamaylan, Negros Occidental. Sometime in 1983, petitioner contracted Lipercon Services, Inc. to supply its manpower requirements. The arrangement was discontinued in 1989. However, some of the workers of Lipercon Services, Inc. were hired by petitioner as casuals to work as replacements or relievers of route helpers in the absence of regular personnel. One of the workers was respondent Maximino G. Cristales, who was hired as a casual worker with a daily wage of P89.00 and cost of living allowance of P13.35. Respondent was designated as a route helper assigned to the Himamaylan Sales Office under the direct supervision and control of a supervisor, Norberto Gonzales. His work consisted of making deliveries of San Miguel beer products to the different sales dealers, stores, and customers in the southern part of Negros. He was issued an identification card by Lipercon Services, Inc. He worked continuously for one year and ten months, but remained a casual employee. Everytime he received his salary, he was made to sign on a voucher with the word "terminated" stamped on it. In December 1990, respondent was not given any work and was thus effectively terminated.

On September 15, 1993, respondent filed a complaint against petitioner for illegal dismissal, underpayment of salaries, 13th month pay, overtime pay, holiday and rest day pay, and premium pay. On November 29, 1996, the Labor Arbiter rendered a decision dismissing respondent's complaint for failure to present the payroll and payslips to prove that respondent was an employee of petitioner. On appeal, the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) reversed the decision. The dispositive portion of the decision of the NLRC reads:

WHEREFORE, the decision of the Labor Arbiter is hereby VACATED and SET ASIDE and judgment is hereby rendered:

1. declaring the dismissal of complainant to be without just or authorized cause and, therefore, illegal;

2. ordering respondent San Miguel Corporation to reinstate complainant to his former or equivalent position without loss of seniority rights and other privileges and with full backwages, inclusive of allowances and other benefits or their monetary equivalent, computed from the time his compensation was withheld from him up to the time of his actual reinstatement; and

3. ordering respondent San Miguel Corporation to pay complainant the sum equivalent to ten (10%) percent of the total monetary awards as attorney's fees.

SO ORDERED.

Petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration of the NLRC decision, but the same was denied. On appeal, the Court of Appeals dismissed the petitioner's petition for certiorari and later, its motion for reconsideration. Hence, this present petition for review on certiorari.

First. Petitioner contends that it is the med-arbiter, not the labor arbiter, who has jurisdiction to determine the issue of employer-employee relationship raised by respondent. It contends that as herein respondent is a mere contractual or casual employee, he is excluded from the collective bargaining agreement entered into between the petitioner and the existing union. Consequently, the proper forum for him to be declared as a regular employee is through the process of a certification election.

This contention has no merit, The instant case involves a complaint for illegal dismissal filed by respondent, a regular employee, against petitioner, which is properly cognizable before the Labor Arbiter pursuant to Art. 217, par. (a) subpar. (3) of the Labor Code, as amended. In determining the status of respondent as a regular employee, reference is made to Art. 280 thereof. Thus, the two kinds of regular employees are: (1) those who are engaged to perform activities which are necessary or desirable in the usual business or trade of the employer; and (2) those casual employees who have rendered at least one year of service, whether continuous or broken, with respect to the activity in which they are employed (Romares v. National Labor Relations Commission, 294 SCRA 411 (1998)). Respondent was hired as a casual employee of petitioner from February 1989 to December 1990 continuously. However, this fact does not prevent respondent from becoming a regular employee of petitioner under the second paragraph of Article 280 of the Labor Code, as he had been employed for more than one year. What appears more evident in this case is that the petitioner purposely sought this mode of payment as a convenient subterfuge to prevent respondent's regularization and, thus, a clear circumvention of his right to security of tenure and the entitlement of the other benefits provided by law. As held in Baguio Country Club Corporation v. NLRC (206 SCRA 643 (1992)), the Labor Code made a distinction between regular and casual employees so as to protect the interests of labor. Its language evidently manifests the intent to safeguard the tenurial interest of the worker who may be denied the rights and benefits due a regular employee by virtue of lopsided agreements with the economically powerful employer who can maneuver to keep an employee on a casual status for as long as it is convenient for the employer to do so.

Second. Petitioner insists that the Court of Appeals erred in not holding that laches had set in against respondent's claim as his complaint for illegal dismissal against petitioner was filed after almost three years had lapsed from the time his employment was terminated and that he failed to sufficiently explain the long delay in filing such complaint.

This is error. The Court of Appeals disregarded petitioner's defense of laches and applied social justice as an equitable ground, taking into account respondent's lowly status in life, his ignorance, and his utter lack of means to immediately pursue his case. Moreover, an action for reinstatement by reason of illegal dismissal is one based on an injury. Such action may be brought within four (4) years from the time of the employee's dismissal from employment pursuant to Art. 1146 of the Civil Code (Azcor Manufacturing, Inc. v. NLRC, 303 SCRA 26 (1999)). Consequently, as respondent's complaint for illegal dismissal was filed within the four-year period from the time his services were terminated by petitioner, the same was clearly not yet time-barred.

Third. Petitioner argues that the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the factual findings of the Labor Arbiter which were duly supported by substantial evidence, having personally conducted the hearings and examined and observed the witnesses presented. Actually, it was the NLRC which did this. What the Court of Appeals did was to affirm the contrary findings of the NLRC, based on its review of the records of the case.

Moreover, in illegal dismissal cases, the burden of proving that the dismissal of the employee was for a valid and just or authorized cause rests on the employer (Agoy v. NLRC, 252 SCRA 588 (1996)). Petitioner failed to discharge this burden.

WHEREFORE, the petition is DENIED for lack of showing that the Court of Appeals committed any reversible error.

Very truly yours,

(Sgd.) TOMASITA B. MAGAY-DRIS
Clerk of Court


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