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A.M. OCA I.P.I. No. 05-2232-RTJ. September 20, 2006]

RE: NORMA CEA PAPPAS v. JUDGE MA. EDEN HUENDA ALTEA, JUDGE ZEIDA AURORA B. GARFIN AND JUDGE CORAZON A. TORDILLA, RTC, NAGA CITY, BRANCH 61, BRANCH 19 AND BRANCH 24, RESPECTIVELY

Third Division

Sirs/Mesdames:

Quoted hereunder, for your information, is a resolution of this Court dated SEPT. 20, 2006.

A.M. OCA I.P.I. No. 05-2232-RTJ (Re: Norma Cea Pappas v. Judge Ma. Eden Huenda Altea, Judge Zeida Aurora B. Garfin and Judge Corazon A. Tordilla, RTC, Naga City, Branch 61, Branch 19 and Branch 24, Respectively)

For consideration is the Report dated 20 July 2006 on the administrative matter submitted by the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA).

In a Verified Complaint dated 30 March 2005, complainant charges Judges Ma. Eden Huenda Altea, Zeida Aurora B. Garfin and Corazon A. Tordilla, with Manifest Bias and Partiality; Grave Misconduct; Undue Delay in Rendering a Decision or Order; Violation of Supreme Court Rules, Directives and Circulars; Violation of Article 8, Section 15 of the Constitution; and Violation of Canon 3, Rule 3.05 of the Code of Judicial Conduct relative to Special Proceedings No. 94-510 entitled In the Matter of Settlement of the Intestate Estate of Edmundo B. Cea; Edmundo C. Cea, Jr., Petitioner.

Complainant is the legitimate child of the late Edmundo B. Cea and Gloria N. Cea. Special Proceedings No. 94-510 commenced on 18 July 1994, but complainant only made her formal appearance in June 2003. Complainant likewise appeared in Special Proceedings No. 2003-32, entitled In the Matter of the Petition to Approve the will of Gloria Novelo Vda. De Cea, Salvio B. Fortuno, Petitioner in August 2003 by filing an opposition therein. The two proceedings were consolidated. Thereafter, at complainant's demand, her counsel withdrew his appearance and she filed her Entry of Appearance to appear in propia persona.

Complainant alleges that respondent Judge Altea allowed Atty. Antonio Gerona to claim attorney's fees as complainant's former counsel without taking the oath and without paying the requisite docket and filing fees. She also claims that Judge Altea deprived her of due process by denying her right to cross-examine Atty. Gerona.

Complainant also maintains that Judge Altea discontinued the examination of the estate administrator, Diana Gozum, despite the fact that her testimony is necessary to determine and resolve the principal issues. Complainant likewise claims that Judge Altea wanted to utilize inclusions and exclusions to an approved partial inventory (submitted by the court-appointed Special Administrator Francia Merilo Bedural on 5 January 1995) as a means to determine the assets of the estate instead of requiring the administrator to submit a complete inventory of the assets and liabilities of the estate and to render an accounting of her administration.

Complainant claims that in 11 years of litigation, none of the principal issues have been resolved, to wit: the approval of the inventory of assets and liabilities of the estate, the accounting of income and expenses, the determination of the heirs and their corresponding legitime, the identification of creditors, and the partition and distribution of the remainder estate. These proceedings, she alleges, have languished mainly due to the relentless efforts of Atty. Leopoldo Buenaventura, counsel for the administrator, to delay final disposition. Judge Altea allegedly granted Atty. Buenaventura's every request for postponement. In addition, Judge Altea failed to hear calendared motions, resetting them months later but still failing to hear them.

Complainant lists 13 pending motions still unresolved by Judge Altea at the time she inhibited herself from hearing the consolidated cases. Complainant further contends that Judge Altea failed to decide within the mandatory 90-day period the motion for reconsideration of the order terminating Diana Gozum as administrator of the estate of Edmundo B. Cea.

After Judge Altea had inhibited herself, Judge Filemon B. Montenegro of Branch 26 likewise inhibited himself from hearing the cases. The consolidated cases were then raffled to Branch 19 presided by Judge Garfin who complainant claims to have been influenced by Judge Altea on how the cases should proceed.

Finally, complainant claims that despite requesting Judge Tordilla to look into Judge Altea's violation of the mandate on speedy, just and inexpensive disposition of judicial matters, Judge Tordilla allegedly has done nothing and remains silent on why the delay has been allowed to continue and unchecked for too long.

In her Comment dated 16 May 2005, Judge Garfin denies the allegation that she and Judge Altea have reached an agreement on the disposal of the consolidated cases. In truth, records show that she was frequently absent on account of a heart surgery she underwent in September 2004. She first acted on the case on 10 March 2005 when she issued an order authorizing the release of funds deposited with the clerk of court. On 29 April 2005, acting on complainant's motion, she issued an order pronouncing that all pending motions shall be resolved in seriatim. However, much to her dismay, she realized that the pending incidents in thick folios required a considerable time for proper disposition. Hence, realizing that her handling of the cases would further delay their disposition, she issued an order on 10 May 2005 directing the return of the cases, thus, inhibiting herself.

In her Comment dated 19 May 2005, Judge Tordilla avers that she did receive a letter from complainant requesting an investigation on Judge Altea's conduct. Being then the Executive Judge, she was however aware that she had no power to investigate such claims as she and Judge Altea were co-equal in rank. Nonetheless, she asked Judge Altea if she was willing to comment on the letter-complaint. Thereafter, Judge Altea sent Judge Tordilla a copy of her comment on the letter. Since the records show that complainant has been furnished a copy thereof, she found it unnecessary to inform complainant about it. In fine, Judge Tordilla maintains that if complainant was unsatisfied with Judge Altea's explanation, she should have pointed it out to the presiding judge of Branch 19 where the case was pending and not charge Judge Tordilla administratively.

In a Comment dated 2 June 2005, Judge Altea denies the allegations of the complaint. She claims to have duly resolved certain issues in the consolidated cases. Moreover, when she assumed jurisdiction over the cases in September 2002, she likewise issued orders resolving motions. In defense of her non-resolution of several motions, she claims that they involved principal issues which necessitate evidence. These could not be resolved all at the same time as the court had to schedule the incidents to accord all the parties their day in court. Thus, when no evidence had yet been received pending the final determination of the extent of the estate, the motions involving the principal issues could not yet be resolved. In addition, she maintains that the consideration of the pending motions was suspended to give way to the determination of the extent of the estate of the decedent.

Judge Altea denies soliciting the cooperation of Judge Garfin in handling the consolidated cases. She also avers that she is a stranger to the parties and has no interest in the consolidated cases. She granted or denied postponements based on the reasons presented.

In her Reply dated 29 June 2005, complainant reiterates her previous allegations.

The OCA in its Report dated 20 July 2006, recommended the dismissal of the instant administrative complaint against Judges Zeida Aurora B. Garfin and Corazon A. Tordilla for lack of merit. It however reminded Judge Altea to resolve, rule and render judgment on cases and incidents duly submitted for resolution or decision within the mandatory period or file an extension therefor on reasonable grounds.

The OCA found that complainant failed to present any competent evidence against Judge Garfin. Moreover, Judge Garfin has shown valid reasons for her non-availability for the hearings. With regard to Judge Tordilla, the OCA affirmed her position that she has no authority to investigate Judge Altea.

With respect to Judge Altea, the OCA likewise held that complainant failed to substantiate the allegations she leveled against respondent. The charges are serious and must be proven with competent evidence that she failed to adduce. In fact, nothing can be inferred from the transcripted record of the hearings that she manifested bias against complainant. Moreover, the questioned acts of Judge Altea complained of are judicial in nature and, as such, not proper subject of administrative proceedings.

The OCA noted however that Judge Altea failed to resolve the motion for reconsideration of the order terminating Diana Gozum as administrator of the estate of the deceased. Said motion was submitted for resolution per Judge Altea's order on 6 September 2004, more than a month before the testimony of Diana Gozum was taken on 27 October 2004. Thus, Judge Altea cannot insist that the resolution of the motion requires said testimony. The OCA found Judge Altea guilty of failing to resolve a pending incident despite the lapse of the mandatory 90-day period. Notably, Judge Altea never filed any request for extension of the period.

The mandate to promptly dispose of cases or matters has been held by this Court to apply also to motions or interlocutory matters or incidents pending before a magistrate.[1]cralaw Delay in resolving such motions or matters cannot be excused or condoned. In this case, we deem it sufficient to admonish Judge Altea for such failure, in addition to the recommendation of the OCA to remind Judge Altea to resolve such motions or matters within the reglementary period or file an extension therefor on reasonable grounds.

WHEREFORE, finding the recommendation to be in accord with the law and the facts of the case on record, the same is APPROVED. The administrative complaint against Judges Zeida Aurora B. Garfin and Corazon A. Tordilla is DISMISSED for lack of merit while Judge Ma. Eden Huenda Altea is ADMONISHED for her failure to act on the motion for reconsideration within the reglementary period and is REMINDED to resolve, rule and render judgment on cases and incidents duly submitted for resolution or decision within the appropriate mandatory period or file an extension therefor on reasonable grounds, with a WARNING that a similar infraction in the future will be dealt with more severely.

Very truly yours,

(Sgd.) LUCITA ABJELINA-SORIANO
Clerk of Court



Endnotes:

[1]cralaw Golanco v. Villanueva, A.M. No. RTJ-01-1649, 11 July 2002, 384 SCRA 305, 309.


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