April 2005 - Philippine Supreme Court Decisions/Resolutions
A.M. No. RTJ-05-1910 - ALFREDO HILADO, ET AL. v. JUDGE AMOR A. REYES
[A.M. NO. RTJ-05-1910 : April 15, 2005]
ALFREDO HILADO, LOPEZ SUGAR CORPORATION and FIRST FARMERS HOLDING CORPORATION, Complainants, v. JUDGE AMOR A. REYES, Regional Trial Court of Manila, Branch 21, Respondent.
D E C I S I O N
CALLEJO, SR., J.:
The instant administrative matter arose when Alfredo Hilado, Lopez Sugar Corporation and First Farmers Holding Corporation filed a verified Complaint1 dated November 17, 2003 charging Judge Amor A. Reyes, Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Manila, Branch 21, with gross ignorance of the law, gross inefficiency, dereliction of duty, serious misconduct, partiality and violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct relative to Special Proceedings No. 00-97505 for issuance of letters of administration entitled "Intestate Estate of Roberto S. Benedicto."
Complainant Alfredo Hilado is the plaintiff in Civil Case No. 95-9137 entitled "Manuel Lacson, et al. v. Roberto Benedicto, et al.," filed before the RTC of Bacolod City, Branch 44, while complainants Lopez Sugar Corporation and First Farmers Holding Corporation are the lead plaintiffs/intervenors in Civil Case No. 11178 pending before the RTC of Bacolod City, Branch 41. Upon the death of Roberto Benedicto in May 2000, he was substituted by his estate in the aforementioned civil cases.
Special Proceedings No. 00-97505 was raffled to the sala of the respondent Judge. She, thereafter, appointed Julita Campos Benedicto as the administratrix of the estate in an Order2 dated August 2, 2000, and letters of administration were, thereafter, issued in favor of the latter. According to the complainants, the appointed administratrix acknowledged their claims against the estate of the deceased as major liabilities thereof in an Inventory3 dated January 18, 2001. The complainants further alleged, thus:
5. Shortly prior to September 2001, Complainants uncovered serious lapses in the observance and enforcement by Respondent Judge of the mandatory prescriptions of the Rules governing the administration of the estate and in collation and preservation of its assets.
6. Among others, Petitioners discovered that while the Respondent Administratrix had been issued Letters of Administration as early as August 2, 2000 and had been granted by the Respondent Court, in an Order dated April 24, 2001, [a] final extended period until May 31, 2001 for the submission of "a completed and updated inventory and appraisal report," what had been submitted was still an unverified, incomplete and unappraised inventory dated January 18, 2001. Worse, in submitting the practically worthless inventory, Respondent Administratrix declined to vouch for the accuracy of the same,'
7. Likewise, it was discovered by Complainants that despite the lapse of over a year since the issuance of her letters of administration, the Administratrix had failed to render an annual account of her administration as mandatorily required by Section 8 of Rule 85.4
The complainants further alleged that the respondent Judge had, likewise, approved the sale of substantial and valuable assets of the estate without serving notice to them and other persons interested, in violation of Section 7, Rule 89 of the Rules of Court. Despite this, the respondent Judge failed to issue any order directing the administratrix to comply with the rules. The records of the intestate estate proceedings furthermore revealed a deliberate design to prejudice and preclude the opportune participation of the complainants. Thus:
9.1 Under Section 2 of Rule 79, the application for letters of administration is required to state, among others, "the names, ages and residences of the heirs, and the names and residences of the creditors, of the decedent" "so far as known to the petitioner." However, although the Petition for Letters of Administration filed by the Administratrix acknowledged the existence of liabilities, and the List of Liabilities submitted with her inventory named the Complainants together with the Bureau of Internal Revenue as the major creditors of the estate, Administratrix did not name and list Complainants as creditors of the decedent in her Petition. In fact, no creditor was named at all.
9.2 Pursuant to Section 5 of the same Rule 79, letters of administration may be validly issued only after it is "first shown that notice has been given as - required" by Section 3 of the same rule, that is to say, notice "to the known heirs and creditors of the decedent and to any other persons believed to have an interest in the estate," given not only via publication but also by mail "addressed [to them] - at their places of residence, and deposited at least twenty (20) days before the hearing" or by "personal service - at least ten (10) days before the days of hearing '"
Admittedly, no notice of whatever kind was served on Complainants.
9.3 Significantly, the Purchase and Sale Agreement disposing of the assets of Traders Royal Bank, which the Respondent Judge approved without notice to Complainants, explicitly, categorically and discriminatorily excluded, from the liabilities to be assumed by the Bank of Commerce as Purchaser, Petitioners' claims in the pending Bacolod suits against TRB and the estate, claims which had previously been acknowledged in the [Administratrix's] Inventory as major liabilities of the estate.5
In light of these discoveries, the complainants, through counsel, filed a Manifestation/Motion Ex Abudanti Cautela6 dated September 24, 2001 identifying themselves as among the major creditors in the inventory prepared by the appointed administratrix, and prayed that the Branch Clerk of Court be required to furnish the petitioners, through their counsel, copies of all the processes and orders issued by the court, and to require the administratrix to serve copies of all the proceedings to their counsel. Pending the resolution of this motion, the complainants also filed urgent pleadings bringing to the attention of the respondent Judge her procedural lapses.7 However, the respondent Judge issued an Order8 dated January 2, 2002 refusing to recognize the complainants as interested parties entitled to participate and intervene in the proceedings. This compelled the complainants to file a motion for reconsideration of the said order, which was, likewise, denied by the respondent Judge.
According to the complainants, the respondent Judge failed to consider the fact that no less than the appointed administratrix recognized their claims as major liabilities of the estate. They further claimed that the respondent Judge's action only shows that there was a deliberate design to preclude their participation in the intestate proceedings. The complainants further alleged that a probate judge, such as the respondent, should know the "elementary doctrines" regarding the settlement of estates, failing which he may be held guilty of ignorance of the law. The complainants averred that it is a well settled judicial policy to favor the liberal participation of all parties having an interest, however minimal, in the proper settlement of the estate of the deceased. Hence, the respondent Judge's failure to apply and observe the elementary doctrines bearing on the settlement of estate which are presumed to be known to a probate court reflects inexcusable ignorance of the law.
Aside from praying that the appropriate disciplinary sanction to be meted on the respondent Judge, the complainants also prayed that the respondent Judge be disqualified from further trying Sp. Proc. No. 00-97505. They, likewise, prayed that the said proceedings be forwarded to the Executive Judge of the RTC of Manila for re-raffle to another sala.
For her part, the respondent Judge explained that prior to her Order dated January 2, 2002, the complainants, through counsel, filed a motion with a prayer that an order be issued requiring the Branch Clerk of Court to furnish them (complainants) with copies of all processes and orders, and to require the administratrix to serve them copies of all pleadings in the proceedings. In her Order dated January 2, 2002, the respondent Judge declared that under the Rules, the complainants were without personality to participate in the intestate proceedings, thus, cannot intervene therein, much less be furnished with copies of orders, pleadings and processes relative thereto. The complainants filed a motion for reconsideration, which she denied on March 12, 2002. The respondent Judge pointed out that her ruling was elevated to the Court of Appeals (CA) via a Petition for Certiorari.
On the complainants' contention that she failed in her responsibility towards the appointed administratrix of the estate, the respondent Judge explained that the latter had already filed an initial inventory less than a year after the issuance of the letters of administration and that the administratrix was still in the process of preparing the supplemental inventory. Nonetheless, the respondent Judge issued an Order dated October 16, 2003 directing the administratrix to submit an updated inventory within thirty (30) days from receipt of the said Order. The administratrix filed a motion for extension as she had been continuously working on the preparation of the inventory of the estate and the delay was due to the difficulties of verifying the decedents' stock investments. The motion for extension filed by the administratrix was granted by the court on November 26, 2003.
The respondent Judge contended that the complaint was baseless, malicious and was intended to harass her, and was filed in retaliation for her unfavorable rulings against the complainants. She further contended that she resolved the motions filed by the complainants according to her own judgment and understanding of the law and the attendant circumstances. The respondent Judge, therefore, prayed for the dismissal of the case for lack of merit.
The complainants filed a Supplemental Complaint on February 6, 2004 contending that the respondent Judge had not yet required the administratrix of the estate to submit an inventory and annual account despite the lapse of time under the rules. They also claimed that they were again denied participation in the proceedings of the settlement of the estate, and access to the court records which are considered public. They prayed for the inhibition of the respondent Judge in trying Sp. Proc. No. 00-97505.
In the comment of the respondent Judge to the supplemental complaint, she maintained that the complainants were not considered parties-in-interest since their claims remain contingent on the outcome of the cases still pending in the RTC of Bacolod City. The respondent Judge also pointed out that the appeal of the complainants to her court order, declaring the latter as not parties-in-interest in the settlement of the estate of the decedent, was still pending consideration by the appellate court. Thus:
a) The law does not give blanket authority to any person to have access to official records and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts. As worded, only matters of public concern may a person [be] accorded access. In the present case, complainants' interest is more of personal than of public concern. The ruling of the Supreme Court in the case of Valentin L. Legaspi v. Civil Service Commission (G.R. No. 72119, May 29, 1987) is the case in point.
"But the constitutional guarantee to information on matters of public concern is not absolute. It does not open every door to any and all information. Under the Constitution, access to official records, papers, etc., 'are subject to limitations as may be provided by law' (Art. III, Sec. 7, second sentence). xxx in every case, the availability of access to a particular public record must be circumscribed by the nature of the information sought, i.e., (a) being of public concern or one that involves public interest, and (b) not being exempted by law from the operation of the constitutional guarantee. The threshold question is, therefore, whether or not the information sought is of public interest or public concern."
b) Although complainants assert that they have the right to information based on the cases cited in the Supplemental Complaint, it is further clarified by this respondent that the position taken by them is utterly different because the parties involved in the cited cases are complainants themselves while in the case at hand, they are not considered parties-in-interest, their claim being contingent as their case is still pending with the RTC, Branch 44, Bacolod; '9
The complainants filed a Second Supplemental Complaint on April 30, 2004, reiterating the charges against the respondent Judge. They also filed a motion to withdraw their previous prayer for inhibition.
In a Resolution dated August 11, 2004, the Court resolved to refer the matter to Court of Appeals Associate Justice Remedios A. Salazar-Fernando for investigation, report and recommendation.
In her Final Report and Recommendation dated November 8, 2004, the Investigating Justice found that based on the records, the respondent Judge was not remiss in her duties relative to Sp. Proc. No. 00-97505, thus:
On August 2, 2000, respondent Judge appointed Julita Campos Benedicto as administratrix of the estate of the deceased Roberto S. Benedicto [Records, Vol. I, p. 13]. Upon filing of the bond in the amount of five million (
P5,000,000) pesos, [letters] of administration [were] issued in favor of the administratrix and [a] notice dated August 23, 2000 to file money claims against the decedent was ordered published.
Under Section 1, Rule 83 of the Revised Rules of Court, the administratrix should return/file with the court a true inventory and appraisal of all the real and personal estate of the deceased which came to her possession or knowledge.
On December 12, 2000, the administratrix filed a motion for extension of time to file an Inventory on the ground that she was in the process of gathering documents and data necessary for the preparation of an inventory which were made difficult because of the very personalized way the deceased had been recording his assets and conducting his business affairs.
On December 13, 2000, the motion for extension of item was granted.
On January 12, 2001, the administratrix filed another extension of fifteen (15) days from January 15, 2001 within which to file an inventory which could not be finalized due to lack of necessary data such as the probable value of some specific assets. The motion was granted by respondent Judge.
The Inventory was submitted on January 19, 2001, which placed the estate's value at
P36,799,822.25. Accordingly, respondent Judge ordered the payment of additional filing fee based on the declared value of the estate [Ibid, p. 58].
After finding that the initial inventory had no appraisal on March 26, 2001, respondent Judge directed the administratrix to submit the completed and updated inventory and appraisal report. Additional bond was also ordered to be posted [Ibid, p. 60].
The administratrix asked for an extension of time or until May 31, 2001 to file an updated inventory [Ibid, p. 63]. The same was granted on April 24, 2001 [Ibid, p. 67].
On the preceding facts alone, it could be gleaned that respondent Judge dutifully fulfilled her responsibility in exacting from the administratrix the observance of her responsibilities. Please note that those were not the only actions taken by the respondent Judge. Records of the case show that respondent Judge issued several Orders resolving other motions.
Complainants fault respondent Judge for failing to order the administratrix to file a completed and updated inventory even as late as the date of this Complaint.
In the [administratrix's] motion for extension of time, she stated that the Inventory was complete except for the valuation of some shares of stock and to obtain the same, full auditing of the entire corporation complete with the actual field verification of recorded cases was needed. The same appears to be meritorious considering the vast estate of the deceased.
When the administratrix did not submit the updated inventory after the deadline on May 31, 2001, respondent Judge on October 16, 2003, directed the administratrix to file the updated inventory. For which reason, administratrix filed another two (2) motions for extension of time to file the same.
The delay in the submission of the inventory was aptly explained by the motions for extension of time filed by the administratrix.
The above ruling went on to expound that the administrator's unexplained delay in filing the inventory may be a ground for his removal. Hence, the judge may not be faulted for the [administratrix's] delay. However, only the heirs or beneficiaries of the estate may move for the removal of the administratrix on the grounds provided for in Rule 82.
Likewise, the failure to render an account is a ground for the removal of the administratrix by the proper parties.
The mandatory character of the requirement of an account or accounting one (1) year from the time of receiving letters testamentary or of administration admits of exception, i.e., when the Court, otherwise, directs.
In this case, the one-year mandatory period within which to render an accounting should be reckoned from December 16, 2003. Hence, accounting of the estate is not yet due.10
However, the Investigating Justice opined that the respondent Judge arbitrarily denied the complainants access to the case records of Sp. Proc. No. 00-97505 by refusing requests for photocopying of the same, and made the following conclusion and recommendation:
This Investigator concludes that respondent Judge is not guilty of inaction or failure to require observance of the Rules by the Administratrix.
However, respondent Judge's refusal to give the complainants access to the case records of SP-97505 is arbitrary. The right to information on matters of public concern is a constitutional right. Access to official records and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions, or decisions shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.
WHEREFORE, PREMISES CONSIDERED, it is hereby recommended that respondent Judge be adjudged guilty of dereliction of duty and improper conduct bordering on oppression and accordingly be CENSURED, REPRIMANDED and WARNED that a repetition of the same in the future will be dealt with more severely.11
The findings and recommendation of Justice Salazar-Fernando are well taken.
The Court holds that the respondent Judge erred in denying the complainants access to the court records of Sp. Proc. No. 00-97505. Admittedly, the complainants could not demand that they be furnished with the court's orders and the pleadings filed by the parties, in as much as the respondent Judge had already ruled that they were not parties-in-interest. However, the Court finds that the respondent Judge should not have prohibited the complainants from going over the records of the case and securing copies of pertinent orders and pleadings.12
Courts in the United States have recognized the general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.13 In our jurisdiction, the right is enshrined in Section 7, Article III of the Constitution, which provides:
Sec. 7. The right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized. Access to official records, and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development, shall be afforded the citizen, subject to such limitations as may be provided by law.
The reliance of the respondent Judge on the ruling of the Court in Legaspi v. Civil Service Commission,14 to justify the denial of access to court records is misplaced. On the contrary, the following pronouncement in the said case further bolsters the claim of the complainants:
In determining whether or not a particular information is of public concern there is no rigid test which can be applied. "Public concern," like public interest, is a term that eludes exact definition. Both terms embrace a broad spectrum of subjects which the public may want to know, either because these directly affect their lives, or simply because such matters naturally arouse the interest of an ordinary citizen. In the final analysis, it is for the courts to determine in a case by case basis whether the matter at issue is of interest or importance, as it relates to or affects the public.15
The presumption that the public has a right to see and copy judicial records attaches to those documents which properly come before the court in the course of an adjudicatory proceeding and which are relevant to the adjudication.16 Hence, relevant documents which are submitted to, and accepted by, a court of competent jurisdiction in the course of adjudicatory proceedings, become documents to which the presumption of public access applies.17 The policy reasons for granting public access to criminal proceedings include the public's right to monitor the functioning of our courts, thereby ensuring quality, honesty and respect for our legal system. Such policy reasons apply to the grant of public access to civil cases as well.18
The importance of access to public records, court records more particularly, was explained in Lantaco, Sr. v. Llamas,19 where the respondent Judge therein refused to furnish the complainants a copy of his decision. According to the Court, the importance of this right to access to court records is predicated on the right of the people to acquire information on matters of public concern in which the public has a legitimate interest. It was further explained that while the public officers in custody of control of public records have the discretion to regulate the manner in which such records may be inspected, examined or copied by interested persons, such discretion does not carry with it the authority to prohibit such access, inspection, examination or copying. To drive home the point, the Court cited its pronouncement in Baldoza v. Dimaano,20 to wit:
'The incorporation of this right in the Constitution is a recognition of the fundamental role of free exchange of information in a democracy. There can be no realistic perception by the public of the nation's problems, nor a meaningful democratic decision-making if they are denied access to information of general interest. Information is needed to enable the members of society to cope with the exigencies of the times. As has been aptly observed: "Maintaining the flow of such information depends on protection for both its acquisition and its dissemination since, if either process is interrupted, the flow inevitably ceases." However, restrictions on access to certain records may be imposed by law. Thus, access restrictions imposed to control civil insurrection have been permitted upon a showing of immediate and impending danger that renders ordinary means of control inadequate to maintain order.21
We agree with the following ratiocination of the Investigating Justice:
However, the constitutional guarantee to information on matters of public concern is not absolute. Under the Constitution, access to official records, papers, etc., are "subject to limitations as may be provided by law." Therefore, a law may exempt certain types of information from public scrutiny such as matters on national security. Otherwise stated, the availability of access to a particular public record must be restricted by the nature of the information sought, i.e., (a) of public concern or one that involves public interest, and (b) not being exempted by law from the operation of the constitutional guarantee.
The privilege against disclosure is recognized with respect to state secrets bearing on military, diplomatic and similar matters. This privilege is based upon public interest of such paramount importance which transcends the individual interests of a private citizen, even though, as a consequence thereof, the plaintiff cannot enforce his legal rights.
SP No. 97505 does not contain any military or diplomatic secret which will be disclosed by its production. Neither is there any law or regulation which considers the case records as classified information.
The right to information is subject to reasonable regulations and restrictions. However, while public officers in custody or control of public records have the discretion to regulate the manner in which such records may be inspected, examined or copied by interested persons, such discretion does not carry with it the authority to prohibit such access, inspection, examination or copying.22
The Court thus rules that for denying the complainants access to court records, the respondent Judge must be reprimanded.
The respondent Judge cannot be similarly chastised for ruling that the complainants were not parties-in-interest in the subject case. It is settled that as a matter of policy, the acts of a judge in his judicial capacity are not subject to disciplinary action. He cannot be subjected to liability - civil, criminal or administrative - for any of his official acts, no matter how erroneous, as long as he acts in good faith.23 Only judicial errors tainted with fraud, dishonesty, gross ignorance, bad faith or deliberate intent to do an injustice will be administratively sanctioned.24 To hold, otherwise, would be to render judicial office untenable, for no one called upon to try the facts or interpret the law in the process of administering justice can be infallible in his judgment.25 Indeed, an administrative complaint against a judge cannot be pursued simultaneously with the judicial remedies accorded to parties aggrieved by his erroneous order or judgment. Administrative remedies are neither alternative nor cumulative to judicial review where such review is available to the aggrieved parties and the same has not yet been resolved with finality. For until there is a final declaration by the appellate court that the challenged order or judgment is manifestly erroneous, there will be no basis to conclude whether respondent judge is administratively liable.26
Thus, the remedy of the aggrieved party is not to file an administrative complaint against the judge, but to elevate the assailed decision or order to the higher court for review and correction,27 which in this case the complainants have already done. The Court notes that in a Decision dated February 27, 2004, the CA dismissed the petition questioning the ruling of the respondent Judge that the complainants were not parties-in-interest in Sp. Proc. 00-97505, and that the complainants elevated such dismissal to this Court via a Petition for Review .
It must be stressed that an administrative complaint is not an appropriate remedy where judicial recourse is still available, such as a motion for reconsideration, an appeal, or a Petition for Certiorari, unless the assailed order or decision is tainted with fraud, malice, or dishonesty.28 The Court has to be shown acts or conduct of the judge clearly indicative of arbitrariness or prejudice before the latter can be branded the stigma of being biased and partial. Good faith and absence of malice, corrupt motives or improper considerations, are sufficient defenses in which a judge charged with ignorance of the law can find refuge.29 In this case, no bad faith can be attributed to the respondent Judge for relying on the ruling of this Court in Lantaco v. Llamas,30 albeit erroneously.
WHEREFORE, for denying the complainants access to court records, respondent Judge Amor A. Reyes is hereby REPRIMANDED. She is sternly warned that a repetition of the same or similar act in the future shall be dealt with more severely.
Puno, (Chairman), Austria-Martinez, Tinga, and Chico-Nazario, JJ.,concur.
1 Rollo, pp. 12-29.
2 Id. at 32-34.
3 Id. at 36-46.
4 Id. at 15.
5 Id. at 18-19.
6 Id. at 75-78.
7 The complainants filed an Omnibus Motion dated October 8, 2001 (Rollo, pp. 79-83) praying, among others, that the respondent Judge set a deadline for the submission of a verified and complete inventory of the estate of the decedent, as well as to order the Administratrix to submit a verified annual account and her subsequent examination under oath with respect thereto. The complainants also filed a Motion for Reconsideration of [the] Order dated February 1, 2001 (Ratifying Action of Administratrix in Voting Shares in Favor of the Sale of all the Assets of Traders Royal Bank), praying that the approval of the action taken by the Administratrix be recalled and to withhold action on the Request/Motion of the Administratrix until the requirements of the Rules are complied with (Id. at 84-88).
8 Rollo, pp. 89-90.
9 Id. at 140-141.
10 Final Report and Recommendation, pp. 24-29.
11 Id. at 33-34.
12 In response to the Letter of the complainants' counsel inquiring as to whether the petitioner in Sp. Proc. No. 00-97505 had already complied with the orders of the court, Charlie A. Regilme, Officer-in-Charge, Legal Researcher II, RTC of Manila, Branch 21, wrote the complainants' counsel. The Letter dated January 20, 2004 is worded as follows:
In connection with your letter dated January 15, 2004, please be advised, per instruction of the Hon. Presiding Judge only parties or those with authority from the parties are allowed to inquire or verify the status of the case pending in this Court.
Further, please be reminded that your petition with the Court of Appeals concerning your Motion for Intervention has yet to be resolved by the same Court; hence, you remain to be of no legal personality in relation to the above-entitled case.
You will only be allowed to go over the records of the above-entitled case upon presentation of a written authority from the petitioner.
Please be guided accordingly. (Rollo, p. 120)
13 In re Gitto/Global Corp., Debtor, 2005 WL 396327; see also Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., 435 U.S. 589 (1978).
14 G.R. No. L-72119, 29 May 1987, 150 SCRA 530.
15 Id. at 541.
16 FTC v. Standard Financial Management Corp., 830 F.2d 404 (1987).
17 Id., cited in Pansy v. Borough of Stroudsburg, 23 F.3d 772 (1994).
18 In the Matter of Continental Illinois Securities Litigation, 732 F.2d 1302 (1984).
19 A.M. No. 1037-CJ, 28 October 1981, 108 SCRA 502.
20 A.M. No. 1120-MJ, 5 May 1976, 71 SCRA 14.
21 Id. at 19, citing 87 Harvard Law Review 1505, 1518-1519.
22 Final Report and Recommendation, pp. 30-32.
24 Dr. Cruz v. Judge Iturralde, 450 Phil. 77 (2003).
29 Supra at note 19.