G.R. No. 120193 March 6, 1996
LUIS MALALUAN, Petitioner, v. COMMISSION ON ELECTIONS and JOSEPH EVANGELISTA, Respondents.
HERMOSISIMA, JR., J.:
Novel is the situation created by the decision of the Commission on Elections which declared the winner in an election contest and awarded damages, consisting of attorney's fees, actual expenses for xerox copies, unearned salary and other emoluments for the period, from March, 1994 to April, 1995, en masse denominated as actual damages, notwithstanding the fact that the electoral controversy had become moot and academic on account of the expiration of the term of office of the Municipal Mayor of Kidapawan, North Cotabato.
Before us is a petition for certiorari and prohibition, with a prayer for the issuance of a temporary restraining order and writ of preliminary injunction, seeking the review of the decision en banc 1 of the Commission of Elections (COMELEC) denying the motion for reconsideration of the decision 2 of its First Division, 3 which reversed the decision 4 of the Regional Trial Court 5 in the election case 6 involving the herein parties. While the Regional Trial Court had found petitioner Luis Malaluan to be the winner of the elections for the position of Municipal Mayor of Kidapawan, North Cotabato, the COMELEC, on the contrary, found private respondent Joseph Evangelista to be the rightful winner in said elections.
Petitioner Luis Malaluan and private respondent Joseph Evangelista were both mayoralty candidates in the Municipality of Kidapawan, North Cotabato, in the Synchronized National and Local Elections held on May 11, 1992. Private respondent Joseph Evangelista was proclaimed by the Municipal Board of Canvassers as the duly elected Mayor for having garnered 10,498 votes as against petitioner's 9,792 votes. Evangelista was, thus, said to have a winning margin of 706 votes. But, on May 22, 1992, petitioner filed an election protest with the Regional Trial Court contesting 64 out of the total 181 precincts of the said municipality. The trial court declared petitioner as the duly elected municipal mayor of Kidapawan, North Cotabato with a plurality of 154 votes. Acting without precedent, the court found private respondent liable not only for Malaluan's protest expenses but also for moral and exemplary damages and attorney's fees. On February 3, 1994, private respondent appealed the trial court decision to the COMELEC.
Just a day thereafter that is, on February 4, 1994, petitioner filed a motion for execution pending appeal. The motion was granted by the trial court, in an order, dated March 8, 1994, after petitioner posted a bond in the amount of P500,000.00. By virtue of said order, petitioner assumed the office of Municipal Mayor of Kidapawan, North Cotabato, and exercised the powers and functions of said office. Such exercise was not for long, though. In the herein assailed decision adverse to Malaluan's continued governance of the Municipality of Kidapawan, North Cotabato, the First Division of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) ordered Malaluan to vacate the office, said division having found and so declared private respondent to be the duly elected Municipal Mayor of said municipality. The COMELEC en banc affirmed said decision.
Malaluan filed this petition before us on May 31, 1995 as a consequence.
It is significant to note that the term of office of the local officials elected in the May, 1992 elections expired on June 30, 1995. This petition, thus, has become moot and academic insofar as it concerns petitioner's right to the mayoralty seat in his municipality 7 because expiration of the term of office contested in the election protest has the effect of rendering the same moot and academic. 8
When the appeal from a decision in an election case has already become moot, the case being an election protest involving the office of mayor the term of which had expired, the appeal is dismissible on that ground, unless the rendering of a decision on the merits would be of practical value. 9 This rule we established in the case of Yorac vs. Magalona 10 which we dismissed because it had been mooted by the expiration of the term of office of the Municipal Mayor of Saravia, Negros Occidental. This was the object of contention between the parties therein. The recent case of Atienza vs. Commission on Elections, 11 however, squarely presented the situation that is the exception to that rule.
Comparing the scenarios in those two cases, we explained:
Indeed, this petition appears now to be moot and academic because the herein parties are contesting an elective post to which their right to the office no longer exists. However, the question as to damages remains ripe for adjudication. The COMELEC found petitioner liable for attorney's fees, actual expenses for xerox copies, and unearned salary and other emoluments from March, 1994 to April, 1995, en masse denominated as actual damages, default in payment by petitioner of which shall result in the collection of said amount from the bond posted by petitioner on the occasion of the grant of his motion for execution pending appeal in the trial court. Petitioner naturally contests the propriety and legality of this award upon private respondent on the ground that said damages have not been alleged and proved during trial.
What looms large as the issue in this case is whether or not the COMELEC gravely abused its discretion in awarding the aforecited damages in favor of private respondent.
The Omnibus Election Code provides that "actual or compensatory damages may be granted in all election contests or in quo warranto proceedings in accordance with law." 13 COMELEC Rules of Procedure provide that "in all election contests the Court may adjudicate damages and attorney's fees as it may deem just and as established by the evidence if the aggrieved party has included such claims in his pleadings." 14 This appears to require only that the judicial award of damages be just and that the same be borne out by the pleadings and evidence The overriding requirement for a valid and proper award of damages, it must be remembered, is that the same is in accordance with law, specifically, the provisions of the Civil Code pertinent to damages.
Article 2199 of the Civil Code mandates that "except as provided by law or by stipulation, one is entitled to an adequate compensation only for such pecuniary loss suffered by him as he has duly proved. Such compensation is referred to as actual or compensatory damages." The Civil Code further prescribes the proper setting for allowance of actual or compensatory damages in the following provisions:
Considering that actual or compensatory damages are appropriate only in breaches of obligations in cases of contracts and quasi-contracts and on the occasion of crimes and quasi-delicts where the defendant may be held liable for all damages the proximate cause of which is the act or omission complained of, the monetary claim of a party in an election case must necessarily be hinged on either a contract or a quasi-contract or a tortious act or omission or a crime, in order to effectively recover actual or compensatory damages. 15 In the absence of any or all of these, "the claimant must be able to point out a specific provision of law authorizing a money claim for election protest expenses against the losing party" 16 . For instance, the claimant may cite any of the following provisions of the Civil Code under the chapter on human relations, which provisions create obligations not by contract, crime or negligence, but directly by law:
Claimed as part of the damages to which private respondent is allegedly entitled to, is P169,456.00 constituting salary and other emoluments from March, 1994 to April, 1995 that would have accrued to him had there not been an execution of the trial court's decision pending appeal therefrom in the COMELEC.
The long-standing rule in this jurisdiction is that notwithstanding his subsequent ouster as a result of an election protest, an elective official who has been proclaimed by the COMELEC as winner in an electoral contest and who assumed office and entered into the performance of the duties of that office, is entitled to the compensation, emoluments and allowances legally provided for the position. 18 We ratiocinated in the case of Rodriguez vs. Tan that:
In his concurring opinion in the same case, however, Justice Padilla equally stressed that, while the general rule is that the ousted elective official is not obliged to reimburse the emoluments of office that he had received before his ouster, he would be liable for damages in case he would be found responsible for any unlawful or tortious acts in relation to his proclamation. We quote the pertinent portion of that opinion for emphasis:
The criterion for a justifiable award of election protest expenses and salaries and emoluments, thus, remains to be the existence of a pertinent breach of obligations arising from contracts or quasi-contracts, tortious acts, crimes or a specific legal provision authorizing the money claim in the context of election cases. Absent any of these, we could not even begin to contemplate liability for damages in election cases, except insofar as attorney's fees are concerned, since the Civil Code enumerates the specific instances when the same may be awarded by the court.
Given the aforecited laws, and jurisprudence on the matter at issue, let us now look into the basis of respondent COMELEC for awarding actual damages to private respondent in the form of reimbursement for attorney's fees, actual expenses for xerox copies, and salary and other emoluments that should have accrued to him from March, 1994 to April, 1995 had the RTC not issued an order for execution pending appeal.
The First Division of the COMELEC ruled on private respondent's claim for actual or compensatory damages in this wise:
For these reasons, protestee-appellant seeks to recover the following:
Petitioner filed a motion for reconsideration of the aforecited decision on March 29, 1995. The COMELEC en banc, however, did not find any new matter substantial in nature, persuasive in character or sufficiently provocative to compel reconsideration of said decision and accordingly affirmed in toto the said decision. Hence, this petition raises, among others, the issue now solely remaining and in need of final adjudication in view of the mootness of the other issues anent petitioner's right to the contested office the term for which has already expired.
We have painstakingly gone over the records of this case and we can attribute to petitioner no breach of contract or quasi-contract; or tortious act nor crime that may make him liable for actual damages. Neither has private respondent been "able to point out to a specific provision of law authorizing a money claim for election protest expenses against the losing party." 23
We find respondent COMELEC's reasoning in awarding the damages in question to be fatally flawed. The COMELEC found the election protest filed by the petitioner to be clearly unfounded because its own appreciation of the contested ballots yielded results contrary to those of the trial court. Assuming, ex gratia argumentis, that this is a reasonable observation not without basis, it is nonetheless fallacious to conclude a malicious intention on the part of petitioner to molest private respondent on the basis of what respondent COMELEC perceived as an erroneous ruling of the trial court. In other words, the actuations of the trial court, after the filing of a case before it, are its own, and any alleged error on its part does not, in the absence of clear proof, make the suit "clearly unfounded" for which the complainant ought to be penalized. Insofar as the award of protest expenses and attorney's fees are concerned, therefore we find them to have been awarded by respondent COMELEC without basis, the election protest not having been a clearly unfounded one under the aforementioned circumstances.
Respondent COMELEC also found the order granting execution of judgment pending appeal to be defective because of alleged non-compliance with the requirement that there be a good and special reason 24 to justify execution pending appeal. We, however, find that the trial court acted judiciously in the exercise of its prerogatives under the law in issuing the order granting execution pending appeal. First, it should be noted that the applicability of the provisions of the Rules of Court, relating to execution pending appeal, has ceased to be debatable after we definitively ruled in Garcia vs. de Jesus 25 that "Section 2, Rule 39 of the Rules of Court, which allows Regional Trial Courts to order executions pending appeal upon good reasons stated in a special order, may be made to apply by analogy or suppletorily to election contests decided by them." 26 It is not disputed that petitioner filed a bond in the amount of P500,000.00 as required under the Rules of Court.
It is also now a settled rule that "as much recognition should be given to the value of the decision of a judicial body as a basis for the right to assume office as that given by law to the proclamation made by the Board of Canvassers." 27
Without evaluating the merits of the trial court's actual appreciation of the ballots contested in the election protest, we note on the face of its decision that the trial court relied on the findings of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) handwriting experts which findings private respondent did not even bother to rebut. We thus see no reason to disregard the presumption of regularity in the performance of official duty on the part of the trial court judge. Capping this combination of circumstances which impel the grant of immediate execution is the undeniable urgency involved in the political situation in the Municipality of Kidapawan, North Cotabato. The appeal before the COMELEC would undoubtedly cause the political vacuum in said municipality to persist, and so the trial court reasonably perceived execution pending appeal to be warranted and justified. Anyway, the bond posted by petitioner could cover any damages suffered by any aggrieved party. It is true that mere posting of a bond is not enough reason to justify execution pending appeal, but the nexus of circumstances aforechronicled considered together and in relation to one another, is the dominant consideration for the execution pending appeal. 29
Finally, we deem the award of salaries and other emoluments to be improper and lacking legal sanction. Respondent COMELEC ruled that inapplicable in the instant case is the ruling in Rodriguez vs. Tan 30 because while in that case the official ousted was the one proclaimed by the COMELEC, in the instant case, petitioner was proclaimed winner only by the trial court and assumed office by virtue of an order granting execution pending appeal. Again, respondent COMELEC sweepingly concluded, in justifying the award of damages, that since petitioner was adjudged the winner in the elections only by the trial court and assumed the functions of the office on the strength merely of an order granting execution pending appeal, the petitioner occupied the position in an illegal manner as a usurper.
We hold that petitioner was not a usurper because, while a usurper is one who undertakes to act officially without any color of right, 31 the petitioner exercised the duties of an elective office under color of election thereto. 32 It matters not that it was the trial court and not the COMELEC that declared petitioner as the winner, because both, at different stages of the electoral process, have the power to so proclaim winners in electoral contests. At the risk of sounding repetitive, if only to emphasize this point, we must reiterate that the decision of a judicial body is no less a basis than the proclamation made by the COMELEC-convened Board of Canvassers for a winning candidate's right to assume office, for both are undisputedly legally sanctioned. We deem petitioner, therefore, to be a "de facto officer who, in good faith, has had possession of the office and had discharged the duties pertaining thereto" 33 and is thus "legally entitled to the emoluments of the office." 34
To recapitulate, Section 259 of the Omnibus Election Code only provides for the granting in election cases of actual and compensatory damages in accordance with law. The victorious party in an election case cannot be indemnified for expenses which he has incurred in an electoral contest in the absence of a wrongful act or omission or breach of obligation clearly attributable to the losing party. Evidently, if any damage had been suffered by private respondent due to the execution of judgment pending appeal, that damage may be said to be equivalent to damnum absque injuria, which is, damage without injury, or damage or injury inflicted without injustice, or loss or damage without violation of a legal right, or a wrong done to a man for which the law provides no remedy. 35
WHEREFORE, the petition for certiorari is GRANTED. While we uphold the COMELEC decision dated May 5, 1995 that private respondent Joseph Evangelista is the winner in the election for mayor of the Municipality of Kidapawan, North Cotabato, that portion of the decision is deemed moot and academic because the term of office for mayor has long expired. That portion of the decision awarding actual damages to private respondent Joseph Evangelista is hereby declared null and void for having been issued in grave abuse of discretion and in excess of jurisdiction.
Narvasa, Padilla, Regalado, Davide, Jr., Romero, Bellosillo, Melo, Puno, Vitug, Kapunan, Mendoza, Francisco and Panganiban, JJ., concur.
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