G.R. No. 113911 January 23, 1998
VINTA MARITIME CO., INC. and ELKANO SHIP MANAGEMENT, INC., Petitioners, vs. NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS COMMISSION and LEONIDES C. BASCONCILLO, Respondents.
To justify an employee's dismissal, the employer has the burden of proving the presence of just cause and due process. An illegally dismissed worker whose employment is for a fixed period is entitled to payment of his salaries corresponding to the unexpired portion of his contract.
These rules of long standing are invoked by the Court in resolving this special civil action for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court seeking the reversal of the Decision dated September 13, 1993 and the Resolution dated November 23, 1993 of the National Labor Relations Commission in NLRC CA No. 000309 [POEA Case No. (M) 87-05-327].
On April 20, 1987, Leonides C. Basconcillo, herein private respondent, filed a complaint 1 with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) Workers' Assistance and Adjudication Office for illegal dismissal against Vinta Maritime Co., Inc. and Elkano Ship Management, Inc., herein petitioners. In their answer, 2 petitioners alleged that private respondent was dismissed for his gross negligence and incompetent performance as chief engineer of the M/V Boracay, as exemplified by the following recorded incidents:
Private respondent rebutted these allegations in his position paper, stating: (1) it would be childish for an experienced chief engineer to close the operating air valve to the bridge; a low level of starting air is caused by excessive and continuous use thereof during maneuvering, and such malfunction is due to the pilot's error; (2) the loss of main water pressure due to the formation of ice on the suction strainer occurred because the sea water inlet was clogged; private respondent, who was at the engine room, contacted the master of the vessel, who was then asleep, to stop the engine and change the sea valve to activate the sea water pressure; during the same incident, it was also found that the other valve did not fully open by remote control; (3) private respondent denied that the fuel figures reached only five tons as demonstrated by the low-level alarm which, while set at ten cubic meters, did not set off even until the next bunkering of the ship; it was Peter Robinson, the ship superintendent, who panicked and caused the unscheduled bunkering operation in Oslo; (4) private respondent conducted safety equipment-testing religiously, but admitted that in one instance he did not test the equipment with a heat or smoke source, upon Robinson's advice that the alarm would upset the pilot and the crew who were then resting; (5) private respondent denied that there was unrest among the engine personnel, averring that, on the contrary, they cooperated and signed the guidelines which the former issued to them; and (6) he denied having been given a chance to explain his side regarding the mentioned incidents, the truth being that he was surprised when he was told of his dismissal. 3 Petitioners filed their position paper and supporting documents which however failed to rebut private respondent's allegations. 4
Despite an unopposed motion for hearing 5 filed by private respondent, the POEA considered the case submitted for resolution by mutual agreement of the parties after submission of their respective position papers and supporting documents. In his decision dated March 9, 1990, POEA Administrator Tomas D. Achacoso ruled that private respondent was illegally dismissed. The dispositive portion of the decision reads as follows: 6
On appeal, the National Labor Relations Commission 7 ("Respondent Commission," for brevity) affirmed the POEA: 8
Respondent Commission denied the motion for reconsideration in the challenged Resolution: 9
Hence, this petition. 10
The facts of this case are undisputed. The solicitor general relates the following circumstances leading to the complaint: 11
Assignment of Errors
In their memorandum, petitioners submit that Respondent Commission gravely abused its discretion by: 12
The Court's Ruling
The petition is bereft of merit. The petitioners failed to prove the elements of a valid dismissal, namely: (1) just cause and (2) due process.
Petitioners claim that Respondent Commission gravely abused its discretion in upholding the POEA's decision, which was based on the position papers and documents submitted by the parties in view of a motion for trial which remained unacted upon. They insist that a hearing was an indispensable condition before a judgment could be rendered in this case. We do not agree. Although bound by law and practice to observe due process, administrative agencies exercising quasi-judicial powers are nonetheless free from the rigidity of certain procedural requirements. As applied to these proceedings, due process requires only an opportunity to explain one's side. 13
In labor cases, this Court has consistently held that due process does not necessarily mean or require a hearing, but simply an opportunity or a right to be heard. The requirements of due process are deemed to have been satisfied when parties are given the opportunity to submit position papers. 14 The holding of an adversarial trial is discretionary on the labor arbiter and the parties cannot demand it as a matter of right. 15 More often than not, a litigant may be heard more creditably through pleadings than through oral arguments. In administrative proceedings, technical rules of procedure and evidence are not strictly applied; administrative due process cannot be fully equated with due process in its strict judicial sense. 16 Due process was designed to afford an opportunity to be heard, and an actual verbal hearing need not always be held. 17 The necessity of conducting a hearing is addressed to the sound discretion of the labor arbiter.
These rules equally apply to cases filed with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration Adjudication Office. Section 6 of Rule III, Book VII of the POEA Rules and Regulations of 1991 18 categorically states that proceedings before a POEA hearing officer is non-litigious, although they
Applied to this particular case, it is undeniable that petitioners were given their chance to be heard. Their answer, position paper and supporting documents had become parts of the records and were considered accordingly by the POEA administrator and by the Respondent Commission in rendering their respective decisions.
Furthermore, petitioners did not deem it necessary to ask the POEA Adjudication Office to conduct a hearing. It was the private respondent who moved for a full-blown trial. Although they did not oppose the motion, they did not concur with it either. Their silence was not an assent to the motion or an argument showing its necessity. Rather, it was an eloquent statement that the position paper they submitted sufficiently covered all the issues. On the other hand, private respondent's Motion for Decision, dated November 10, 1989, indubitably shows his waiver of his earlier requested hearing. 24 This motion was similarly unopposed by petitioners. So too, petitioners' present insistence on the necessity of a hearing is weakened by the fact that their memorandum before this Court failed to specify the matters which would have required a hearing.
In all, the Court concurs with the POEA administrator and Respondent Commission that a verbal hearing was dispensable. Petitioners' belated insistence is a veiled attempt to reopen an otherwise decided case. Aside from being late, this attempt is purely dilatory, designed to unnecessarily prolong the resolution of the case. The Court holds that petitioners were not denied due process. No grave abuse of discretion was committed by Respondent Commission.
Where there is no showing of a clear, valid, and legal cause for the termination of employment, the law considers the matter a case of illegal dismissal. Verily, the burden is on the employer to prove that the termination was for a valid or authorized cause. 25 For an employee's dismissal to be valid, (1) the dismissal must be for a valid cause and (2) the employee must be afforded due process. 26 Article 282 of the Labor Code lists the following causes for termination of employment by the employer: (1) serious misconduct or willful disobedience of lawful orders in connection with his or her work, (2) gross and habitual neglect of duties, (3) fraud or willful breach of trust, (4) commission of a crime or an offense against the person of the employer or his immediate family member or representative, and (5) analogous cases. 27
The absence of a valid cause for termination in this case is parent. Petitioners allege that private respondent was dismissed because of his incompetence, enumerating incidents in proof thereof. However, this is contradicted by private respondent's seaman's book which states that his discharge was due to an "emergency leave." Moreover, his alleged incompetence is belied by the remarks made by petitioners in the same book that private respondent's services were "highly recommended" and that his conduct and ability were rated "very good." Petitioners' allegation that such remark and ratings were given to private respondent as an accommodation for future employment fails to persuade. The Court cannot consent to such an accommodation, even if the allegation were true, as it is a blatant misrepresentation. It cannot exculpate petitioners based on such (mis)representation. When petitioners issued the accommodation, they must have known its possible repercussions. They cannot be allowed to turn against their representation.
As correctly argued by the solicitor general in his comment, it was incumbent upon the petitioners to clearly establish that the discharge was for a just cause before they could legitimately terminate the private respondent's services. However, they miserably failed in this respect. 28 The alleged incidents of incompetence were unsupported by relevant and convincing evidence. The affidavits of Robinson and Capt. Jose B. Orquinaza, who caused private respondent's dismissal and recommendation, are highly suspicious and do not in any way prove that the alleged incidents showing private respondent's incompetence were ever investigated and proven, 29 as they were sufficiently rebutted by the entries in the seaman's book. 30 Mere allegations are not synonymous with proof.
Further, the POEA administrator and the Respondent Commission have cleared the private respondent of such charges, noting that he sufficiently rebutted them. Petitioners, on the other hand, presented no adequate evidence or argument to tilt the weight of the evidence in their favor. Without factual basis are their contentions which are as follows: (1) private respondent had been inactive and unemployed for five years prior to his employment with petitioners; and (2) developments in ship technology, equipment and damage control measures, during the five years he was unemployed, gravely affected his expertise. Petitioners failed to specify these alleged advanced equipment and measures. Neither did they explain that the instances where private respondent allegedly endangered the ship and its crew involved any of these advanced equipment and measures. The Court sees no justification to depart from the well-settled rule that the factual findings of quasi-judicial agencies like the Respondent Commission, which have acquired expertise in the matters entrusted to their jurisdiction, are accorded by the Supreme Court not only respect but even finality if they are supported by substantial evidence, or that amount of relevant evidence which a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to justify a conclusion. 31
Petitioners, in our view, failed to rebut the following observations of the Respondent Commission: 32
Due process, the second element for a valid dismissal, requires notice and hearing. 33 Before the employee can be dismissed under Article 282, the Code requires the service of a written notice containing a statement of the cause(s) of termination and giving said employee ample opportunity to be heard and to defend himself. A notice of termination in writing is further required if the employee's dismissal is decided upon. 34 The employer must furnish the worker with two written notices before termination of employment can be legally effected: (1) notice which apprises the employee of the particular acts or omissions for which his dismissal is sought and (2) subsequent notice which informs the employee of the employer's decision to dismiss him. The twin requirements of notice and hearing constitute the essential elements of due process, and neither of these elements can be eliminated without running afoul of the constitutional guaranty. 35
Using these legal criteria, we hold that private respondent was illegally dismissed. No notice was ever given to him prior to his dismissal. This fact alone disproves petitioners' allegation that "private respondent was given fair warning and enough opportunity to explain his side [regarding] the incidents that led to his dismissal." These requisites cannot be replaced as they are not mere technicalities, but requirements of due process to which every employee is entitled to ensure that the employer's prerogative to dismiss is not exercised arbitrarily. 36
Illegally dismissed workers are entitled to the payment of their salaries corresponding to the unexpired portion of their employment where the employment is for a definite period. 37 Conformably, the administrator and the Respondent Commission properly awarded private respondent salaries for the period beginning April 9, 1987, the date of his illegal dismissal, until February 18, 1988, the expiration of his contract.
WHEREFORE, the petition is hereby DISMISSED. The challenged Decision and Resolution are AFFIRMED. Costs against petitioners.
Narvasa, C.J., Romero, Melo and Francisco, JJ., concur.
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