SPOUSES AUGUSTO HONTIVEROS and MARIA HONTIVEROS, Petitioners, vs. REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, Branch 25, Iloilo City and SPOUSES GREGORIO HONTIVEROS and TEODORA AYSON, Respondents.
D E C I S I O N
On December 3, 1990, petitioners, the spouses Augusto and Maria Hontiveros, filed a complaint for damages against private respondents Gregorio Hontiveros and Teodora Ayson before the Regional Trial Court of Iloilo City, Branch 25, where it was docketed as Civil Case No. 19504. In said complaint, petitioners alleged that they are the owners of a parcel of land, in the town of Jamindan, Province of Capiz, as shown by OCT No. 0-2124, issued pursuant to the decision of the Intermediate Appellate Court, dated April 12, 1984, which modified the decision of the Court of First Instance of Capiz, dated January 23, 1975, in a land registration case1 filed by private respondent Gregorio Hontiveros; that petitioners were deprived of income from the land as a result of the filing of the land registration case; that such income consisted of rentals from tenants of the land in the amount of P66,000.00 per year from 1968 to 1987, and P595,000.00 per year thereafter; and that private respondents filed the land registration case and withheld possession of the land from petitioners in bad faith.2
In their answer, private respondents denied that they were married and alleged that private respondent Hontiveros was a widower while private respondent Ayson was single. They denied that they had deprived petitioners of possession of and income from the land. On the contrary, they alleged that possession of the property in question had already been transferred to petitioners on August 7, 1985, by virtue of a writ of possession, dated July 18, 1985, issued by the clerk of court of the Regional Trial Court of Capiz, Mambusao, the return thereof having been received by petitioners counsel; that since then, petitioners have been directly receiving rentals from the tenants of the land; that the complaint failed to state a cause of action since it did not allege that earnest efforts towards a compromise had been made, considering that petitioner Augusto Hontiveros and private respondent Gregorio Hontiveros are brothers; that the decision of the Intermediate Appellate Court in Land Registration Case No. N-581-25 was null and void since it was based upon a ground which was not passed upon by the trial court; that petitioners claim for damages was barred by prescription with respect to claims before 1984; that there were no rentals due since private respondent Hontiveros was a possessor in good faith and for value; and that private respondent Ayson had nothing to do with the case as she was not married to private respondent Gregorio Hontiveros and did not have any proprietary interest in the subject property. Private respondents prayed for the dismissal of the complaint and for an order against petitioners to pay damages to private respondents by way of counterclaim, as well as reconveyance of the subject land to private respondents.3
On May 16, 1991, petitioners filed an Amended Complaint to insert therein an allegation that earnest efforts towards a compromise have been made between the parties but the same were unsuccessful.
In due time, private respondents filed an Answer to Amended Complaint with Counterclaim, in which they denied, among other things, that earnest efforts had been made to reach a compromise but the parties were unsuccessful.
On July 19, 1995, petitioners moved for a judgment on the pleadings on the ground that private respondents answer did not tender an issue or that it otherwise admitted the material allegations of the complaint.4 Private respondents opposed the motion alleging that they had denied petitioners claims and thus tendered certain issues of fact which could only be resolved after trial.5
On November 23, 1995, the trial court denied petitioners motion. At the same time, however, it dismissed the case on the ground that the complaint was not verified as required by Art. 151 of the Family Code and, therefore, it did not believe that earnest efforts had been made to arrive at a compromise. The order of the trial court reads:6
The Court, after an assessment of the diverging views and arguments presented by both parties, is of the opinion and so holds that judgment on the pleadings is inappropriate not only for the fact that the defendants in their answer, particularly in its paragraph 3 to the amended complaint, specifically denied the claim of damages against them, but also because of the ruling in De Cruz vs. Cruz, G.R. No. 27759, April 17, 1970 (32 SCRA 307), citing Rili vs. Chunaco, 98 Phil. 505, which ruled that the party claiming damages must satisfactorily prove the amount thereof and that though the rule is that failure to specifically deny the allegations in the complaint or counter-claim is deemed an admission of said allegations, there is however an exception to it, that is, that when the allegations refer to the amount of damages, the allegations must still be proved. This ruling is in accord with the provision of Section 1, Rule 9 of the Rules of Court.
That while the plaintiffs in their amended complaint allege that earnest efforts towards a compromise with the defendants were made, the fact is that their complaint was not verified as provided in Article 151 of the Family Code. Besides, it is not believed that there were indeed earnest efforts made to patch up and/or reconcile the two feuding brothers, Gregorio and Augusto, both surnamed Hontiveros.
The submission of the plaintiffs that, assuming no such earnest efforts were made, the same is not necessary or jurisdictional in the light of the ruling in Rufino Magbaleta, et al., petitioners, vs. Hon. Arsenio M. Gonong, et al., respondents, No. L-44903, April 22, 1977, is, to the mind of this Court, not applicable to the case at bar for the fact is the rationale in that case is not present in the instant case considering these salient points:
a) Teodora Ayson, the alleged wife of defendant Gregorio Hontiveros and allegedly not a member of the Hontiveros Family, is not shown to be really the wife of Gregorio, a fact which Gregorio also denied in their verified answer to the amended complaint;
b) Teodora Ayson has not been shown to have acquired any proprietary right or interest in the land that was litigated by Gregorio and Augusto, unlike in the cited case of Magbaleta where it was shown that a stranger to the family acquired certain right;
c) In the decision rendered by the appellate court no mention was made at all of the name of Teodora Ayson as part-awardee of Lot 37 that was adjudged to Gregorio other than himself who was therein described as a widower. Moreover, Teodora was never mentioned in said decision, nor in the amended complaint and in the amended motion for judgment on the pleadings that she ever took any part in the act or transaction that gave rise to the damages allegedly suffered by the plaintiffs for which they now claim some compensation.
WHEREFORE, in the light of all the foregoing premises, the Court orders, as it hereby orders, the dismissal of this case with cost against the plaintiffs.
Petitioners moved for a reconsideration of the order of dismissal, but their motion was denied.7 Hence, this petition for review on certiorari. Petitioners contend:
I. THE REGIONAL TRIAL COURT PALPABLY ERRED IN DISMISSING THE COMPLAINT ON THE GROUND THAT IT DOES NOT ALLEGE UNDER OATH THAT EARNEST EFFORTS TOWARD A COMPROMISE WERE MADE PRIOR TO THE FILING THEREOF AS REQUIRED BY ARTICLE 151 OF THE FAMILY CODE.
II. THE REGIONAL TRIAL COURT PALPABLY ERRED IN NOT DENYING THE MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS AND ORDERING A TRIAL ON THE MERITS.
Private respondents raise a preliminary question. They argue that petitioners should have brought this case on appeal to the Court of Appeals since the order of the trial court judge was actually a decision on the merits. On the other hand, even if petition for certiorari were the proper remedy, they contend that the petition is defective because the judge of the trial court has not been impleaded as a respondent.8
Private respondents contention is without merit. The petition in this case was filed pursuant to Rule 45 of the Rules of Court. As explained in Atlas Consolidated Mining and Development Corporation v. Court of Appeals:9
Under Section 5, subparagraph (2)(e), Article VIII of the 1987 Constitution, the Supreme Court is vested with the power to review, revise, reverse, modify, or affirm on appeal or certiorari as the law or the Rules of Court may provide, final judgments and orders of lower courts in all cases in which only an error or question of law is involved. A similar provision is contained in Section 17, fourth paragraph, subparagraph (4) of the Judiciary Act of 1948, as amended by Republic Act No. 5440. And, in such cases where only questions of law are involved, Section 25 of the Interim Rules and Guidelines implementing Batas Pambansa Blg. 129, in conjunction with Section 3 of Republic Act No. 5440, provides that the appeal to the Supreme Court shall be taken by petition for certiorari which shall be governed by Rule 45 of the Rules of Court.
The rule, therefore, is that direct appeals to this Court from the trial court on questions of law have to be through the filing of a petition for review on certiorari. It has been held that:
x x x when a CFI (RTC) adjudicates a case in the exercise of its original jurisdiction, the correct mode of elevating the judgment to the Court of Appeals is by ordinary appeal, or appeal by writ of error, involving merely the filing of a notice of appeal - except only if the appeal is taken in special proceedings and other cases wherein multiple appeals are allowed under the law, in which even the filing of a record on appeal is additionally required. Of course, when the appeal would involve purely questions of law or any of the other cases (except criminal cases as stated hereunder) specified in Section 5(2), Article X of the Constitution, it should be taken to the Supreme Court by petition for review on certiorari in accordance with Rules 42 and 45 of the Rules of Court.
By way of implementation of the aforestated provisions of law, this Court issued on March 9, 1990 Circular No. 2-90, paragraph 2 of which provides:
2. Appeals from Regional Courts to the Supreme Court. Except in criminal cases where the penalty imposed is life imprisonment or reclusion perpetua, judgments of regional trial courts may be appealed to the Supreme Court only by petition for review on certiorari in accordance with Rule 45 of the Rules of Court in relation to Section 17 of the Judiciary Act of 1948, as amended, this being the clear intendment of the provision of the Interim Rules that (a)ppeals to the Supreme Court shall be taken by petition for certiorari which shall be governed by Rule 45 of the Rules of Court.
Under the foregoing considerations, therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that herein petitioner adopted the correct mode of appeal in G.R. No. 88354 by filing with this Court a petition to review on certiorari the decision of the Regional Trail Court of Pasig in Civil Case No. 25528 and raising therein purely questions of law.
In Meneses v. Court of Appeals, it was held:10
It must also be stressed that the trial courts order of 5 June 1992 dismissing the petitioners complaint was, whether it was right or wrong, a final order because it had put an end to the particular matter resolved, or settled definitely the matter therein disposed of and left nothing more to be done by the trial court except the execution of the order. It is a firmly settled rule that the remedy against such order is the remedy of appeal and not certiorari. That appeal may be solely on questions of law, in which case it may be taken only to this Court; or on questions of fact and law, in which case the appeal should be brought to the Court of Appeals. Pursuant to Murillo v. Consul, the appeal to this Court should be by petition for review on certiorari in accordance with Rule 45 of the Rules of Court.
As private respondents themselves admit, the order of November 23, 1995 is a final order from which an appeal can be taken. It is final in the sense that it disposes of the pending action before the court and puts an end to the litigation so that nothing more was left for the trial court to do.11 Furthermore, as the questions raised are questions of law, petition for review on certiorari is the proper mode of appeal. These questions are: (1) whether after denying petitioners motion for judgment on the pleadings, the trial court could dismiss their complaint motu proprio for failure to comply with Art. 151 of the Family Code which provides that no suit between members of the same family shall prosper unless it appears from the complaint, which must be verified, that earnest efforts towards a compromise have been made but the same have failed; and (2) whether Art. 151 applies to this case. These questions do not require an examination of the probative value of evidence presented and the truth or falsehood of facts asserted which questions of fact would entail.12
On the other hand, petitioners contend that the trial court erred in dismissing the complaint when no motion to that effect was made by any of the parties. They point out that, in opposing the motion for judgment on the pleadings, private respondents did not seek the dismissal of the case but only the denial of petitioners motion. Indeed, what private respondents asked was that trial be held on the merits.
Of course, there are instances when the trial court may order the dismissal of the case even without a motion to that effect filed by any of the parties. In Baja v. Macandog,13 this Court mentioned these cases, to wit:
The court cannot dismiss a case motu proprio without violating the plaintiffs right to be heard, except in the following instances: if the plaintiff fails to appear at the time of the trial; if he fails to prosecute his action for an unreasonable length of time; or if he fails to comply with the rules or any order of the court; or if the court finds that it has no jurisdiction over the subject matter of the suit.
However, none of these exceptions appears in this case.
Moreover, the trial court itself found that judgment on the pleadings is inappropriate not only for the fact that [private respondents] in their answer . . . specifically denied the claim of damages against them, but also because of the [rule] . . . that the party claiming damages must satisfactorily prove the amount thereof. . . . Necessarily, a trial must be held.
Rule 19 of the Rules of Court provides:14
SECTION 1. Judgment on the pleadings. Where an answer fails to tender an issue, or otherwise admits the material allegation of the adverse partys pleading, the court may, on motion of the party, direct judgment on such pleading. But in actions for annulment of marriage or for legal separation the material facts alleged in the complaint shall always be proved.
Under the rules, if there is no controverted matter in the case after the answer is filed, the trial court has the discretion to grant a motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by a party.15 Where there are actual issues raised in the answer, such as one involving damages, which require the presentation of evidence and assessment thereof by the trial court, it is improper for the judge to render judgment based on the pleadings alone.16 In this case, aside from the amount of damages, the following factual issues have to be resolved, namely, (1) private respondent Teodora Aysons participation and/or liability, if any, to petitioners and (2) the nature, extent, and duration of private respondents possession of the subject property. The trial court, therefore, correctly denied petitioners motion for judgment on the pleadings.
However, the trial court erred in dismissing petitioners complaint on the ground that, although it alleged that earnest efforts had been made toward the settlement of the case but they proved futile, the complaint was not verified for which reason the trial court could not believe the veracity of the allegation.
The absence of the verification required in Art. 151 does not affect the jurisdiction of the court over the subject matter of the complaint. The verification is merely a formal requirement intended to secure an assurance that matters which are alleged are true and correct. If the court doubted the veracity of the allegations regarding efforts made to settle the case among members of the same family, it could simply have ordered petitioners to verify them. As this Court has already ruled, the court may simply order the correction of unverified pleadings or act on it and waive strict compliance with the rules in order that the ends of justice may be served.17 Otherwise, mere suspicion or doubt on the part of the trial court as to the truth of the allegation that earnest efforts had been made toward a compromise but the parties efforts proved unsuccessful is not a ground for the dismissal of an action. Only if it is later shown that such efforts had not really been exerted would the court be justified in dismissing the action. Thus, Art. 151 provides:
No suit between members of the same family shall prosper unless it should appear from the verified complaint or petition that earnest efforts toward a compromise have been made, but that the same have failed. It if is shown that no such efforts were in fact made, the case must be dismissed.
This rule shall not apply to cases which may not be the subject of compromise under the Civil Code.
Moreover, as petitioners contend, Art. 151 of the Family Code does not apply in this case since the suit is not exclusively among family members. Citing several cases18 decided by this Court, petitioners claim that whenever a stranger is a party in a case involving family members, the requisite showing of earnest efforts to compromise is no longer mandatory. They argue that since private respondent Ayson is admittedly a stranger to the Hontiveros family, the case is not covered by the requirements of Art. 151 of the Family Code.
We agree with petitioners. The inclusion of private respondent Ayson as defendant and petitioner Maria Hontiveros as plaintiff takes the case out of the ambit of Art. 151 of the Family Code. Under this provision, the phrase members of the same family refers to the husband and wife, parents and children, ascendants and descendants, and brothers and sisters, whether full or half-blood.19 As this Court held in Guerrero v. RTC, Ilocos Norte, Br. XVI:20
As early as two decades ago, we already ruled in Gayon v. Gayon that the enumeration of brothers and sisters as members of the same family does not comprehend sisters-in-law. In that case, then Chief Justice Concepcion emphasized that sisters-in-law (hence, also brothers-in-law) are not listed under Art. 217 of the New Civil Code as members of the same family. Since Art. 150 of the Family Code repeats essentially the same enumeration of members of the family, we find no reason to alter existing jurisprudence on the mater. Consequently, the court a quo erred in ruling that petitioner Guerrero, being a brother-in-law of private respondent Hernando, was required to exert earnest efforts towards a compromise before filing the present suit.
Religious relationship and relationship by affinity are not given any legal effect in this jurisdiction.21 Consequently, private respondent Ayson, who is described in the complaint as the spouse of respondent Hontiveros, and petitioner Maria Hontiveros, who is admittedly the spouse of petitioner Augusto Hontiveros, are considered strangers to the Hontiveros family, for purposes of Art. 151.
Petitioners finally question the constitutionality of Art. 151 of the Family Code on the ground that it in effect amends the Rules of Court. This, according to them, cannot be done since the Constitution reserves in favor of the Supreme Court the power to promulgate rules of pleadings and procedure. Considering the conclusion we have reached in this case, however, it is unnecessary for present purposes to pass upon this question. Courts do not pass upon constitutional questions unless they are the very lis mota of the case.
WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED and the Order, dated November 23, 1995 of the Regional Trial Court of Iloilo City, Branch 25 is SET ASIDE and the case is remanded to the trial court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this decision.
Bellosillo, (Chairman), Puno, Quisumbing, and Buena, JJ., concur.
1 Docketed as Land Registration Case No. N-581-25, LRC Rec. No. 288.
2 See Amended Complaint; Petition, Annex A; Rollo, pp. 28-30.
3 See Amended Answer; Petition, Annex B; Rollo, pp. 31-35.
4 Petition, Annex C; Rollo, pp. 36-46.
5 Petition, Annex H.
6 Id., Annex E.
7 Id., Annex F.
8 Comment/Answer, pp. 1-2; Rollo, pp. 60-61.
9 201 SCRA 51, 58-59 (1991).
10 237 SCRA 484, 491-492 (1994).
11 Allied Free Workers Union v. Judge Estipona, 113 Phil. 748 (1961).
12 See Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila v. Court of Appeals, 258 SCRA 195, 199 (1996).
13 158 SCRA 391, 396-397 (1986).
14 Now Rule 34 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure.
15 1 V. J. Francisco, The Revised Rules of Court in the Philippines 1033 (1973).
16 Rocamora v. RTC, Cebu (Branch VIII), 167 SCRA 615 (1988); 1 M. V. Moran, Comment on the Rules of Court 538 (1967).
17 See Vda. de Gabriel v. Court of Appeals, 264 SCRA 137 (1996); Sy v. Habicon-Garayblas, 228 SCRA 644 (1993); Buenaventura v. Halili, 149 SCRA 22 (1987).
18 Magbaleta v. Gonong, 76 SCRA 511 (1977); Gayon v. Gayon, 36 SCRA 104 (1970); Mendez v. Eugenia, 80 SCRA 82 (1977); Gonzales v. Lopez, 160 SCRA 346 (1988); Guerrero v. RTC, Ilocos Norte, Br. XVI, 229 SCRA 274 (1994).
19 Family Code, Art. 150.
20 229 SCRA 274, 278 (1994).
21 1 A. M. Tolentino, Commentaries and Jurisprudence on the Civil Code of the Philippines 504 (1990).