G. R. No. 138051 - June 10, 2004
JOSE Y. SONZA, Petitioner, vs. ABS-CBN BROADCASTING CORPORATION, Respondent.
D E C I S I O N
Before this Court is a petition for review on certiorari1 assailing the 26 March 1999 Decision2 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 49190 dismissing the petition filed by Jose Y. Sonza ("SONZA"). The Court of Appeals affirmed the findings of the National Labor Relations Commission ("NLRC"), which affirmed the Labor Arbiters dismissal of the case for lack of jurisdiction.
In May 1994, respondent ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation ("ABS-CBN") signed an Agreement ("Agreement") with the Mel and Jay Management and Development Corporation ("MJMDC"). ABS-CBN was represented by its corporate officers while MJMDC was represented by SONZA, as President and General Manager, and Carmela Tiangco ("TIANGCO"), as EVP and Treasurer. Referred to in the Agreement as "AGENT," MJMDC agreed to provide SONZAs services exclusively to ABS-CBN as talent for radio and television. The Agreement listed the services SONZA would render to ABS-CBN, as follows:
ABS-CBN agreed to pay for SONZAs services a monthly talent fee of
On 1 April 1996, SONZA wrote a letter to ABS-CBNs President, Eugenio Lopez III, which reads:
On 30 April 1996, SONZA filed a complaint against ABS-CBN before the Department of Labor and Employment, National Capital Region in Quezon City. SONZA complained that ABS-CBN did not pay his salaries, separation pay, service incentive leave pay, 13th month pay, signing bonus, travel allowance and amounts due under the Employees Stock Option Plan ("ESOP").
On 10 July 1996, ABS-CBN filed a Motion to Dismiss on the ground that no employer-employee relationship existed between the parties. SONZA filed an Opposition to the motion on 19 July 1996.
Meanwhile, ABS-CBN continued to remit SONZAs monthly talent fees through his account at PCIBank, Quezon Avenue Branch, Quezon City. In July 1996, ABS-CBN opened a new account with the same bank where ABS-CBN deposited SONZAs talent fees and other payments due him under the Agreement.
In his Order dated 2 December 1996, the Labor Arbiter5 denied the motion to dismiss and directed the parties to file their respective position papers. The Labor Arbiter ruled:
The Labor Arbiter then considered the case submitted for resolution. The parties submitted their position papers on 24 February 1997.
On 11 March 1997, SONZA filed a Reply to Respondents Position Paper with Motion to Expunge Respondents Annex 4 and Annex 5 from the Records. Annexes 4 and 5 are affidavits of ABS-CBNs witnesses Soccoro Vidanes and Rolando V. Cruz. These witnesses stated in their affidavits that the prevailing practice in the television and broadcast industry is to treat talents like SONZA as independent contractors.
The Labor Arbiter rendered his Decision dated 8 July 1997 dismissing the complaint for lack of jurisdiction.6 The pertinent parts of the decision read as follows:
SONZA appealed to the NLRC. On 24 February 1998, the NLRC rendered a Decision affirming the Labor Arbiters decision. SONZA filed a motion for reconsideration, which the NLRC denied in its Resolution dated 3 July 1998.
On 6 October 1998, SONZA filed a special civil action for certiorari before the Court of Appeals assailing the decision and resolution of the NLRC. On 26 March 1999, the Court of Appeals rendered a Decision dismissing the case.8
Hence, this petition.
The Rulings of the NLRC and Court of Appeals
The Court of Appeals affirmed the NLRCs finding that no employer-employee relationship existed between SONZA and ABS-CBN. Adopting the NLRCs decision, the appellate court quoted the following findings of the NLRC:
The Court of Appeals ruled that the existence of an employer-employee relationship between SONZA and ABS-CBN is a factual question that is within the jurisdiction of the NLRC to resolve.10 A special civil action for certiorari extends only to issues of want or excess of jurisdiction of the NLRC.11 Such action cannot cover an inquiry into the correctness of the evaluation of the evidence which served as basis of the NLRCs conclusion.12 The Court of Appeals added that it could not re-examine the parties evidence and substitute the factual findings of the NLRC with its own.13
In assailing the decision of the Court of Appeals, SONZA contends that:
The Courts Ruling
We affirm the assailed decision.
No convincing reason exists to warrant a reversal of the decision of the Court of Appeals affirming the NLRC ruling which upheld the Labor Arbiters dismissal of the case for lack of jurisdiction.
The present controversy is one of first impression. Although Philippine labor laws and jurisprudence define clearly the elements of an employer-employee relationship, this is the first time that the Court will resolve the nature of the relationship between a television and radio station and one of its "talents." There is no case law stating that a radio and television program host is an employee of the broadcast station.
The instant case involves big names in the broadcast industry, namely Jose "Jay" Sonza, a known television and radio personality, and ABS-CBN, one of the biggest television and radio networks in the country.
SONZA contends that the Labor Arbiter has jurisdiction over the case because he was an employee of ABS-CBN. On the other hand, ABS-CBN insists that the Labor Arbiter has no jurisdiction because SONZA was an independent contractor.
Employee or Independent Contractor?
The existence of an employer-employee relationship is a question of fact. Appellate courts accord the factual findings of the Labor Arbiter and the NLRC not only respect but also finality when supported by substantial evidence.15 Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.16 A party cannot prove the absence of substantial evidence by simply pointing out that there is contrary evidence on record, direct or circumstantial. The Court does not substitute its own judgment for that of the tribunal in determining where the weight of evidence lies or what evidence is credible.17
SONZA maintains that all essential elements of an employer-employee relationship are present in this case. Case law has consistently held that the elements of an employer-employee relationship are: (a) the selection and engagement of the employee; (b) the payment of wages; (c) the power of dismissal; and (d) the employers power to control the employee on the means and methods by which the work is accomplished.18 The last element, the so-called "control test", is the most important element.19
A. Selection and Engagement of Employee
ABS-CBN engaged SONZAs services to co-host its television and radio programs because of SONZAs peculiar skills, talent and celebrity status. SONZA contends that the "discretion used by respondent in specifically selecting and hiring complainant over other broadcasters of possibly similar experience and qualification as complainant belies respondents claim of independent contractorship."
Independent contractors often present themselves to possess unique skills, expertise or talent to distinguish them from ordinary employees. The specific selection and hiring of SONZA, because of his unique skills, talent and celebrity status not possessed by ordinary employees, is a circumstance indicative, but not conclusive, of an independent contractual relationship. If SONZA did not possess such unique skills, talent and celebrity status, ABS-CBN would not have entered into the Agreement with SONZA but would have hired him through its personnel department just like any other employee.
In any event, the method of selecting and engaging SONZA does not conclusively determine his status. We must consider all the circumstances of the relationship, with the control test being the most important element.
B. Payment of Wages
ABS-CBN directly paid SONZA his monthly talent fees with no part of his fees going to MJMDC. SONZA asserts that this mode of fee payment shows that he was an employee of ABS-CBN. SONZA also points out that ABS-CBN granted him benefits and privileges "which he would not have enjoyed if he were truly the subject of a valid job contract."
All the talent fees and benefits paid to SONZA were the result of negotiations that led to the Agreement. If SONZA were ABS-CBNs employee, there would be no need for the parties to stipulate on benefits such as "SSS, Medicare, x x x and 13th month pay"20 which the law automatically incorporates into every employer-employee contract.21 Whatever benefits SONZA enjoyed arose from contract and not because of an employer-employee relationship.22
SONZAs talent fees, amounting to
The payment of talent fees directly to SONZA and not to MJMDC does not negate the status of SONZA as an independent contractor. The parties expressly agreed on such mode of payment. Under the Agreement, MJMDC is the AGENT of SONZA, to whom MJMDC would have to turn over any talent fee accruing under the Agreement.
C. Power of Dismissal
For violation of any provision of the Agreement, either party may terminate their relationship. SONZA failed to show that ABS-CBN could terminate his services on grounds other than breach of contract, such as retrenchment to prevent losses as provided under labor laws.23
During the life of the Agreement, ABS-CBN agreed to pay SONZAs talent fees as long as "AGENT and Jay Sonza shall faithfully and completely perform each condition of this Agreement."24 Even if it suffered severe business losses, ABS-CBN could not retrench SONZA because ABS-CBN remained obligated to pay SONZAs talent fees during the life of the Agreement. This circumstance indicates an independent contractual relationship between SONZA and ABS-CBN.
SONZA admits that even after ABS-CBN ceased broadcasting his programs, ABS-CBN still paid him his talent fees. Plainly, ABS-CBN adhered to its undertaking in the Agreement to continue paying SONZAs talent fees during the remaining life of the Agreement even if ABS-CBN cancelled SONZAs programs through no fault of SONZA.25
SONZA assails the Labor Arbiters interpretation of his rescission of the Agreement as an admission that he is not an employee of ABS-CBN. The Labor Arbiter stated that "if it were true that complainant was really an employee, he would merely resign, instead." SONZA did actually resign from ABS-CBN but he also, as president of MJMDC, rescinded the Agreement. SONZAs letter clearly bears this out.26 However, the manner by which SONZA terminated his relationship with ABS-CBN is immaterial. Whether SONZA rescinded the Agreement or resigned from work does not determine his status as employee or independent contractor.
D. Power of Control
Since there is no local precedent on whether a radio and television program host is an employee or an independent contractor, we refer to foreign case law in analyzing the present case. The United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit, recently held in Alberty-Vélez v. Corporación De Puerto Rico Para La Difusión Pública ("WIPR")27 that a television program host is an independent contractor. We quote the following findings of the U.S. court:
Applying the control test to the present case, we find that SONZA is not an employee but an independent contractor. The control test is the most important test our courts apply in distinguishing an employee from an independent contractor.29 This test is based on the extent of control the hirer exercises over a worker. The greater the supervision and control the hirer exercises, the more likely the worker is deemed an employee. The converse holds true as well the less control the hirer exercises, the more likely the worker is considered an independent contractor.30
First, SONZA contends that ABS-CBN exercised control over the means and methods of his work.
SONZAs argument is misplaced. ABS-CBN engaged SONZAs services specifically to co-host the "Mel & Jay" programs. ABS-CBN did not assign any other work to SONZA. To perform his work, SONZA only needed his skills and talent. How SONZA delivered his lines, appeared on television, and sounded on radio were outside ABS-CBNs control. SONZA did not have to render eight hours of work per day. The Agreement required SONZA to attend only rehearsals and tapings of the shows, as well as pre- and post-production staff meetings.31 ABS-CBN could not dictate the contents of SONZAs script. However, the Agreement prohibited SONZA from criticizing in his shows ABS-CBN or its interests.32 The clear implication is that SONZA had a free hand on what to say or discuss in his shows provided he did not attack ABS-CBN or its interests.
We find that ABS-CBN was not involved in the actual performance that produced the finished product of SONZAs work.33 ABS-CBN did not instruct SONZA how to perform his job. ABS-CBN merely reserved the right to modify the program format and airtime schedule "for more effective programming."34 ABS-CBNs sole concern was the quality of the shows and their standing in the ratings. Clearly, ABS-CBN did not exercise control over the means and methods of performance of SONZAs work.
SONZA claims that ABS-CBNs power not to broadcast his shows proves ABS-CBNs power over the means and methods of the performance of his work. Although ABS-CBN did have the option not to broadcast SONZAs show, ABS-CBN was still obligated to pay SONZAs talent fees... Thus, even if ABS-CBN was completely dissatisfied with the means and methods of SONZAs performance of his work, or even with the quality or product of his work, ABS-CBN could not dismiss or even discipline SONZA. All that ABS-CBN could do is not to broadcast SONZAs show but ABS-CBN must still pay his talent fees in full.35
Clearly, ABS-CBNs right not to broadcast SONZAs show, burdened as it was by the obligation to continue paying in full SONZAs talent fees, did not amount to control over the means and methods of the performance of SONZAs work. ABS-CBN could not terminate or discipline SONZA even if the means and methods of performance of his work - how he delivered his lines and appeared on television - did not meet ABS-CBNs approval. This proves that ABS-CBNs control was limited only to the result of SONZAs work, whether to broadcast the final product or not. In either case, ABS-CBN must still pay SONZAs talent fees in full until the expiry of the Agreement.
In Vaughan, et al. v. Warner, et al.,36 the United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that vaudeville performers were independent contractors although the management reserved the right to delete objectionable features in their shows. Since the management did not have control over the manner of performance of the skills of the artists, it could only control the result of the work by deleting objectionable features.37
SONZA further contends that ABS-CBN exercised control over his work by supplying all equipment and crew. No doubt, ABS-CBN supplied the equipment, crew and airtime needed to broadcast the "Mel & Jay" programs. However, the equipment, crew and airtime are not the "tools and instrumentalities" SONZA needed to perform his job. What SONZA principally needed were his talent or skills and the costumes necessary for his appearance.38 Even though ABS-CBN provided SONZA with the place of work and the necessary equipment, SONZA was still an independent contractor since ABS-CBN did not supervise and control his work. ABS-CBNs sole concern was for SONZA to display his talent during the airing of the programs.39
A radio broadcast specialist who works under minimal supervision is an independent contractor.40 SONZAs work as television and radio program host required special skills and talent, which SONZA admittedly possesses. The records do not show that ABS-CBN exercised any supervision and control over how SONZA utilized his skills and talent in his shows.
Second, SONZA urges us to rule that he was ABS-CBNs employee because ABS-CBN subjected him to its rules and standards of performance. SONZA claims that this indicates ABS-CBNs control "not only [over] his manner of work but also the quality of his work."
The Agreement stipulates that SONZA shall abide with the rules and standards of performance "covering talents"41 of ABS-CBN. The Agreement does not require SONZA to comply with the rules and standards of performance prescribed for employees of ABS-CBN. The code of conduct imposed on SONZA under the Agreement refers to the "Television and Radio Code of the Kapisanan ng mga Broadcaster sa Pilipinas (KBP), which has been adopted by the COMPANY (ABS-CBN) as its Code of Ethics."42 The KBP code applies to broadcasters, not to employees of radio and television stations. Broadcasters are not necessarily employees of radio and television stations. Clearly, the rules and standards of performance referred to in the Agreement are those applicable to talents and not to employees of ABS-CBN.
In any event, not all rules imposed by the hiring party on the hired party indicate that the latter is an employee of the former.43 In this case, SONZA failed to show that these rules controlled his performance. We find that these general rules are merely guidelines towards the achievement of the mutually desired result, which are top-rating television and radio programs that comply with standards of the industry. We have ruled that:
Further, not every form of control that a party reserves to himself over the conduct of the other party in relation to the services being rendered may be accorded the effect of establishing an employer-employee relationship. The facts of this case fall squarely with the case of Insular Life Assurance Co., Ltd. vs. NLRC. In said case, we held that:
The Vaughan case also held that one could still be an independent contractor although the hirer reserved certain supervision to insure the attainment of the desired result. The hirer, however, must not deprive the one hired from performing his services according to his own initiative.45
Lastly, SONZA insists that the "exclusivity clause" in the Agreement is the most extreme form of control which ABS-CBN exercised over him.
This argument is futile. Being an exclusive talent does not by itself mean that SONZA is an employee of ABS-CBN. Even an independent contractor can validly provide his services exclusively to the hiring party. In the broadcast industry, exclusivity is not necessarily the same as control.
The hiring of exclusive talents is a widespread and accepted practice in the entertainment industry.46 This practice is not designed to control the means and methods of work of the talent, but simply to protect the investment of the broadcast station. The broadcast station normally spends substantial amounts of money, time and effort "in building up its talents as well as the programs they appear in and thus expects that said talents remain exclusive with the station for a commensurate period of time."47 Normally, a much higher fee is paid to talents who agree to work exclusively for a particular radio or television station. In short, the huge talent fees partially compensates for exclusivity, as in the present case.
MJMDC as Agent of SONZA
SONZA protests the Labor Arbiters finding that he is a talent of MJMDC, which contracted out his services to ABS-CBN. The Labor Arbiter ruled that as a talent of MJMDC, SONZA is not an employee of ABS-CBN. SONZA insists that MJMDC is a "labor-only" contractor and ABS-CBN is his employer.
In a labor-only contract, there are three parties involved: (1) the "labor-only" contractor; (2) the employee who is ostensibly under the employ of the "labor-only" contractor; and (3) the principal who is deemed the real employer. Under this scheme, the "labor-only" contractor is the agent of the principal. The law makes the principal responsible to the employees of the "labor-only contractor" as if the principal itself directly hired or employed the employees.48 These circumstances are not present in this case.
There are essentially only two parties involved under the Agreement, namely, SONZA and ABS-CBN. MJMDC merely acted as SONZAs agent. The Agreement expressly states that MJMDC acted as the "AGENT" of SONZA. The records do not show that MJMDC acted as ABS-CBNs agent. MJMDC, which stands for Mel and Jay Management and Development Corporation, is a corporation organized and owned by SONZA and TIANGCO. The President and General Manager of MJMDC is SONZA himself. It is absurd to hold that MJMDC, which is owned, controlled, headed and managed by SONZA, acted as agent of ABS-CBN in entering into the Agreement with SONZA, who himself is represented by MJMDC. That would make MJMDC the agent of both ABS-CBN and SONZA.
As SONZA admits, MJMDC is a management company devoted exclusively to managing the careers of SONZA and his broadcast partner, TIANGCO. MJMDC is not engaged in any other business, not even job contracting. MJMDC does not have any other function apart from acting as agent of SONZA or TIANGCO to promote their careers in the broadcast and television industry.49
Policy Instruction No. 40
SONZA argues that Policy Instruction No. 40 issued by then Minister of Labor Blas Ople on 8 January 1979 finally settled the status of workers in the broadcast industry. Under this policy, the types of employees in the broadcast industry are the station and program employees.
Policy Instruction No. 40 is a mere executive issuance which does not have the force and effect of law. There is no legal presumption that Policy Instruction No. 40 determines SONZAs status. A mere executive issuance cannot exclude independent contractors from the class of service providers to the broadcast industry. The classification of workers in the broadcast industry into only two groups under Policy Instruction No. 40 is not binding on this Court, especially when the classification has no basis either in law or in fact.
Affidavits of ABS-CBNs Witnesses
SONZA also faults the Labor Arbiter for admitting the affidavits of Socorro Vidanes and Rolando Cruz without giving his counsel the
opportunity to cross-examine these witnesses. SONZA brands these witnesses as incompetent to attest on the prevailing practice in the radio and television industry. SONZA views the affidavits of these witnesses as misleading and irrelevant.
While SONZA failed to cross-examine ABS-CBNs witnesses, he was never prevented from denying or refuting the allegations in the affidavits. The Labor Arbiter has the discretion whether to conduct a formal (trial-type) hearing after the submission of the position papers of the parties, thus:
The Labor Arbiter can decide a case based solely on the position papers and the supporting documents without a formal trial.51 The holding of a formal hearing or trial is something that the parties cannot demand as a matter of right.52 If the Labor Arbiter is confident that he can rely on the documents before him, he cannot be faulted for not conducting a formal trial, unless under the particular circumstances of the case, the documents alone are insufficient. The proceedings before a Labor Arbiter are non-litigious in nature. Subject to the requirements of due process, the technicalities of law and the rules obtaining in the courts of law do not strictly apply in proceedings before a Labor Arbiter.
Talents as Independent Contractors
ABS-CBN claims that there exists a prevailing practice in the broadcast and entertainment industries to treat talents like SONZA as independent contractors. SONZA argues that if such practice exists, it is void for violating the right of labor to security of tenure.
The right of labor to security of tenure as guaranteed in the Constitution53 arises only if there is an employer-employee relationship under labor laws. Not every performance of services for a fee creates an employer-employee relationship. To hold that every person who renders services to another for a fee is an employee - to give meaning to the security of tenure clause - will lead to absurd results.
Individuals with special skills, expertise or talent enjoy the freedom to offer their services as independent contractors. The right to life and livelihood guarantees this freedom to contract as independent contractors. The right of labor to security of tenure cannot operate to deprive an individual, possessed with special skills, expertise and talent, of his right to contract as an independent contractor. An individual like an artist or talent has a right to render his services without any one controlling the means and methods by which he performs his art or craft. This Court will not interpret the right of labor to security of tenure to compel artists and talents to render their services only as employees. If radio and television program hosts can render their services only as employees, the station owners and managers can dictate to the radio and television hosts what they say in their shows. This is not conducive to freedom of the press.
Different Tax Treatment of Talents and Broadcasters
The National Internal Revenue Code ("NIRC")54 in relation to Republic Act No. 7716,55 as amended by Republic Act No. 8241,56 treats talents, television and radio broadcasters differently. Under the NIRC, these professionals are subject to the 10% value-added tax ("VAT") on services they render. Exempted from the VAT are those under an employer-employee relationship.57 This different tax treatment accorded to talents and broadcasters bolters our conclusion that they are independent contractors, provided all the basic elements of a contractual relationship are present as in this case.
Nature of SONZAs Claims
SONZA seeks the recovery of allegedly unpaid talent fees, 13th month pay, separation pay, service incentive leave, signing bonus, travel allowance, and amounts due under the Employee Stock Option Plan. We agree with the findings of the Labor Arbiter and the Court of Appeals that SONZAs claims are all based on the May 1994 Agreement and stock option plan, and not on the Labor Code. Clearly, the present case does not call for an application of the Labor Code provisions but an interpretation and implementation of the May 1994 Agreement. In effect, SONZAs cause of action is for breach of contract which is intrinsically a civil dispute cognizable by the regular courts.58
WHEREFORE, we DENY the petition. The assailed Decision of the Court of Appeals dated 26 March 1999 in CA-G.R. SP No. 49190 is AFFIRMED. Costs against petitioner.
Davide, Jr., Panganiban, Ynares-Santiago, and Azcuna, JJ., concur.
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