[G.R. No. 132677. October 20, 2000]




This is a petition for review on certiorari of the decision of the Court of Appeals[1] dated September 26, 1997 which reversed and set aside the decision of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 20, Cauayan, Isabela dismissing the complaint filed by respondents against petitioner. The facts are as follows:

The late Nieves Tolentino-Rivera (Nieves for short) and her husband, Pablo Rivera, were married in 1921. The couple resided at Cauayan, Isabela and begot 13 children. On October 20, 1934, Nieves, still using her maiden name, filed an application for a sales patent over a 13.5267-hectare land in Cauayan, Isabela. Her application was approved and, after payment of the purchase price, Nieves was issued Sales Patent No. V-119 on March 24, 1948.[2] Thereafter, on March 29, 1948, OCT No. P-216 was issued in the name of Nieves Tolentino, married to Pablo Rivera.

On August 15, 1949, Pablo Rivera and Nieves Tolentino sold to petitioner Isabela Colleges, then newly-founded, four hectares of the land covered by OCT No. P-216. The sale is evidenced by a deed of sale (Exh. 1) signed by both Nieves Tolentino and Pablo Rivera, with Francisca R. Reyes, a member of petitioners board of trustees, and Cecilia L. Ramos, its librarian, as witnesses. The deed was notarized by Justice of the Peace Gaudencio R. Litao, but it was not registered with the Register of Deeds.

Petitioner Isabela Colleges immediately occupied the land and used the same as its new campus. One hectare was used for school buildings, two for an athletics field, and the remainder was reserved for future projects. Starting 1950, the Isabela Colleges declared the land for tax purposes, but it did not immediately secure a separate title to the property. Its president, Dr. Pura Toledo, explained that the school did not then have enough money to have the land surveyed. The Isabela Colleges secured title to the land only on January 13, 1970 when TCT No. 45890 was issued in its name.

After the death of Pablo Rivera on December 2, 1955, Nieves filed a petition in the Court of First Instance of Isabela for the amendment of OCT No. P-216 to reflect the change in her civil status from married to Pablo Rivera to widow. Her petition was granted and OCT No. P-216 was accordingly amended.

In December 1976, the Office of the Register of Deeds of Isabela was burned. Among the titles destroyed was TCT No. 45890 in the name of the Isabela Colleges. The title was administratively reconstituted in 1978.

In 1980, Nieves went to the United States. Upon her return to the Philippines in 1988, she filed a petition for the reconstitution of OCT No. P-216 and the annulment of an illegally reconstituted original of OCT No. P-216 obtained by a certain Paulino while Nieves was abroad. Both petitions were granted by the trial court. The Register of Deeds of Isabela was ordered to reconstitute the original OCT No. P-216 in the name of Nieves. The decision of trial court was affirmed by the Court of Appeals in 1993.

In January 1988, Pablo Rivera Jr., George Lucero, Danilo de la Cruz, Alex Cortez, Proceso Cortez, Olga R. Bunag, Corazon Menor, and Carlos Calderon, some of whom are the respondents in this case, entered the property bought by Isabela Colleges, prompting the latter to bring an action for forcible entry against them. In February 1991, the Municipal Trial Court of Cauayan, Isabela rendered a decision ordering the intruders to vacate the land in question. This decision became final and executory.

In 1991, Nieves brought the present suit against the Isabela Colleges for Nullity of Titles, Deeds of Sale, Recovery of Ownership and Possession, Cancellation of Titles, Damages with Preliminary Injunction. Nieves alleged: (1) that she was the exclusive owner of a parcel of land which had an area of 13.5267 hectares and was covered by OCT No. P-216 issued in her name by the Register of Deeds of Isabela; (2) that sometime in 1950, petitioner Isabela Colleges occupied four hectares of her land, allegedly by virtue of a sale between petitioner and her husband Pablo Rivera; (3) that the deed of sale between the Isabela Colleges and Pablo Rivera was void because the land sold was her paraphernal property and the sale was made without her knowledge and consent; and (4) that TCT No. T-45890, which was issued on August 29, 1978 in the name of the Isabela Colleges, was fake and spurious. Nieves prayed that the sale be declared void, that the title of the Isabela Colleges be cancelled, and that she be placed in possession of the subject property.

In its Answer,[3] the Isabela Colleges asserted that the property in question had been sold to it with the knowledge and consent of Nieves Tolentino who in fact signed the deed of sale. The issuance of TCT No. T-45890 in its name enjoys the presumption of regularity. Noting that Nieves complaint in 1991 was filed 42 years after the questioned sale took place in 1949, the Isabela Colleges contended that the complaint was barred by prescription and/or laches.

At the pre-trial conference, the parties agreed to limit the issues to the following:

1. Is the land in question consisting of four hectares paraphernal or not?

2. Is the signature of Nieves Tolentino in the Deed of Sale dated August 15, 1949 forged or not?

3. Is the cause of action of the plaintiff barred by prescription and/or laches; and

4. The losing party will pay to the prevailing party damages by way of attorneys fees and costs in the amount of P10,000.00.[4]

Two complaints-in-intervention were allowed by the trial court. One was filed by Proceso Cortez,[5] and the other was by the group of Danilo de la Cruz, George Lucero, Alexander Cortez, Corazon Menor, Olga R. Bunag, and Carlos Calderon. The intervenors claimed to be either buyers in good faith or lessees of Nieves as to certain portions of the subject land. These parties were the defendants in the ejectment case filed by petitioner in 1988.

In March 1992, alleging that her signature in the questioned deed of sale had been forged, Nieves filed a motion asking that the deed be submitted to the National Bureau of Investigation for a determination of the authenticity of her signature. The motion was granted by the trial court, but examination of the document was not made as Nieves subsequently withdrew her motion.

Nieves deposition was ordered taken as she was then already 88 years old and unable to walk. In fact, before petitioners counsel could finish her cross-examination, Nieves died on January 15, 1993. She was substituted by her heirs, herein respondents Pablo Rivera, Jr., Felicula R. Perez, Dolores R. Querido, Olga R. Bunag, Lolita A. Rivera, Lucia R. Flores, Manuel T. Rivera, Andres T. Rivera, Camilo T. Rivera, Emma R. Alfonso, and Antonia R. Perez.

On September 30, 1994, the trial court rendered its decision, the dispositive portion of which reads:

WHEREFORE, judgment is hereby rendered in favor of the defendant Isabela Colleges and against the plaintiffs heirs of Nieves Tolentino, namely, Pablo Rivera, Jr., Felicula R. Perez, Dolores R. Querido, Olga R. Bunag, Lolita A. Rivera, Lucia R. Flores, Manuel T. Rivera, Andres T. Rivera, Camilo T. Rivera, Emma R. Alfonso and Antonia R. Perez, (1) dismissing the complaint; (2) declaring the deed of sale dated August 15, 1949 and the titles of the defendant Isabela Colleges valid; (3) declaring the defendant Isabela Colleges owner of the land in question which is covered by Transfer Certificate of Title No. T-45890 and the titles of the land as subdivided (Exhs. 9 to 34); (4) ordering the plaintiffs Heirs of Nieves Tolentino to pay to the defendant P10,000.00; (5) ordering the plaintiffs Heirs of Nieves Tolentino to pay to the Intervenor and cross-claimant Proceso J. Cortez, Sixty Seven Thousand (P67,000.00) representing the purchase price of the lots he purchased from Nieves Tolentino; and (6) ordering all the plaintiffs and intervenors to vacate the land in question and remove all their buildings and other improvements thereon it being understood that this decision will not in any way interfere with the execution of the decision of the Municipal Trial Court of Cauayan, Isabela, in Civil Case No. 1469, entitled, Isabela Colleges vs. Pablo Rivera, Jr., et al. Let a copy of this decision be annotated at the back of Original Certificate of Title No. P-216. Costs against the plaintiffs and intervenors.


On appeal, its decision was reversed. In its decision rendered on September 26, 1997, the Court of Appeals ruled:

WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, the judgment appealed from is hereby REVERSED and SET ASIDE, and a new one rendered, to wit:

1. Declaring the plaintiffs-appellants as the lawful owners of the property in question;

2. Declaring null and void and canceling Transfer Certificate of Title No. 45890 as well as the subsequent Transfer Certificates of Titles proceeding therefrom, of the Register of Deeds of Isabela, covering the real property described therein in the name of defendant-appellee Isabela Colleges, Inc.;

3. Ordering defendant-appellee Isabela Colleges to execute the necessary deed of reconveyance of the aforesaid real property to the plaintiffs;

4. Ordering defendant-appellee Isabela Colleges to indemnify plaintiffs in the sum of P50,000.00 as and for attorneys fees;

5. Appellant intervenor and cross-claimant Proceso J. Cortez is hereby declared owner and entitled to the possession of an aggregate area of three hundred seventy (370) square meters, covered by Exhibits E, F and G; and

6. Ordering defendant-appellee Isabela Colleges to pay the costs of the suit.


Hence, this petition. Petitioner contends that the Court of Appeals erred in ruling that: (1) the subject property is paraphernal despite Nieves admission that it was purchased from the government during her marriage with Pablo Rivera out of conjugal funds; (2) Nieves signature in the questioned deed of sale is forged; and (3) laches cannot defeat the claim of a registered property owner despite the long delay of 41 years.[8]

First. The Court of Appeals ruled that the four-hectare land subject of the 1949 sale is paraphernal property based on Nieves Tolentinos deposition that she occupied the 13-hectare land (which eventually was covered by OCT No. P-216 in her name) and applied for a sales patent thereon when she was single. However, her deposition shows that while Nieves initially claimed that she applied for a sales patent when she was still single, she later admitted that she filed her application for a sales patent in 1934, more than ten years after her marriage to Pablo Rivera in 1921. Thus, she stated:

Q: Why did you place in your application that you were single?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: Why did you place in your application that you were single when in fact you were already married?

A: Yes, sir, because when I applied I was still single.

Q: Why, what year was it when you applied for the sales patent of this parcel of land?

A: I could not remember anymore, sir.

Q: According to your Exhibit V here dated February 2, 1947, in your letter to the Honorable Director of Lands, sub-paragraph 1 and I read, That the undersigned petitioner for the application of Sales Application 19281 covering a piece of land consisting of 14.2800 hectares filed on October 20, 1934 and acknowledged by the Bureau of Lands on November 2, 1934. It appears that you filed this sales application on October 20, 1934, is this correct?


May we ask that the document be presented to the deponent, in your Honor, for referral.


The deponent may read the document for referral purposes, to refresh her memory.


Yes, sir, that is correct.


Q: And so you filed this application more than ten years after you were married to Pablo Rivera, Sr.?

A: That is correct, sir.[9]

In any case, the date of the sales patent application is irrelevant for that fact alone would not vest in her ownership over the subject land. Neither is Nieves Tolentinos allegation that she was already in possession of the land even before her marriage to Pablo Rivera in 1921 material. The land was acquired through sales patent under Commonwealth Act No. 141,[10] and not through prescription or any other mode of acquiring ownership.

Under C.A. No. 141, her application must be approved and the purchase price paid before Nieves Tolentino could be granted a sales patent and issued a certificate of title. It is undisputed that Nieves Tolentino was issued a sales patent only on March 24, 1948, after she had complied with the foregoing requirements. The land in question was thus acquired during her marriage to Pablo Rivera.

Both the acquisition of the 13-hectare land and the sale of a portion thereof to petitioner in 1949 took place when the Spanish Civil Code was still in effect. Under Article 1407 of that Code, the property of the spouses are deemed conjugal partnership property in the absence of proof that it belongs exclusively to one or the other spouse. This presumption arises with respect to property acquired during the marriage. It is not necessary to prove that the property was acquired with conjugal funds.[11]

To overthrow this presumption, the evidence to the contrary must be strong, clear, and convincing. The registration alone of the subject land in the name of Nieves Tolentino is insufficient to rebut the presumption. Nor is there clear and convincing proof that the funds used in purchasing the four-hectare land subject of the sale belonged exclusively to her. Nieves own deposition on this question is vague and contradictory. Although she claimed that she used her exclusive funds to pay for the land, she also said that the funds used came from the proceeds of the sale of palay which they produced from the subject land. Thus, in her deposition, Nieves stated:

Q: My question now is who paid for the purchase consideration of your sales application on this land?

A: I was the one, sir.

Q: Where did you get the money that you paid?

A: From the proceeds of the palay that I sold, sir.

Q: Where did you produce the palay?

A: We were tilling that land, sir.

Q: What land did you till?

A: This land, sir.[12]

It thus appears that the land was cultivated and tilled by the family, and that the funds used in buying the land had been derived out of the proceeds of this joint industry. Under Art. 1401 (2) of the Spanish Civil Code, property obtained by the industry, wages or work of the spouses or either of them, among others, belong to the conjugal partnership.

Indeed, other than its finding that Nieves Tolentino was already in possession of the land and applied for a sales patent before she married Pablo Rivera, the Court of Appeals cited no other evidence to prove that the land was her paraphernal property. On the contrary, the evidence clearly shows that the land was acquired during the marriage of Nieves Tolentino and Pablo Rivera. It is thus presumed to be conjugal property and respondents evidence fails to rebut this presumption.

Second. Having established that the land covered by OCT No. P-216 from which had come the four-hectare portion purchased by petitioner is conjugal property, we shall now consider the validity of the sale.

In contending that the sale is void, Nieves Tolentino argued that the land sold was her paraphernal property and that the sale was done without her consent because her signature in the deed of sale is a forgery. We are convinced that Nieves Tolentinos signature in the deed of sale was forged. We quote with approval the following findings of the Court of Appeals, to wit:

Apart from the foregoing circumstances, it appears in the questioned document itself a convincing piece of physical evidence which establishes beyond any doubt that the signature therein purporting to be that of Nieves Tolentino was not written by the latter but by a different hand. A closer look at the questioned signature would show that it is merely copied from the original signature of the late Nieves Tolentino. The difference is discernible to the naked eye. In the questioned signature, there is a loop stroke that started at letter O and looping further or whirling further to letter T and extended in between letter I and letter N in the family name Tolentino. Likewise, all the specimen signatures of the late Nieves Tolentino which she identified during the deposition to be hers, consisting of several documents executed by her during her lifetime, were written in a slanting position: whereas, the questioned signature was entirely written in a straight manner.

. . . .

The trial court likewise erred in disregarding the testimony of Attorney Romulo Gines. The said lawyer testified that the signature NIEVES TOLENTINO in the questioned Deed of Sale is not the signature of Nieves Tolentino because of the flourish in the T and O which are absent in the other signatures of Nieves Tolentino. That he is familiar with the signature of Nieves Tolentino as he has seen her sign documents for at least fifty (50) times. The trial court rejected his testimony on account that he did not present sufficient number of documents to prove his claim and that the documents he saw which Nieves Tolentino allegedly signed were executed long after 1949. Moreover, he is disqualified to testify since he is not a handwriting expert.

Again, we disagree. The court a quo failed to consider that what Atty. Romulo testified to is that he was familiar with the signature of Nieves Tolentino as he saw her signed several documents in his presence, he being the lawyer of the said Nieves Tolentino for a long time. Such testimony is more than enough to establish the signature as a forgery.

Section 23, Rule 132 of the Rules of Court, provides:

Sec. 23. Handwriting, how proved. - The handwriting of a person may be proved by any witness who believes it to be the handwriting of such person, and has seen the person write, or has seen writing purporting to be his upon which the witness has acted or has been charged, and has thus acquired knowledge of the handwriting of such person. Evidence respecting the handwriting may also be given by a comparison made by the witness or the court with writings admitted or treated as genuine by the party against whom the evidence is offered, or proved to be genuine to the satisfaction of the judge. (Emphasis supplied)

In the case at bar, Atty. Gines acquired familiarity of the signature of the deceased, Nieves Tolentino, since he has been the lawyer of Nieves Tolentino for a long time and he has seen her sign several documents in his presence.[13]

The fact that Nieves Tolentinos signature in the deed of sale is a forgery does not, however, render the deed of sale void. For the land was conjugal property and, under the Spanish Civil Code, the wifes consent to the sale is not required. Therefore, that her signature is a forgery is determinative only of Nieves Tolentinos lack of consent but not of the validity of the sale. Art. 1413 of the Spanish Civil Code provides:

In addition to his powers as manager the husband may for valuable consideration alienate and encumber the property of the conjugal partnership without the consent of the wife.

Nevertheless, no alienation or agreement which the husband may make with respect to such property in contravention of this Code or in fraud of the wife shall prejudice her or her heirs.

As the husband may validly sell or dispose of conjugal property even without the wifes consent, the absence of the wifes consent alone does not make the sale in fraud of her.

Third. The Court of Appeals ruled that, notwithstanding the lapse of 42 years, respondents action was not barred by prescription and/or laches. The Court of Appeals held that since the subject land is registered, the title covering the same is indefeasible and imprescriptible. On the other hand, laches is inapplicable because the same cannot be used to perpetrate a fraud.[14]

We disagree. The law provides that no title to registered land in derogation of that of the registered owner can be acquired by prescription or adverse possession.[15] Nonetheless, while it is true that a Torrens title is indefeasible and imprescriptible,[16] the registered landowner may lose his right to recover the possession of his registered property by reason of laches.[17]

Laches means the failure or neglect for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time to do that which, by observance of due diligence, could or should have been done earlier. It is negligence or omission to assert a right within a reasonable time, warranting the presumption that the party entitled to assert his right either has abandoned or declined to assert it.[18] Laches thus operates as a bar in equity.[19]

Thus, in Catholic Bishop of Balanga v. Court of Appeals,[20] a parcel of registered land was donated by its owner in 1936. After the donee had been in possession of the land, adversely, continuously, publicly, and peacefully for 49 years, the registered owner filed an action to recover the property on the ground that the donation was invalid. The trial court ruled in favor of the registered owner and ordered the donee to vacate the land. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and ruled that the complaint for recovery of possession was barred by laches. We affirmed the Court of Appeals as follows:

The time-honored rule anchored on public policy is that relief will be denied to a litigant whose claim or demand has become stale, or who has acquiesced for an unreasonable length of time, or who has not been vigilant or who has slept on his rights either by negligence, folly or inattention. In other words, public policy requires, for peace of society, the discouragement of claims grown stale for non-assertion; thus laches is an impediment to the assertion or enforcement of a right which has become, under the circumstances, inequitable or unfair to permit.

. . . .

In applying the doctrine of laches, we had ruled that where a party allows the following number of years to lapse from the emergence of his cause of action, before instituting court action to enforce his claim, such action would be barred by the equitable defense of laches: 36 years, 12 years, 50 years, 34 years, 37 years. 32 years, 20 years, 47 years, 11 years, 25 years, 40 years, 19 years, 27 years, 7 years, 44 years, 4 years, and 67 years.

. . . .

In this case, petitioner filed its complaint in court only after forty-nine (49) years had lapsed since the donation in its behalf of the subject property to private respondents predecessor-in-interest. There is nary an explanation for the long delay in the filing by petitioner of the complaint in the case at bench, and that inaction for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time constitutes laches. As such, petitioner cannot claim nullity of the donation as an excuse to avoid the consequences of its own unjustified inaction and as a basis for the assertion of a right on which they had slept for so long.[21]

So it is in the present case where the complaint questioning the validity of the sale to petitioner Isabela Colleges was filed only after 42 years had lapsed. Respondents could not feign ignorance of the sale because petitioner had been in open, public, and continuous possession of the land which it had used as its school campus since 1949. Nieves Tolentino claimed in her deposition that she and her husband Pablo Rivera intended to donate the land to the Isabela Colleges in exchange for their childrens free education, and that she started suspecting that her husband had broken their agreement when the Isabela Colleges charged them tuition fees. She further claimed that, after some investigation, she discovered that Pablo Rivera had sold the land to the Isabela Colleges. Yet, despite her discovery, she did not bring her action against petitioner until 1991, taking her 42 years before finally doing so. No reason had been given to explain her delay.

Indeed, even if the sale to petitioner was made in bad faith, laches would nonetheless apply. In Claveria v. Quingco,[22] notwithstanding the fact that the buyer had acted in bad faith because he knew that the vendor was not the registered owner, it was held that the registered owners inaction for 36 years had definitely foreclosed his right to recover the property.

Fourth. Proceso Cortez filed a complaint-in-intervention claiming ownership over two parcels of land with an aggregate area of 370 square meters by virtue of a sale between him and Nieves Tolentino in 1988. He initially alleged that the lots were included in the four-hectare land covered by TCT No. 45890 of petitioner Isabela Colleges. On appeal, however, he asserted that these lots were located outside petitioners land. He claimed to be a buyer in good faith.

Even assuming that Cortez was not guilty of bad faith when he bought the land in question, the fact remains that the Isabela Colleges was first in possession. Art. 1544 of the Civil Code on double sales provides:

If the same thing should have been sold to different vendees, the ownership shall be transferred to the person who may have first taken possession thereof in good faith, if it should be movable property.

Should it be immovable property, the ownership shall belong to the person acquiring it who in good faith first recorded it in the Registry of Property.

Should there be no inscription, the ownership shall pertain to the person who in good faith was first in the possession; and, in the absence thereof, to the person who presents the oldest title, provided there is good faith.

Indeed, petitioner has been in possession of the land since 1949. Between petitioner and Cortez, therefore, the former had a better right for the latter only bought the property in 1988 when it was already purchased by and titled under the name of petitioner.

WHEREFORE, the Court of Appeals is REVERSED and the complaint and complaints-in-intervention against petitioner Isabela Colleges, Inc. are DISMISSED.


Bellosillo, (Chairman), Quisumbing, Buena, and De Leon, Jr., JJ., concur.

[1] Per Associate Justice Jorge S. Imperial and concurred in by Associate Justices Ramon U. Mabutas, Jr. and Hilarion L. Aquino.

[2] Exh. A-3.

[3] Rollo, p. 109.

[4] Pre-Trial Order, p. 4; Rollo, p. 118.

[5] Annex H; Rollo, p. 128.

[6] RTC Decision, pp. 16-17; Rollo, pp. 194-195.

[7] CA Decision, pp. 17-18; Rollo, pp. 85-86.

[8] Petition, p. 16; Rollo, p. 36.

[9] TSN, pp. 5-6, Dec. 4, 1992. (Emphasis added)

[10] The Public Land Act.

[11] 1 A. Tolentino, Civil Code of the Philippines 425 (1987).

[12] TSN, p. 7, Oct. 31, 1992.

[13] CA Decision, pp. 12-14; Rollo, pp. 80-82.

[14] Id., pp. 16-17; Id., pp. 84-85.

[15] Act No. 496, 46, now 47, P.D. No. 1529.

[16] Reyes v. Court of Appeals, 258 SCRA 651 (1996); Dimayuga v. Court of Appeals, 129 SCRA 110 (1984).

[17] Catholic Bishop of Balanga v. Court of Appeals, 264 SCRA 181 (1996); De la Calzada-Cierras v. Court of Appeals, 212 SCRA 390 (1992); Claverias v. Quingco, 207 SCRA 66 (1992); Marcelino v. Court of Appeals. 210 SCRA 444 (1992); Republic v. Court of Appeals, 204 SCRA 160 (1991); Tambot v. Court of Appeals, 181 SCRA 202 (1990); Bergado v. Court of Appeals, 173 SCRA 497 (1989); Golloy v. Court of Appeals, 173 SCRA 26 (1989); Lola v. Court of Appeals, 145 SCRA 439 (1986); Miguel v. Catalino, 26 SCRA 234 (1968); Mejia de Lucas v. Gamponia, 100 Phil. 277 (1956).

[18] Cormero v. Court of Appeals, 247 SCRA 291 (1995); Solomon v. Intermediate Appellate Court, 185 SCRA 352 (1990); Vda. de Alberto v. Court of Appeals, 173 SCRA 436 (1989); Villamor v. Court of Appeals, 126 SCRA 574 (1988).

[19] Jacob v. Court of Appeals, 224 SCRA 189 (1993); Heirs of Batiog Lacamen v. Heirs of Laruan, 65 SCRA 125 (1975).

[20] Supra.

[21] 264 SCRA 194, 198. (Emphasis added)

[22] 207 SCRA 66 (1992).