EN BANC

[A.M. No. 2004-40-SC.  March 1, 2005]

IN RE: COMPLAINT FOR FAILURE TO PAY JUST DEBTS AGAINST ESTHER T. ANDRES (MARIA TERESA C. ALIENTO) complainant.

D E C I S I O N

CHICO-NAZARIO, J.:

Before us is an administrative matter which arose from the letter-complaint[1] of Maria Teresa C. Aliento dated 08 September 2004, filed in the Office of Administrative Services (OAS) against Esther T. Andres, Records Officer III, Records Division, Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), for her willful failure to pay a just debt.

The complainant alleged in her letter-complaint that:

. . . Mrs. Andres introduced herself to me as an employee of the Records Section of the Supreme Court.

Mrs. Andres owes me twenty thousand pesos (P20, 000), representing two-months back rent on my apartment. She vacated apartment 827-A on 13 June 2004 with the promise that she will settle her debts with me at the soonest possible time.

From 13 June 2004 up to the present, Mrs. Andres has repeatedly promised me that she will soon settle her account….

It was further claimed in the letter-complaint that as a sign of sincerity to pay her indebtedness, the respondent left her Landbank Automated Teller Machine (ATM) card, as well as her Personal Identification Number (PIN), with complainant with instruction that she (respondent) would let the complainant know when she could withdraw from the ATM the amount of P5, 000 as partial payment of the amount she owed.  Thereafter, several incidents transpired which exposed respondent’s duplicitous nature and led to the filing of the present letter-complaint, to wit:

On 02 September 2004, Mrs. Andres assured me over the telephone that I can withdraw the amount of five thousand pesos (P5, 000)…. On the night of 02 September 2004, I tried to withdraw the amount … at the BPI España-Basilio Branch.  All I got from the Bank Machine was an ATM receipt stating that the account has an available balance of only three pesos and 78 centavos (P3.78).

On 06 September 2004, I called Mrs. Andres at her Office (tel. no. 536-9081) to inform her that there is not enough funds on her account.  Mrs. Andres promised to straighten things out and asked me the account number written on her ATM card.

On 07 September 2004, I called Mrs. Andres once again to verify if she has already deposited sufficient funds in her account.  Mrs. Andres told me that I can withdraw five thousand pesos (P5, 000) in the afternoon of the same day.  At 4:10 p.m. on 07 September 2004, I tried once again to withdraw the amount of five thousand pesos (P5, 000) …. However, instead of getting the expected amount, the machine gave me a receipt stating that there is no more funds available on the account. I also noted that the account number on the receipt was missing, giving me the impression that the account may have already been closed.  On hindsight, I remember giving Mrs. Andres the account number on 06 September 2004 when she promised to straighten things out.

I have come now to the conclusion that Mrs. Andres has no intention of making good her promise to pay the amount she owes me.  I am now left with no option but to ask the assistance of your Office....  [Emphases supplied.]

Atty. Eden T. Candelaria, Deputy Clerk of Court and Chief Administrative Officer of the OAS, in a memorandum[2] dated 08 September 2004, directed the respondent to submit her comment within 5 days from receipt thereof.

The respondent filed no comment. Atty. Edwin B. Andrada, Court Attorney IV, Complaint and Investigation Division, OAS was, thus, prompted to send a First Tracer[3] dated 11 November 2004, to the respondent which inter alia read:

This refers to the administrative complaint for willful non-payment of just dept (sic) filed by Ms. Maria Teresa C. Aliento, notice of which you have personally received on September 10, 2004.

In view thereof, you are hereby directed to submit the required ANSWER within five (5) days from receipt hereof, otherwise, this Office will evaluate the matter based on the available documents at hand.

On 15 December 2004, the respondent belatedly[4] filed her Answer. She avowed that:

. . . I have talked to Ms. Maria Teresa Aliento regarding this matter and we have an agreement to settle my obligation (to her) within this month due to the fact that the amount supposedly be paid to her was used for the funeral expenses of my mother who died last November 2004…

On 05 January 2005, the complainant again wrote[5] the OAS to follow-up her complaint.  Pertinent portions of the letter read:

As a result of my previous letter, Mrs. Andres gave me a promissory note dated 12 November 2004… stating that she promise to pay P20,000 on or before 19 November 2004. As of this writing, I have yet to see the fulfillment of that promise.

Sometime last December 2004, I received a telephone call from a certain Atty. Edwin Andrada who introduced himself as an employee of the Supreme Court assigned to handle my complaint. Atty. Andrada told me that Mrs. Andres is ready to give me her dividend cheque amounting to P20,000 as payment of her debt. Mrs. Andres, who was with Atty. Andrada at that time, confirmed to me over the telephone that she will give me her dividend cheque as payment.  I told Mrs. Andres and Atty. Andrada that I cannot accept the dividend cheque because it is not in my name and I may not be able to encash it. because of this situation we all agreed that Mrs. Andres will encash the dividend cheque herself and pay me the amount in cash.

On 29 December 2004, Mrs. Andres gave me a Bank of Commerce cheque dated 23 December 2004 in the amount of P20,000…. I reminded Mrs. Andres of our agreement with Atty. Andrada that the payment was to be in cash.  Mrs. Andres insisted that I accept the cheque and told me to just ignore our agreement with Atty. Andrada….

On 03 January 2005, I received a telephone call from Mrs. Andres, requesting me not to deposit the cheque. She promised to see me the next day (04 January 2005) when she will make the payment in cash. Mrs. Andres, however, did not come as promised and I am still waiting for the payment.  [Emphases supplied.]

In a Memorandum[6] dated 01 February 2005, addressed to Hon. Hilario G. Davide, Jr.,[7] the OAS, through Atty. Eden T. Candelaria, found respondent guilty of willful failure to pay just debts, a ground for disciplinary action.  The findings of the OAS are quoted in part, thus:

It is clear from the foregoing that respondent Ms. Andres’ conduct clearly shows her lack of fairness and straightforwardness in dealing with Ms. Aliento. Her disposition to defraud or to betray was obvious in the following acts of:

1.   giving her ATM card to complaint to show good faith only in the end proved futile since no funds are available on said account;

2.   making a promissory note dated 12 November 2004 wherein she promised to pay on or before the 19th of the same month her obligation, but never did;

3.   verbally promising to tender payment to complainant in cash before Atty. Andrada but later advised complainant to ignore the same;

4.   issuing a Bank of Commerce check dated 23 December 2004 in favor of complainant in the afternoon of 29 December 2004, the last working day of year 2004, which, before complainant could deposit on 3 January 2005, the first working day for 2005, was immediately advised by respondent not to deposit it anymore as she again promised to tender payment in cash instead but, again, to no avail; and

5.      to date, Ms. Andres never settled her obligation.

Taken together, all these acts demonstrate Ms. Andres’ penchant of committing deceitful acts to avoid her contractual obligations.

. . .

. . . If indeed as she earlier pointed out, she used the money allotted for the purpose to defray the funeral expenses of her mother, respondent should have been honest enough to borrow money from legitimate sources rather than resorting to fraudulent acts, if only to settle her obligations. It is not even illogical for this Office to conclude that respondent might have used her service in the Supreme Court as a badge to evade a rightful obligation. With her attitude, this is possible.

. . .

Under Section 52, Rule IV of the Uniform Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service, the imposable penalty for Willful failure to pay just debts for its first offense is Reprimand … to strictly adhere to Sec. 23, respondent Andres may only be penalized with reprimand, however, in view of her deliberate refusal to settle her obligation and the vicious means she employed to evade the same a SEVERE REPRIMAND may be justified.

PREMISES CONSIDERED, it is most respectfully recommended that respondent Ms. Esther Tumbaga Andres be SEVERELY REPRIMANDED for her willful failure to pay just debts with a warning that a repetition of the same or similar ac in the future will be dealt with more severely and that complainant Ms. Aliento be informed with regrets that the Court is not a collection agency….

We agree with the OAS that respondent should be held administratively liable for willful failure to pay her debt.  The recommendation as to the penalty to be imposed on the respondent is, however, inadequate considering that her actuations in dealing with the complainant also constitute conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.

Book V, Title I, Chapter 7, Subtitle A, §46 (b) (22) E.O. No. 292,[8] provides as one of the grounds for disciplinary action against civil service employees the “[w]illful failure to pay just debts.”

The term just debts is defined in Section 22, Rule XIV of the Omnibus Rules Implementing Book V of Executive Order No. 292, as amended by CSC Memorandum Circular No. 19, series 1999, as –

1.  claims adjudicated by a court of law; or

2.  claims the existence and justness of which are admitted by the debtor.

In the case at bar, from the respondent’s Answer[9] dated 14 December 2004, there is no question that the latter acknowledged her debt to the complainant when she wrote:

Madam:

This is in connection to letter dated November 11, 2004, and I respectfully submit my Answer:

That I have talked to Ms. Maria Teresa Aliento regarding this matter and we have an agreement to settle my obligation (to her) within this month, ….” [Emphasis supplied.]

From the records of the case, it appears that despite the numerous opportunities given the respondent to pay her indebtedness, no candid and sincere effort to settle said obligation was forthcoming.

In light of the respondent’s admission of her indebtedness and her unjust refusal to pay it, her administrative liability under the Revised Administrative Code is settled.  Her willful failure to pay just debt is unbecoming of a public official and is a ground for disciplinary action, including suspension or dismissal from the service.  Section 22(i), Rule XIV of the Omnibus Rules Implementing Book V of Executive Order No. 292 as amended by CSC Memorandum Circular No.19, s. 1999, also provides that:

SEC. 22.  Administrative offenses with its corresponding penalties are classified into grave, less grave, and light, depending on the gravity of its nature and effects of said acts on the government service.

. . .

The following are light offenses with their corresponding penalties:

(i)      Willful Failure to Pay Just Debts

1st Offense – Reprimand

2nd Offense – Suspension for one (1) to thirty (30) days

3rd Offense – Dismissal

Taking together, all the acts of the respondent, i.e., giving the complainant her ATM card and PIN to an account which had a zero balance; making a promissory note and later on reneging on it; verbally promising to tender cash payment; using the OAS to make credible her verbal promise to pay her indebtedness in cash; and issuing a check  in favor of the complainant only to tell the latter a few days later not to deposit it as a cash payment would be given instead, establish her fraudulent and mendacious nature.  Hence, the Court also finds the respondent guilty of conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.

The respondent’s purported financial setback allegedly due to her mother’s untimely death cannot justify her deceitful behavior.  The indebtedness was incurred as far back as June 2004, while her mother allegedly passed away sometime in November 2004, or six months later.  Moreover, as correctly held by the OAS, if indeed the respondent used the money allotted for the payment of her debt to defray the funeral expenses of her mother, still, she should have been honest enough to admit it and borrow money from legitimate sources instead of resorting to fraudulent machinations in dealing with the complainant.

For all the foregoing, the circumstances of the case more than give us enough grounds for the imposition of the added administrative offense.[10]

Respondent’s acts of welching on her promises and misleading the complainant affect not only her honor as an individual but more importantly, her integrity as a public servant, particularly of the Judiciary where she is connected.  The Court cannot overstress the need for circumspect and proper behavior on the part of court employees.  “While it may be just for an individual to incur indebtedness unrestrained by the fact that he is a public officer or employee, caution should be taken to prevent the occurrence of dubious circumstances that might inevitably impair the image of the public office.”[11] Employees of the court should always keep in mind that the court is regarded by the public with respect.  Consequently, the conduct of each court personnel should be circumscribed with the heavy burden of onus and must at all times be characterized by, among other things, uprightness, propriety and decorum.  The respondent failed to meet this exacting standard.  Her actuation, although arising from a private transaction, has stained the image of her public office.  Like any member of the Judiciary, the respondent is expected to be a model of fairness and honesty not only in all her official conduct but also in her personal actuations, including business and commercial transactions.  Any conduct that would be a bane to the public trust and confidence reposed on the Judiciary shall not be countenanced.[12]

Pursuant to Section 52, Rule IV of the Civil Service Commission Memorandum Circular No. 19, series of 1999, as amended, conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service is classified as a grave offense punishable by suspension of six (6) months and 1 day to one (1) year if committed for the first time, as in the case at bar.  Nevertheless, for humanitarian reasons,[13] and taking into consideration the following circumstances:

1.  the respondent acknowledged her indebtedness to the complainant;

2.  this is the respondent’s first offense; and

3.  the amount involved is not quite substantial.

we deem that the penalty of one (1) month suspension is in order.

In fine, we find the respondent guilty of willful failure to pay a just debt and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.  But, the penalty to be imposed upon the respondent will have to be that of the graver offense of conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service by virtue of Sec. 55 of Rule IV of the Civil Service Commission Memorandum Circular No.19, series of 1999, provides that, “[i]f the respondent is found guilty of two or more charges or counts, the penalty to be imposed should be that corresponding to the most serious charge or count.

Apropos the complainant’s appeal for our intercession to collect the amount owed her, though the OAS is correct in its position that the Court is not a collection agency for faltering debtors, nevertheless, said principle is only applicable to cases wherein the existence and the amount of the indebtedness are disputed by the parties.  In the case at bar, the respondent does not impugn the amount, much less the existence of her indebtedness to the complainant.  “Consistent with the realm of an administrative case, we are duty bound to correct whatever we perceive as an improper conduct among court employees by ordering them to do what is proper in the premises.  In the instant case, therefore, we direct respondent to pay her indebtedness to complainant . . . within a reasonable time from receipt of this Decision.  A violation of this order could become the basis of another administrative charge for a second offense of `willful failure to pay just debts’ punishable by suspension of one (1) to thirty (30) days, among other serious charges arising from a willful violation of a lawful order of this Court.  With this command, we hope that respondent will stay away from such misdeed and shun a subsequent offense of the same nature, or any other offense for that matter.”[14]

The payment of respondent’s debt is in addition to the penalty of suspension with the warning that commission of the same or similar act in the future will be dealt with more severely.

WHEREFORE, respondent ESTHER T. ANDRES, Records Officer III, Records Division, Office of the Court Administrator, is adjudged guilty of CONDUCT PREJUDICIAL TO THE BEST INTEREST OF THE SERVICE and WILLFUL FAILURE TO PAY JUST DEBT.  She is hereby SUSPENDED for ONE (1) MONTH.

Respondent is likewise ordered to PAY complainant Maria Teresa C. Aliento the sum of P20, 000.00, representing her indebtedness within ninety (90) days from receipt of this Decision.  A commission of the same or similar acts in the future, including a violation of this Decision, will be dealt with more severely.

SO ORDERED.

Davide, Jr., C.J., Puno, Panganiban, Quisumbing, Ynares-Santiago, Sandoval-Gutierrez, Carpio, Austria-Martinez, Corona, Carpio-Morales, Callejo, Sr., Azcuna, Tinga, and Garcia, JJ., concur.



[1] Rollo, p. 16.

[2] Rollo, p. 15.

[3] Rollo, p. 13.

[4] 23 days beyond the period prescribed by the investigating authority.

[5] Rollo, p. 8.

[6] Rollo, p. 2.

[7] Chief Justice of this Court.

[8] Revised Administrative Code of 1987.

[9] Rollo, p. 12.

[10] In the case of Mariano v. Roxas, A.M. No. CA-02-14-P, 31 July 2002 (385 SCRA 500), the respondent was initially charged with forgery and dishonesty for her refusal to pay the balance of the price of jewelry items she purchased from the complainant, and insisting that she made overpayments to the complainant by virtue of forged receipts.  After due deliberation, however, the Court found the accused guilty of two (2) entirely different administrative offenses – willful failure to pay just debts and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.

[11] Villaseñor v. De Leon, A.M. No. P-03-1685, 20 March 2003, 399 SCRA 342, 347-348.

[12] Manalo v. Demaala, A.M. No. 1906-MJ, 13 May 1981, 104 SCRA 330.

[13] In Geocadin v. Hon. Remigio Peña, (A.M. No. 1092-MJ, 30 October 1981, 108 SCRA 519), a judge found guilty of knowingly rendering manifestly unjust orders, partiality, and drunkenness.  The Supreme Court agreed that respondent committed acts unbefitting an occupant of a judicial office but in view of his serious illness which prevented him from presenting evidence other than his comment/answer to the complaint, the constitutional presumption of innocence in his favor and the investigator's recommendation of benignity, respondent judge was merely reprimanded and made to suffer the forfeiture of 3 months of his salary, to be deducted from whatever retirement benefits he may be entitled to under existing laws.

In In re: Delayed Remittance of Collections of Teresita Lydia Odtuhan (A.M. No. 02-10-598-RTC, 11 February 2003, 397 SCRA 222), a court legal researcher of RTC Pasay City was found guilty of serious misconduct in office for failing to remit a P12, 705 fund collection to the proper custodian until after a lapse of about three years and only after several demands or directives from the clerks of court and from the OCA. For humanitarian reasons, the Court found dismissal from the service to be too harsh considering that Odtuhan subsequently remitted the entire amount and she was afflicted with ovarian cancer, and imposed upon her a FINE of P10, 000, with a stern warning that a repetition of the same or a similar act will be dealt with more severely.

In Sarenas-Ochagabia v. Atty. Balmes Ocampos (A.C. No. 4401, 29 January 2004), a lawyer failed to file an appellants' brief, and the necessary Manifestation and Motion with the Court of Appeals. The Court noted that for the said offense, it had imposed penalties ranging from reprimand, warning with fine, suspension and, in aggravated cases, disbarment.  Owing to his advanced age, the Court imposed the penalty of suspension for 3 months with a warning that a repetition thereof will be dealt with more severely.

In Re: Misappropriation of the Judiciary Fund Collections By Ms. Juliet C. Banag (A.M. No. P-02-1641, 20 January 2004) the clerk of Court of MTC Plaridel, Bulacan was found to be in delay in the remittance of her cash collections in hundreds of thousands of pesos constituting gross neglect of duty under the Civil Service Law and the Omnibus Rules implementing it. However, in determining the applicable penalty in this case, the Court took into consideration the lack of bad faith and the fact that she fully remitted all her collections and that she has no outstanding accountabilities. Because of these attendant circumstances, and for humanitarian considerations, the Court merely imposed a fine of P20, 000.00 and a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar acts shall be dealt with more severely.

In Re: Imposition of Corresponding Penalties For Habitual Tardiness Committed During the First and Second Semester of 2002 by the Following Employees of this Court: Gerardo H. Alumbro, et. al. (A.M. No. 00-06-09-SC, 16 March 2004), Susan Belando, Human Resource Management Assistant of the Employees Welfare and Benefit Division, Office of the Court Administrator was found to be habitually tardy for the third time. A strict application of the rules would have justified her dismissal from the service. Instead, for humanitarian reasons, she was meted the penalty of only suspension for thirty (30) days with a warning that she will be dismissed from the service if she will commit the same offense in the future.  She then incurred habitual tardiness for the fourth time. However, again, for humanitarian reasons, the Court found a suspension for three (3) months without pay to be appropriate.

Renato Labay, Utility Worker II, Medical and Dental Services and Albert Semilla, Clerk III, Office of the Chief Attorney this Court, were found to be habitually tardy for the second time and were suspended and warned. In the instant case, they committed tardiness for the third time and, therefore, they should be dismissed from the service. Again, for humanitarian reasons and as recommended by Atty. Candelaria, the Court meted instead a penalty of suspension for ten (10) days without pay, with a warning that a repetition of the same or a similar offense will warrant the imposition of a more severe penalty.

[14] Supra, note 11 at 349-350.