SECOND DIVISION

 

 

ATTY. RENE O. MEDINA and

ATTY. CLARITO SERVILLAS,

                                     Complainants,

 

 

        

             -  versus  -

 

 

 

JUDGE VICTOR A. CANOY,

Regional Trial Court, Branch 29,

Surigao City,

                                     Respondent.

 

A.M. No. RTJ-11-2298

 

Present:

 

CARPIO, J., Chairperson,

VILLARAMA, JR.,* 

PEREZ, 

SERENO, and

REYES, JJ.

 

 

Promulgated:

February 22, 2012

x- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - x

 

 

D E C I S I O N

 

CARPIO, J.:

 

The Case

 

This is an administrative complaint filed by Atty. Rene O. Medina and Atty. Clarito Servillas (complainants) against Judge Victor A. Canoy (respondent judge), Presiding Judge of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Surigao City, Branch 29, for Gross Ignorance of the Law and Procedure, Undue Interference and Gross Inefficiency, relative to Civil Case No. 7077 entitled “Zenia A. Pagels v. Spouses Reynaldo dela Cruz”; Spec. Proc. No. 7101 entitled “Noel P.E.M. Schellekens v. P/S, Supt. David Y. Ombao, et al.”; and Civil Case No. 7065 entitled “Heirs of Matilde Chato Alcaraz v. Philex-Lascogon Mining Corporation, et al.

 

The Facts

 

The undisputed facts, as culled from the records, are as follows:

 

In Civil Case No. 7077

 

On 30 June 2009, petitioner Zenia Pagels (Pagels) filed a Petition for Injunction with prayer for issuance of Preliminary Injunction, Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), Accounting, Damages and Attorney’s Fees against respondents Spouses Reynaldo and Racquel dela Cruz (respondent spouses). The case was raffled to Branch 30, where respondent judge was the acting presiding judge. After serving respondent spouses with the Summons, copy of the Petition and Notice of hearing, respondent judge conducted the hearing and granted the TRO on 2 July 2009. On 3 July 2009, the TRO was implemented resulting in the transfer of possession of the duly-licensed primary and elementary school and church from respondent spouses to Pagels. On 13 July 2009, respondent spouses filed their Answer with Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaim. During the 14 July 2009 hearing for preliminary injunction, the parties agreed to submit position papers. Pagels filed her position paper but respondent spouses filed a Motion to Hear their Affirmative Defenses instead.

 

On 11 August 2009, respondent judge granted the preliminary injunction without need of a bond pending the hearing of respondent spouses’ Motion to Hear Affirmative Defenses. On 1 September 2009, respondent spouses filed a Motion for Reconsideration, which respondent judge set for hearing on 5 October 2009. Subsequently, respondent judge reset the hearing to 16 November 2009 and then to 12 March 2010. Upon assumption as the new presiding judge of Branch 30 sometime in February 2010, Judge Evangeline Yuipco-Bayana issued an Order revoking the preliminary injunction earlier issued by respondent judge.

 

In their Complaint dated 13 September 2010, complainants contend that respondent judge should be charged with gross ignorance of the law and procedure: (1) for disregarding the basic and elementary principle that TRO and preliminary injunction are improper remedies to transfer possession of one property to another whose title has not been clearly established; and (2) for failure to decide the Motion for Reconsideration within a period of 30 days as required by the rules and jurisprudence.

 

In Spec. Proc. No. 7101

 

Petitioner Noel P.E.M. Schellekens (petitioner Noel) filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus on 19 August 2009. The next day, respondents Aris Caesar B. Servillas, P/S, Supt. David Y. Ombao, Denelito G. Glico, Alexis E. Espojona, and Rosemarie Catelo testified during the hearing. On 21 August 2009, which was a holiday, respondent judge issued an Order for the release of petitioner Noel upon finding that the latter was unlawfully arrested. The Order was implemented on the same day.

 

Relative to this case, complainants charge respondent judge of: (1) gross ignorance of procedure and undue interference in the administrative functions of the Bureau of Immigration by ordering the release of the expired passport of petitioner Noel, and by preparing the said Order outside of the court’s premises because it was not single-spaced and did not have a stamp by the Clerk of Court as received; and (2) violating Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct due to his friendly greeting to petitioner Noel and for acting as counsel for the latter by propounding questions on the respondents during their testimonies.

 

In Civil Case No. 7065

 

On 3 August 2009, defendant Philex-Lascogon Mining Corporation filed a Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint filed by plaintiffs Heirs of Alcaraz on the ground of lack of jurisdiction. The plaintiffs Heirs of Alcaraz submitted their Opposition dated 17 August 2009 and their 2nd Amended Complaint dated 26 August 2009. However, it was only on 20 September 2010 that respondent Judge issued an Order denying the Motion to Dismiss. Accordingly, complainants claim that respondent judge should be held guilty of gross inefficiency and of violating the Code of Judicial Conduct for his undue delay in resolving a simple Motion to Dismiss.

 

As their final charge, complainants aver that respondent judge is guilty of tardiness and inefficiency in trying cases before his branch. Complainants state that respondent judge usually starts the hearing between 9:45 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. in violation of the Supreme Court Circular.

 

In his Comment with Counter-Charge dated 5 November 2010, respondent judge preliminarily states that complainant Atty. Medina is neither a counsel nor a party litigant in Spec. Proc. No. 7101 and Civil Case No. 7065; thus, he has no interest to question perceived irregularities relative to these cases. With respect to Atty. Servillas, he is neither a counsel nor a party-in-interest in any of the cases mentioned in the complaint.

 

Relative to Civil Case No. 7077, respondent judge claims that he issued the TRO and preliminary injunction judiciously and without bad faith or irregularity. He argues that he resolved cases based on the merits of the case and if there was indeed error, it merely constitutes an error of judgment. Respondent judge further states that the alleged error was already aptly corrected by Judge Bayana’s reversal. Regarding the alleged delay in the resolution of the Motion for Reconsideration, respondent judge defends himself by explaining that the Motion was not submitted for resolution. Respondent judge argues that respondent spouses’ lawyer (complainant Atty. Medina) failed to file a responsive pleading to the Opposition to Motion for Reconsideration and that the hearing of the Motion was further reset to 12 March 2010.

 

As for Spec. Proc. No. 7101, respondent judge argues that it is already subject of an earlier complaint filed by Cristita C. Vda. de Tolibas against him. With respect to Civil Case No. 7065, respondent judge states that the Motion to Dismiss was already resolved.

 

On the charge of tardiness and inefficiency, respondent judge attached the: (1) 21 October 2010 Joint Affidavit of Prosecutor Maureen Chua and Atty. Jose Begil, Jr.; and (2) 21 October 2010 affidavit of Court Legal Researcher Peter John Tremedal explaining the reasons for the delay of the hearing. In Tremedal’s Affidavit, he states that respondent judge instructed him to convene the counsels first, and to ensure their attendance before respondent judge starts the hearing. In conclusion, respondent judge asserts that the malicious filing of the baseless complaint was conduct unbecoming officers of the court for which complainants must be held accountable.

 

In their Rejoinder and Answer to Counter-Charge dated 1 December 2010, complainants reiterate their arguments in the Complaint. In the first case, they emphasize that respondent judge deliberately failed to resolve the Motion for Reconsideration. On the second, complainants argue that the pendency of the Tolibas administrative complaint cannot divest the Supreme Court of its jurisdiction to review the actions of respondent judge, more so in the light of new allegations supported by judicial records. As for respondent Judge’s alleged tardiness and inefficiency, complainants point out that the joint affidavit of Prosecutor Chua and Atty. Bejil, Jr. merely pertained to one particular day. As answer to respondent judge’s Counter-Charge, complainants denied the allegation for lack of factual and legal basis.

 

The OCA’s Report and Recommendation

 

In its Report dated 18 July 2011, the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) found respondent judge guilty of undue delay in rendering an order but dismissed the charges of gross ignorance of the law and gross misconduct for being judicial in nature and for lack of merit.

 

In its evaluation, the OCA preliminarily states that in administrative proceedings it is immaterial whether or not the complainant himself or herself has a cause of action against the respondent.

 

On the charge of gross ignorance of the law, the OCA held that respondent judge committed an error of judgment for which he may not be administratively held liable in the absence of bad faith, malice or corrupt purpose. As to the issue of undue delay in resolving the Motion for Reconsideration, the OCA likewise held it unmeritorious because the motion was not submitted for resolution in view of the resetting of its hearing.

 

As for the charges relating to Spec. Proc. No. 7101, the OCA found that the issues raised by complainant may be best resolved in another pending case against respondent judge (OCA IPI No. 09-3254-TRJ) except the alleged violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct for acting as counsel for the petitioner. The OCA also found the charges of tardiness and inefficiency bereft of merit because Tremedal’s Affidavit explained the reason for the late hearing.

 

On the other hand, the OCA held that respondent judge is guilty of undue delay in resolving the Motion to Dismiss in violation of the 1987 Constitution. Since it was respondent judge’s first administrative offense, the OCA considered it as a mitigating circumstance. The OCA recommended a fine of P5,000 with a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar act shall be dealt with more severely.

 

This Court, in a Resolution dated 5 October 2011, re-docketed administrative complaint OCA-IPI No. 10-3514-RTJ as regular administrative matter A.M. No. RTJ-11-2298.

 

The Court’s Ruling

 

We are partially in accord with the OCA’s findings and recommendation.

To settle the issue on complainant’s cause of action, the OCA correctly observed that complainants may file the present administrative complaint against respondent judge. As the Court held in LBC Bank Vigan Branch v. Guzman,1 the objective in administrative cases is the preservation of the integrity and competence of the Judiciary by policing its ranks and enforcing discipline among its erring employees.

 

However, on the charge of gross ignorance of the law, we find respondent judge guilty of the charge.

 

Well-settled is the rule that an injunction cannot be issued to transfer possession or control of a property to another when the legal title is in dispute between the parties and the legal title has not been clearly established.2 In this case, respondent judge evidently disregarded this established doctrine applied in numerous cases when it granted the preliminary injunction in favor of Pagels whose legal title is disputed. When the law involved is simple and elementary, lack of conversance with it constitutes gross ignorance of the law.3 Gross ignorance of the law is the disregard of basic rules and settled jurisprudence.4

 

Respondent judge should have been more cautious in issuing writs of preliminary injunctions because as consistently held these writs are strong arms of equity which must be issued with great deliberation.”5 In Fortune Life Insurance Co., Inc. v. Luczon,6 the Court held the judge guilty of gross ignorance of the law when he failed to conduct a hearing prior to issuance of an injunction in violation of the Rules of Court. It was further emphasized in Zuño v. Cabredo,7 where it was held that the act of respondent in issuing the TRO to enjoin the Bureau of Customs and its officials from detaining the subject shipment amounted to gross ignorance of the law.

 

A judge may also be administratively liable if shown to have been motivated by bad faith, fraud, dishonesty or corruption in ignoring, contradicting or failing to apply settled law and jurisprudence.8 In the present case, the following compounded circumstances manifest bad faith on the part of respondent judge: (1) in his Comment with Counter-Charge, respondent judge states that he decided after the parties submitted their position papers, but his Order dated 11 August 2009 indicates that respondent spouses did not file their position paper and the hearing of the Affirmative Defense was still set on 18 August 2009; (2) respondent judge’s Order patently shows facts not entitling Pagels to the preliminary injunction but respondent judge still issued it; and (3) respondent judge did not require petitioner Pagels to put up a bond without sufficient justification or showing of exemption.

 

The error is magnified by respondent judge’s delay in resolving the Motion for Reconsideration through the following subsequent acts: (1) he set the hearing of the Motion for Reconsideration dated 1 September 2009 on 5 October 2009 contrary to the rule providing that the “hearing x x x must not be later than 10 days after the filing of the motion”;9 (2) on 18 November 2009, respondent judge reset the hearing from 16 November 2009 to 12 March 2010; and (3) he failed to resolve the said Motion despite the non-filing of a responsive pleading to the Opposition on the Motion for Reconsideration considering that it is not an indispensable pleading for resolution and the rules provide that “a motion for reconsideration shall be resolved within thirty days from the time it is submitted for resolution.”10

 

Indeed, when the inefficiency springs from a failure to consider so basic and elemental a rule, a law or a principle in the discharge of his functions, a judge is either too incompetent and undeserving of the position and title he holds or he is too vicious that the oversight or omission was deliberately done in bad faith and in grave abuse of judicial authority.11

 

Relative to Spec. Proc. No 7101, respondent judge filed a Manifestation dated 2 September 2011 annexing this Court’s Resolution dated 13 June 2011 dismissing the case against respondent judge filed by Cristita Conjurado Vda. De Tolibas. In the Resolution, we adopted the OCA’s evaluation, to wit: (1) respondent judge validly issued the writ of habeas corpus on a holiday, in accord with the Section 2, Rule 102 of the Rules of Court; and (2) the assailed Order was not issued to assist petitioner Noel in evading the crime of parricide. It is because the said Resolution did not address the issues in this Complaint that we modify the findings of the OCA and rule upon the allegations of complainants.

 

On the charge of violation of Canon 1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, we find the same bereft of merit. A judge may properly intervene in the presentation of evidence to expedite and prevent unnecessary waste of time and clarify obscure and incomplete details in the course of the testimony of the witness.12 In City of Cebu v. Gako,13 the Court finds nothing irregular when respondent judge unduly arrogated unto himself the duty of a counsel by calling a witness to the stand and conducting the latter’s direct testimony even if the respective counsels were not interested or did not intend to present said person as their witness. Here, the records show that respondent judge merely propounded questions to elicit relevant facts from the witness respondents. The Transcript of Stenographic Notes, by itself, was not sufficient to show bias or partiality. It has been held that the Court has to be shown acts or conduct of the judge clearly indicative of arbitrariness or prejudice before the latter can be branded the stigma of being biased and partial.14

 

On the charge of gross ignorance of procedure and undue interference in the administrative functions of the Bureau of Immigration, complainants failed to prove the charge with substantial evidence. In administrative proceedings, complainants have the burden of proving by substantial evidence the allegations in their complaints.15 Mere accusations or surmises will not suffice. In the absence of contrary evidence, what will prevail is the presumption that the respondent judge has regularly performed his duties.16

 

On the charge of tardiness and inefficiency, we find the same likewise without merit. Without evidence as to their truthfulness or veracity, the allegations in the Complaint filed by complainants remain mere allegations and do not rise to the dignity of proof.

 

On the charge of undue delay in resolving the Motion to Dismiss, we adopt the recommendation of the OCA that respondent judge is guilty of the charge and should be fined P5,000. Respondent judge resolved the said Motion after more than a year and only after the filing of the instant complaint. Failure to decide cases and other matters within the reglementary period of ninety (90) days constitutes gross inefficiency and warrants the imposition of administrative sanction against the erring magistrate.17 This is not only a blatant transgression of the Constitution but also of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which enshrines the significant duty of magistrates to decide cases promptly. Canon 6, Section 5 of the Code provides that “judges shall perform all judicial duties including the delivery of reserved decisions efficiently, fairly and with reasonable promptness. ”

 

Under Rule 140 of the Revised Rules of Court, as amended, gross ignorance of the law is a serious charge punishable by either: (1) dismissal from the service, forfeiture of all or part of the benefits as the Court may determine, and disqualification from reinstatement or appointment to any public office, including government-owned and controlled corporation; or (2) suspension from office without salary and other benefits for more than three but not exceeding six months; or (3) a fine of more than P20,000 but not exceeding P40,000 while undue delay in rendering a decision or order is a less serious charge punishable by either (1) suspension from office without salary and other benefits for not less than one nor more than three months; or (2) a fine of more than P10,000 but not exceeding P20,000.

Accordingly, we impose a fine of P25,000 for the charge of gross ignorance of the law, taking into account that in a previous case respondent judge had been sanctioned.18

 

WHEREFORE, we find respondent Judge Victor A. Canoy GUILTY of GROSS IGNORANCE OF THE LAW and UNDUE DELAY in rendering a decision and accordingly fine him Thirty Thousand Pesos (P30,000). He is STERNLY WARNED that a repetition of similar or analogous infractions in the future shall be dealt with more severely. The other charges are hereby dismissed.

 

SO ORDERED.

 

 

 

 

ANTONIO T. CARPIO

Associate Justice

 

 

WE CONCUR:

 

 

 

MARTIN S. VILLARAMA, JR.

Associate Justice

 

 

JOSE PORTUGAL PEREZ MARIA LOURDES P. A. SERENO

Associate Justice Associate Justice

 

 

 

 

BIENVENIDO L. REYES

Associate Justice

 

 

 

* Designated Acting Member per Special Order No. 1195 dated 15 February 2012.

1 A.M. No. P-06-2270, 6 December 2006, 510 SCRA 28.

2Cortez-Estrada v. Heirs of Samut, 491 Phil. 458 (2005); Borbajo v. Hidden View Homeowners, Inc., 490 Phil. 724 (2005); Almeida v. Court of Appeals, 489 Phil. 648 (2005); Acting Registrars of Land Titles and Deeds v. Judge Velez, 263 Phil. 568 (1990) citing Philippine National Bank v. Adil, 203 Phil. 492 (1982); Mara, Inc. v. Judge Estrella, 160 Phil. 490 (1975); Pio v. Marcos, Nos. L-27849 and 34432, 30 April 1970, 56 SCRA 726; Coronado v. Court of First Instance of Rizal, 96 Phil. 729 (1955); Villadores v. Encarnacion, 95 Phil. 913 (1954); Wagan v. Sideco, 60 Phil. 685 (1934); Santos v. De Leon, 60 Phil. 573 (1934); Rustia v. Franco, 41 Phil. 280 (1920); Liongson. v. Martinez, 36 Phil. 948 (1917); Golding v. Balatbat, 36 Phil. 941 (1917); Asombra v. Dorado, 36 Phil. 883 (1917).

3 Republic v. Judge Caguioa, A.M. No. RTJ-07-2063, 26 June 2009, 591 SCRA 51.

4 Zuño v. Cabredo, 450 Phil. 89 (2003).

5 Rualo v. Pitargue, G.R. No. 140284, 21 January 2005, 449 SCRA 121 citing Manila Int’l. Airport Authority v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 118249, 14 February 2003, 397 SCRA 348.

6 A.M. No. RTJ-05-1901, 30 November 2006, 509 SCRA 65.

7 Supra.

8 Judge Cabatingan, Sr. v. Judge Arcueno, 436 Phil. 341 (2002).

9 Rules of court, Rule 15, Section 5.

10 Id., Rule 37, Sec. 4.

11 Republic v. Judge Caguioa, supra note 3.

12 Dela Cruz v. Judge Carretas, A.M. No. RTJ-07-2043, 5 September 2007, 532 SCRA 218.

13 A.M. No. RTJ-08-2111, 7 May 2008, 554 SCRA 15.

14 Monticalbo v. Maraya, Jr. A.M. No. RTJ-09-2197, 13 April 2011, 648 SCRA 573 citing Balsamo v. Judge Suan, A.M. No. RTJ-01-1656, 17, September 2003, 411 SCRA 189.

15 Araos v. Judge Luna-Pison, 428 Phil. 290 (2002).

16 Id.

17 Visbal v. Busban, 443 Phil. 705 (2003).

18 Pantillo III v. Canoy, A.M. No. RTJ-11-2262, 9 February 2011, 642 SCRA 301.