Republic of the Philippines
Supreme Court
Manila

SECOND DIVISION

 

CRESENCIO C. MILLA,

                                Petitioner,

 

 

 

               - versus -

 

 

 

 

PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES and MARKET PURSUITS, INC. represented by CARLO V. LOPEZ,

                          Respondents.

G.R. No.  188726

 

Present:

 

CARPIO, J.,

         Chairperson,

PEREZ,

SERENO,

REYES, and

PERLAS-BERNABE,* JJ.

 

Promulgated:        

 

January 25, 2012

 

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

 

D E C I S I O N

SERENO, J.:

This is a Petition for Certiorari assailing the 22 April 2009 Decision[1] and 8 July 2009 Resolution[2] of the Court of Appeals, affirming the Decision of the trial court finding petitioner Cresencio C. Milla (Milla) guilty of two counts of estafa through falsification of public documents.

          Respondent Carlo Lopez (Lopez) was the Financial Officer of private respondent, Market Pursuits, Inc. (MPI). In March 2003, Milla represented himself as a real estate developer from Ines Anderson Development Corporation, which was engaged in selling business properties in Makati, and offered to sell MPI a property therein located. For this purpose, he
showed Lopez a photocopy of Transfer Certificate of Title (TCT) No. 216445 registered in the name of spouses Farley and Jocelyn Handog (Sps. Handog), as well as a Special Power of Attorney purportedly executed by the spouses in favor of Milla.[3] Lopez verified with the Registry of Deeds of Makati and confirmed that the property was indeed registered under the names of Sps. Handog. Since Lopez was convinced by Milla’s authority, MPI purchased the property for P2 million, issuing Security Bank and Trust Co. (SBTC) Check No. 154670 in the amount of P1.6 million. After receiving the check, Milla gave Lopez (1) a notarized Deed of Absolute Sale dated 25 March 2003 executed by Sps. Handog in favor of MPI and (2) an original Owner’s Duplicate Copy of TCT No. 216445.[4]

Milla then gave Regino Acosta (Acosta), Lopez’s partner, a copy of the new Certificate of Title to the property, TCT No. 218777, registered in the name of MPI. Thereafter, it tendered in favor of Milla SBTC Check No. 15467111 in the amount of P400,000 as payment for the balance.[5]

Milla turned over TCT No. 218777 to Acosta, but did not furnish the latter with the receipts for the transfer taxes and other costs incurred in the transfer of the property. This failure to turn over the receipts prompted Lopez to check with the Register of Deeds, where he discovered that (1) the Certificate of Title given to them by Milla could not be found therein; (2) there was no transfer of the property from Sps. Handog to MPI; and (3) TCT No. 218777 was registered in the name of a certain Matilde M. Tolentino.[6]

Consequently, Lopez demanded the return of the amount of P2 million from Milla, who then issued Equitable PCI Check Nos. 188954 and 188955 dated 20 and 23 May 2003, respectively, in the amount of P1 million each. However, these checks were dishonored for having been drawn against insufficient funds. When Milla ignored the demand letter sent by Lopez, the latter, by virtue of the authority vested in him by the MPI Board of Directors, filed a Complaint against the former on 4 August 2003. On 27 and 29 October 2003, two Informations for Estafa Thru Falsification of Public Documents were filed against Milla and were raffled to the Regional Trial Court, National Capital Judicial Region, Makati City, Branch 146 (RTC Br. 146).[7] Milla was accused of having committed estafa through the falsification of the notarized Deed of Absolute Sale and TCT No. 218777 purportedly issued by the Register of Deeds of Makati, viz:

 

CRIMINAL CASE NO. 034167

 

That on or about the 25th day of March 2003, in the City of Makati, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, a private individual, did then and there, wilfully, unlawfully and feloniously falsify a document denomindated as “Deed of Absolute Sale”, duly notarized by Atty. Lope M. Velasco, a Notary Public for and in the City of Makati, denominated as Doc. No. 297, Page No. 61, Book No. 69, Series of 2003 in his Notarial Register, hence, a public document, by causing it to appear that the registered owners of the property covered by TCT No. 216445 have sold their land to complainant Market Pursuits, Inc. when in truth and in fact the said Deed of Absolute Sale was not executed by the owners thereof and after the document was falsified, accused, with intent to defraud complainant Market Pursuits, Inc. presented the falsified Deed of Sale to complainant, herein represented by Carlo V. Lopez, and complainant believing in the genuineness of the Deed of Absolute Sale paid accused the amount of P1,600,000.00 as partial payment for the property, to the damage and prejudice of complainant in the aforementioned amount of P1,600,000.00

           

CONTRARY TO LAW.

           

CRIMINAL CASE NO. 034168

 

            That on or about the 3rd day of April 2003, in the City of Makati, Philippines and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, a private individual, did then and there wilfully, unlawfully and feloniously falsify a document denominated as Transfer Certificate of Title No. 218777 purportedly issued by the Register of Deeds of Makati City, hence, a public document, by causing it to appear that the lot covered by TCT No. 218777 was already registered in the name of complainant Market Pursuits, Inc., herein represented by Carlo V. Lopez, when in truth and in fact, as said accused well knew that the Register of Deeds of Makati did not issue TCT No. 218777 in the name of Market Pursuits Inc., and after the document was falsified, accused with
intent to defraud complainant and complainant believing in the genuineness of Transfer Certificate of Title No. 218777 paid accused the amount of P400,000.00, to the damage and prejudice of complainant in the aforementioned amount of P4000,000.00 (sic).

           

CONTRARY TO LAW.[8]

 

After the prosecution rested its case, Milla filed, with leave of court, his Demurrer to Evidence.[9] In its Order dated 26 January 2006, RTC Br. 146 denied the demurrer and ordered him to present evidence, but he failed to do so despite having been granted ample opportunity.[10] Though the court considered his right to present evidence to have been consequently waived, it nevertheless allowed him to file a memorandum.[11]

In its Joint Decision dated 28 November 2006,[12] RTC Br. 146 found Milla guilty beyond reasonable doubt of two counts of estafa through falsification of public documents, thus:

 

WHEREFORE, judgment is rendered finding the accused Cresencio Milla guilty beyond reasonable doubt of two (2) counts of estafa through falsification of public documents. Applying the indeterminate sentence law and considering that the amount involved is more than P22,000,00 this Court should apply the provision that an additional one (1) year should be imposed for every ten thousand (P10,000.00) pesos in excess of P22,000.00, thus, this Court is constrained to impose the Indeterminate (sic) penalty of four (4) years, two (2) months one (1) day of prision correccional as minimum to twenty (20) years of reclusion temporal as maximum for each count.

 

Accused is adjudged to be civilly liable to the private complainant and is ordered pay (sic) complainant the total amount of TWO MILLION (P2,000,000.00) PESOS with legal rate of interest from the filing of the Information until the same is fully paid and to pay the costs. He is further ordered to pay attorney’s fees equivalent to ten (10%) of the total amount due as and for attorney’s fees. A lien on the monetary award is constituted in favor of the government, the private complainant not having paid the required docket fee prior to the filing of the Information.

 

SO ORDERED.[13]

On appeal, the Court of Appeals, in the assailed Decision dated 22 April 2009, affirmed the findings of the trial court.[14] In its assailed Resolution dated 8 July 2009, it also denied Milla’s subsequent Motion for Reconsideration.[15]

In the instant Petition, Milla alleges that the Decision and the Resolution of the Court of Appeals were not in accordance with law and jurisprudence. He raises the following issues:

I.                   Whether the case should be reopened on the ground of negligence of counsel;

II.                Whether the principle of novation is applicable;

III.             Whether the principle of simple loan is applicable;

IV.            Whether the Secretary’s Certificate presented by the prosecution is admissible in evidence;

V.               Whether the supposed inconsistent statements of prosecution witnesses cast a doubt on the guilt of petitioner.[16]

          In its Comment, MPI argues that (1) Milla was not deprived of due process on the ground of gross negligence of counsel; (2) under the Revised Penal Code, novation is not one of the grounds for the extinction of criminal liability for estafa; and (3) factual findings of the trial court, when affirmed by the Court of Appeals, are final and conclusive.[17]

          On the other hand, in its Comment, the Office of the Solicitor General contends that (1) Milla was accorded due process of law; (2) the elements of the crime charged against him were established during trial; (3) novation is not a ground for extinction of criminal liability for estafa; (4) the money received by Milla from Lopez was not in the nature of a simple loan or cash advance; and (5) Lopez was duly authorized by MPI to institute the action.[18]

          In his Consolidated Reply, Milla reiterates that the negligence of his former counsel warrants a reopening of the case, wherein he can present evidence to prove that his transaction with MPI was in the nature of a simple loan.[19]

          In the disposition of this case, the following issues must be resolved:

I.                   Whether the negligence of counsel deprived Milla of due process of law

II.                Whether the principle of novation can exculpate Milla from criminal liability

III.             Whether the factual findings of the trial court, as affirmed by the appellate court, should be reviewed on appeal

          We resolve to deny the Petition.

 

Milla was not deprived of due process.

          Milla argues that the negligence of his former counsel, Atty. Manuel V. Mendoza (Atty. Mendoza), deprived him of due process. Specifically, he states that after the prosecution had rested its case, Atty. Mendoza filed a Demurrer to Evidence, and that the former was never advised by the latter of the demurrer. Thus, Milla was purportedly surprised to discover that RTC Br. 146 had already rendered judgment finding him guilty, and that it had issued a warrant for his arrest. Atty. Mendoza filed an Omnibus Motion for Leave to File Motion for New Trial, which Milla claims to have been denied by the trial court for being an inappropriate remedy, thus, demonstrating his counsel’s negligence. These contentions cannot be given any merit.

          The general rule is that the mistake of a counsel binds the client, and it is only in instances wherein the negligence is so gross or palpable that courts must step in to grant relief to the aggrieved client.[20] In this case, Milla was able to file a Demurrer to Evidence, and upon the trial court’s denial thereof, was allowed to present evidence.[21] Because of his failure to do so, RTC Br. 146 was justified in considering that he had waived his right thereto. Nevertheless, the trial court still allowed him to submit a memorandum in the interest of justice. Further, contrary to his assertion that RTC Br. 146 denied the Motion to Recall Warrant of Arrest thereafter filed by his former counsel, a reading of the 2 August 2007 Order of RTC Br. 146 reveals that it partially denied the Omnibus Motion for New Trial and Recall of Warrant of Arrest, but granted the Motion for Leave of Court to Avail of Remedies under the Rules of Court, allowing him to file an appeal and lifting his warrant of arrest.[22]

          It can be gleaned from the foregoing circumstances that Milla was given opportunities to defend his case and was granted concomitant reliefs. Thus, it cannot be said that the mistake and negligence of his former counsel were so gross and palpable to have deprived him of due process.

 

The principle of novation cannot be applied to the case at bar.

          Milla contends that his issuance of Equitable PCI Check Nos. 188954 and 188955 before the institution of the criminal complaint against him novated his obligation to MPI, thereby enabling him to avoid any incipient criminal liability and converting his obligation into a purely civil one. This argument does not persuade.

          The principles of novation cannot apply to the present case as to extinguish his criminal liability. Milla cites People v. Nery[23] to support his


contention that his issuance of the Equitable PCI checks prior to the filing of the criminal complaint averted his incipient criminal liability. However, it must be clarified that mere payment of an obligation before the institution of a criminal complaint does not, on its own, constitute novation that may prevent criminal liability. This Court’s ruling in Nery in fact warned:

 

It may be observed in this regard that novation is not one of the means recognized by the Penal Code whereby criminal liability can be extinguished; hence, the role of novation may only be to either prevent the rise of criminal liability or to cast doubt on the true nature of the original petition, whether or not it was such that its breach would not give rise to penal responsibility, as when money loaned is made to appear as a deposit, or other similar disguise is resorted to (cf. Abeto vs. People, 90 Phil. 581; Villareal, 27 Phil. 481).

 

Even in Civil Law the acceptance of partial payments, without further change in the original relation between the complainant and the accused, can not produce novation. For the latter to exist, there must be proof of intent to extinguish the original relationship, and such intent can not be inferred from the mere acceptance of payments on account of what is totally due. Much less can it be said that the acceptance of partial satisfaction can effect the nullification of a criminal liability that is fully matured, and already in the process of enforcement. Thus, this Court has ruled that the offended party’s acceptance of a promissory note for all or part of the amount misapplied does not obliterate the criminal offense (Camus vs. Court of Appeals, 48 Off. Gaz. 3898).[24] (Emphasis supplied.)

 

          Further, in Quinto v. People,[25] this Court exhaustively explained the concept of novation in relation to incipient criminal liability, viz:

 

Novation is never presumed, and the animus novandi, whether totally or partially, must appear by express agreement of the parties, or by their acts that are too clear and unequivocal to be mistaken. 

 

The extinguishment of the old obligation by the new one is a necessary element of novation which may be effected either expressly or impliedly. The term “expressly” means that the contracting parties incontrovertibly disclose that their object in executing the new contract is to extinguish the old one. Upon the other hand, no specific form is required for an implied novation, and all that is prescribed by law would be an incompatibility between the two contracts. While there is really no hard and fast rule to determine what might constitute to be a sufficient change that can bring about novation, the touchstone for contrariety, however, would be an irreconcilable incompatibility between the old and the new obligations.            

 

There are two ways which could indicate, in fine, the presence of novation and thereby produce the effect of extinguishing an obligation by another which substitutes the same. The first is when novation has been explicitly stated and declared in unequivocal terms. The second is when the old and the new obligations are incompatible on every point. The test of incompatibility is whether or not the two obligations can stand together, each one having its independent existence. If they cannot, they are incompatible and the latter obligation novates the first. Corollarily, changes that breed incompatibility must be essential in nature and not merely accidental. The incompatibility must take place in any of the essential elements of the obligation, such as its object, cause or principal conditions thereof; otherwise, the change would be merely modificatory in nature and insufficient to extinguish the original obligation.

 

The changes alluded to by petitioner consists only in the manner of payment. There was really no substitution of debtors since private complainant merely acquiesced to the payment but did not give her consent to enter into a new contract. The appellate court observed:

xxx                              xxx                              xxx

 

The acceptance by complainant of partial payment tendered by the buyer, Leonor Camacho, does not evince the intention of the complainant to have their agreement novated. It was simply necessitated by the fact that, at that time, Camacho had substantial accounts payable to complainant, and because of the fact that appellant made herself scarce to complainant. (TSN, April 15, 1981, 31-32) Thus, to obviate the situation where complainant would end up with nothing, she was forced to receive the tender of Camacho. Moreover, it is to be noted that the aforesaid payment was for the purchase, not of the jewelry subject of this case, but of some other jewelry subject of a previous transaction. (Ibid. June 8, 1981, 10-11) 

 

xxx                              xxx                              xxx

 

Art. 315 of the Revised Penal Code defines estafa and penalizes any person who shall defraud another by “misappropriating or converting, to the prejudice of another, money, goods, or any other personal property received by the offender in trust or on commission, or for administration, or under any other obligation involving the duty to make delivery of or to return the same, even though such obligation be totally or partially guaranteed by a bond; or by denying having received such money, goods, or other property. It is axiomatic that the gravamen of the offense is the appropriation or conversion of money or property received to the prejudice of the owner. The terms “convert” and “misappropriate” have been held to connote “an act of using or disposing of another’s property as if it were one’s own or devoting it to a purpose or use different from that agreed upon.” The phrase, “to misappropriate to one’s own use” has been said to include “not only conversion to one’s personal advantage, but also every attempt to dispose of the property of another without right. Verily, the sale of the pieces of jewelry on installments (sic) in contravention of the explicit terms of the authority granted to her in Exhibit “A” (supra) is deemed to be one of conversion. Thus, neither the theory of “delay in the fulfillment of commission” nor that of novation posed by petitioner, can avoid the incipient criminal liability. In People vs. Nery, this Court held:

 

xxx                              xxx                              xxx

 

The criminal liability for estafa already committed is then not affected by the subsequent novation of contract, for it is a public offense which must be prosecuted and punished by the State in its own conation. (Emphasis supplied.)[26]

         

          In the case at bar, the acceptance by MPI of the Equitable PCI checks tendered by Milla could not have novated the original transaction, as the checks were only intended to secure the return of the P2 million the former had already given him. Even then, these checks bounced and were thus unable to satisfy his liability. Moreover, the estafa involved here was not for simple misappropriation or conversion, but was committed through Milla’s falsification of public documents, the liability for which cannot be extinguished by mere novation.

 

The Court of Appeals was correct in affirming the trial court’s finding of guilt.

          Finally, Milla assails the factual findings of the trial court. Suffice it to say that factual findings of the trial court, especially when affirmed by the appellate court, are binding on and accorded great respect by this Court.[27]

          There was no reversible error on the part of the Court of Appeals when it affirmed the finding of the trial court that Milla was guilty beyond reasonable doubt of the offense of estafa through falsification of public documents. The prosecution was able to prove the existence of all the elements of the crime charged. The relevant provisions of the Revised Penal Code read:

 

Art. 172. Falsification by private individual and use of falsified documents. – The penalty of prision correccional in its medium and maximum periods and a fine of not more than 5,000 shall be imposed upon:

 

1.                  Any private individual who shall commit any of the falsification enumerated in the next preceding article in any public or official document or letter of exchange or any other kind of commercial document

 

xxx                              xxx                              xxx

 

Art. 315. Swindling (estafa). – Any person who shall defraud another by any of the means mentioned hereinbelow shall be punished by:

 

xxx                              xxx                              xxx

 

2. By means of any of the following false pretenses or fraudulent acts executed prior to or simultaneously with the commission of the fraud:

 

(a) By using a fictitious name, or falsely pretending to possess power, influence, qualifications, property, credit, agency, business or imaginary transactions; or by means of other similar deceits.

 

xxx                              xxx                              xxx

 

          It was proven during trial that Milla misrepresented himself to have the authority to sell the subject property, and it was precisely this misrepresentation that prompted MPI to purchase it. Because of its reliance on his authority and on the falsified Deed of Absolute Sale and TCT No. 218777, MPI parted with its money in the amount of P2 million, which has not been returned until now despite Milla’s allegation of novation. Clearly, he is guilty beyond reasonable doubt of estafa through falsification of public documents.

WHEREFORE, we resolve to DENY the Petition. The assailed Decision and Resolution of the Court of Appeals are hereby AFFIRMED.

          SO ORDERED.

 

 

 

 

 

MARIA LOURDES P. A. SERENO

Associate Justice


 

 

 

 

WE CONCUR:

 

 

 

 

ANTONIO T. CARPIO

Associate Justice

Chairperson

 

 

 

 

 

JOSE PORTUGAL PEREZ

        Associate Justice

BIENVENIDO L. REYES

        Associate Justice

 

 

 

         

                                  

                      ESTELA M. PERLAS-BERNABE                         

                  Associate Justice

 

 

ATTESTATION

I attest that the conclusions in the above Decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the Opinion of the Court’s Division.

 

                                                  ANTONIO T. CARPIO

                                                                   Associate Justice

                                                         Chairperson, Second Division

 


 

 

CERTIFICATION

 

Pursuant to Section 13, Article VIII of the Constitution, and the Division Chairperson’s Attestation, I certify that the conclusions in the above decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Court’s Division.

 

 

                                               RENATO C. CORONA

                                                         Chief Justice

 

 



* Designated as Acting Member of the Second Division vice Associate Justice Arturo D. Brion per Special Order No. 1174 dated 9 January 2012.

1 Rollo, pp. 47-60; penned by Court of Appeals Associate Justice Juan Enriquez, Jr. and concurred in by Associate Justices Monina Arevalo Zenarosa and Myrna Dimaranan Vidal.

2 Rollo, pp. 62-63.

4 Court of Appeals Decision dated 22 April 2009 (“CA Decision”); rollo, p. 50.

[4] Id. at 51.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 52.

[8] Id. at 48-50.

[9] Joint Decision dated 28 November 2006 (“Joint Decision”); rollo, pp. 39-45.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 45.

[14] CA Decision, rollo, pp. 47-60.

[15] Court of Appeals Resolution dated 8 July 2009, rollo, pp. 62-63.

[16] Petition dated 11 August 2009 (“Petition”), pp. 9-10; rollo, pp. 20-21.

[17] Comment dated 16 November 2009, rollo, pp. 119-133.

[18] Comment dated 22 January 2010, rollo, pp. 137-156.

[19] Consolidated Reply dated 6 October 2010, rollo, pp. 179-184.

[20] Torres v. China Banking Corporation, G.R. No. 165408, 15 January 2010, 610 SCRA 134, 145.

[21] Petition, p. 6; rollo, p. 17.

[22] Rollo, pp.106-108.

[23] 119 Phil 505 (1964).

[24] Id. 247-248.

[25] 365 Phil 259 (1999).

[26] Id. at 267-268, 270-271.

[27] People v. Obina, G.R. No. 186540, 14 April 2010, 618 SCRA 276, 280-28.