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Welcome to the Supreme Court of the Philippines
Welcome to the Supreme Court of the Philippines
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SC Reminds Manning Industry on Period for Final Medical Assessment and Referral to a..

The Supreme Court reminded the manning industry to strictly observe the required period in giving final medical assessment in connection with disability claims, and the mandatory procedure on the referral to a third doctor in cases of conflict between the medical opinions of the company-designated physician and the seafarer’s chosen physician.

These reminders were articulated by the Court in a Decision penned by Chief Justice Alexander G. Gesmundo that denied the appeal by certiorari of a shipping firm and affirmed with modification the rulings of the Court of Appeals (CA) that ordered the former employers of a seafarer to pay him total and permanent disability benefits.

Benhur Shipping Corporation (BSC)/Sun Marine Shipping S.A. (SMS) and Edgar B. Bruselas sought to reverse and set aside the rulings of the CA which, in turn, annulled and set aside the July 16, 2015 Decision of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) and granted total disability benefits to respondent Alex P. Riego. The NLRC upheld the February 27, 2015 Decision of the Labor Arbiter (LA) which partially granted respondent’s claim for disability benefits and ordered the petitioners to pay respondent Riego the total amount of US$7,465.00 pursuant to Grade 11 Disability Assessment – 1/3 loss of lifting power as determined by the company designated physician plus 10% attorney’s fees.

On October 8, 2013, BSC engaged Riego’s work as Chief Cook on board the vessel MV Hikari I, an ocean-going vessel of its foreign principal, SMS.

On the first week of December 2013, Riego suffered from abdominal and lower back pain while on board the vessel. After he was examined by a doctor in Thailand and given medications, he was recommended for repatriation for further medical evaluation. Riego returned to the Philippines on December 15, 2013 and was endorsed by BSC to Marine Medical Services wherein he was attended to by the company-designated physician, for further medical care and treatment.

On December 16, 2013, the company-designated physician issued the first Medical Report stating that Riego was referred to a gastro-enterologist and orthopedic surgeon. The specialist recommended that Riego undergo laboratory exam, gastroscopy, ultrasound of the whole abdomen and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, of the lumbosacral spine. He was requested to come back the following day for reevaluation.

Subsequently, the company-designated physician issued four more Medical Reports until the same issued the final Medical Report on May 26, 2014, stating that on follow-up check-up, Riego still complained of lower back pain radiating to the left lower extremity with no significant improvement with physical therapy, and there was still sensory deficit on his left leg. The company-designated physician further stated that if respondent is entitled to disability benefits, his final disability grading under the POEA schedule of disabilities remains at Grade 11 – 1/3 loss of lifting power. The same issued on May 30, 2014 a certification that Riego “has under medical/surgical evaluation treatment from Dec. 16, 2013 to present due to Hiatal Hernia; L4-L5, L5-S1 Disc Bulge.”

Riego consulted a physician of his choice for a second medical opinion. On June 5, 2014, his physician of choice issued a Medical Report stating that he was permanently disabled and permanently unfit to work in any capacity. Subsequently, on two occasions, he sent a letter-request to the petitioners for referral to a third doctor, but the latter ignored his request. This prompted him to file a case with the LA especially after the shipping firm stopped shouldering his medical treatment.

The LA partially granted Riego’s complaint for disability benefits and gave credence to the medical assessment provided by the company-designated physician. The NLRC affirmed the LA’s ruling and held that Riego’s claim for permanent and total disability benefits was without basis at all. On appeal, the CA reversed and set aside the NLRC ruling.

The CA held that if the treatment of 120 days is extended to 240 days, but still no medical assessment is given, the finding of permanent and total disability becomes conclusive. It held that respondent Riego should be granted total and permanent disability benefits since no assessment was issued for a disability grade before the lapse of the 120-day period, prompting the shipping firm to elevate the case to the SC.

The SC ruled that the petition lacked merit.

The SC reiterated that for a company-designated physician to avail of the extended 240-day period, he or she must perform some complete or definite medical assessment to show that the illness still requires medical attendance beyond the 120 days, but not to exceed 240 days. In such case, the temporary total disability period is extended to a maximum of 240 days. Without sufficient justification for the extension of the treatment period, a seafarer’s disability shall be conclusively presumed to be permanent and total. Even if the 120-day period was extended to 240 days, if the company-designated physician still fails to give his assessment within the extended period of 240 days, then the seafarer’s disability becomes permanent and total, regardless of any justification.

Petitioners claimed that there was no lapse of the 120-day period, adding that since the final medical report was issued after 156 days from repatriation, then it is within the extended 240-day period.

But the Court was not convinced. Citing the Progress Note on the 106th day of the 120-day period, the specialist noted that Riego was still suffering from lower back pain radiating to leg aggravated by prolonged sitting, standing, and walking.

Noting that after issuance of the said final medical report by the company-designated physician, the same physician issued a Certification indicating that Riego has undergone medical/surgical evaluation treatment to Hiatal Hernia; L4-L5, L5-S1 Disc Bulge from December 16, 2013 until May 30, 2014. “This evidently demonstrates that the assessment of the medical condition of respondent was still continuing and not conclusive even after the company-designated physician issued his May 26, 2014 Final Medical Report,” said the Court.

The SC further added that even if the 120-day period was extended to 240 days, there was still no proper final medical assessment issued. Citing its ruling in the case of Elburg Shipmanagement Phils., Inc. v. Quiogue, the SC said that if the company-designated physician still fails to give his assessment within the extended period of 240 days, then the seafarer’s disability becomes permanent and total, regardless of any justification.

Based on the Medical reports, “The Court finds that respondent is suffering from permanent disability, which renders him unfit to work in any capacity as a seafarer.”

The SC said that the issue of whether Riego’s illness is compensable as total and permanent disability is a question of fact, which the SC would not disturb since, the SC “not being a trier of facts, is not duty-bound to reexamine and calibrate the evidence on record.”

However, the SC said that it was imperative to resolve the case at bar on the merits presented novel issues, such as, the form and content of the request for referral to a third doctor to resolve conflicting medical opinions involving a claim for disability benefits.

The SC noted the failure of petitioners to comply with the respondent’s request of referral to a third doctor, which has been held to be a mandatory procedure as a consequence of the provision under the POEA-SEC that the company-designated doctor’s assessment should prevail.

The SC stressed that it is the duty of the seafarer to notify his employer that he or she intends to refer the conflict to a third doctor. Once notified, the burden shifts to the employer to complete the process of referral to a third doctor so that, finally, the medical assessment of the seafarer will be put to rest.

“Accordingly, petitioners’ obliviousness to the mandatory procedure of referral to a third doctor must be taken against them,” said the SC as it cited Riego’s two letter-request for referral to a third doctor.

Furthermore, it held that when the employer fails to act on the seafarer’s valid request for referral to a third doctor, the tribunals and courts are empowered to conduct its own assessment to resolve the conflicting medical opinions.

The Court stressed that it is only through the strict observance of this compulsory procedure that assessment of the disability of the seafarer can be resolved with finality. “Consequently, the procedure laid down by the [Philippine Overseas Employment Administration-Standard Employment Contract] POEA-SEC requires mandatory fulfilment by both the employer and the seafarer. If either of the parties disregards the good faith compliance of the other, the legal consequences shall be borne by the erring party,” the Court held.

In ruling for respondent Riego, the SC ordered the petitioners to pay him total and permanent disability benefits in the amount of US$60,000.00 at the prevailing rate of exchange at the time of payment, as well as attorney’s fees equivalent to 10% of the total monetary award. Finally, all monetary awards shall earn legal interest at the rate of six percent per annum from finality of this Decision until full payment.

Justice Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa wrote a separate concurring and dissenting opinion.

FULL TEXT: https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/28769/

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The Supreme Court Under
the 1987 Constitution

As in the 1935 and 1973 Constitutions, the 1987 Constitution provides that “[t]he judicial power shall be vested in one Supreme Court and in such lower courts as may be established by law.” (Art. VII, Sec. 1). The exercise of judicial power is shared by the Supreme Court with all lower courts, but it is only the Supreme Court’s decisions that are vested with precedential value or doctrinal authority, as its interpretations of the Constitution and the laws are final and beyond review by any other branch of government.

Unlike the 1935 and 1973 Constitutions, however, the 1987 Constitution defines the concept of judicial power. Under paragraph 2 of Section 1, Article VIII, “judicial power” includes not only the “duty of the courts of justice to settle actual controversies involving rights which are legally demandable and enforceable” but also “to determine whether or not there has been a grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction on the part of any branch or instrumentality of the government.” This latter provision dilutes the effectivity of the “political question” doctrine which places specific questions best submitted to the political wisdom of the people beyond the review of the courts.

Building on previous experiences under former Constitutions, the 1987 Constitution provides for specific safeguards to ensure the independence of the Judiciary. These are found in the following provisions:

    • The grant to the Judiciary of fiscal autonomy. “Appropriations for the Judiciary may not be reduced by the legislature below the amount appropriated for the previous year, and, after approval, shall be automatically and regularly released.” (Art. VIII, Sec. 3).
    • The grant to the Chief Justice of authority to augment any item in the general appropriation law for the Judiciary from savings in other items of said appropriation as authorized by law. (Art. VI, Sec. 25[5])
    • The removal from Congress of the power to deprive the Supreme Court of its jurisdiction over cases enumerated in Section 5 of Article VIII.
    • The grant to the Court of the power to appoint all officials and employees of the Judiciary in accordance with the Civil Service Law (Art. VIII, Sec. 5 [6])
    • The removal from the Commission of Appointments of the power to confirm appointments of justices and judges (Art. VIII, Sec. 8)
    • The removal from Congress of the power to reduce the compensation or salaries of the Justices and judges during their continuance in office. (Art. VIII, Sec. 10)
    • The prohibition against the removal of judges through legislative reorganization by providing that “(n)o law shall be passed reorganizing the Judiciary when it undermines the security of tenure of its members. (Art. VIII, Sec. 2)
    • The grant of sole authority to the Supreme Court to order the temporary detail of judges. (Art. VIII, Sec. 5[3])
    • The grant of sole authority to the Supreme Court to promulgate rules of procedure for the courts. (Art. VIII, Sec. 5[5])
    • The prohibition against designating members of the Judiciary to any agency performing quasi-judicial or administrative function. (Art. VIII, Sec. 12)
    • The grant of administrative supervision over the lower courts and its personnel in the Supreme Court. (Art. VIII, Sec. 6)

The Supreme Court under the present Constitution is composed of a Chief Justice and 14 Associate Justices. The members of the Court are appointed by the President from a list, prepared by the Judicial and Bar Council, of at least three nominees for every vacancy. This new process is intended to “de-politicize” the courts of justice, ensure the choice of competent judges, and fill existing vacancies without undue delay.


The Supreme Court Under
the Revolutionary Government

Shortly after assuming office as the seventh President of the Republic of the Philippines after the successful People Power Revolution, then President Corazon C. Aquino declared the existence of a revolutionary government under Proclamation No. 1 dated February 25, 1986. Among the more significant portions of this Proclamation was an instruction for “all appointive officials to submit their courtesy resignations beginning with the members of the Supreme Court.” The call was unprecedented, considering the separation of powers that the previous Constitutions had always ordained, but understandable considering the revolutionary nature of the post-People Power government. Heeding the call, the members of the Judiciary—from the Supreme Court to the Municipal Circuit Courts—placed their offices at the disposal of the President and submitted their resignations. President Corazon C, Aquino proceeded to reorganize the entire Court, appointing all 15 members.

On March 25, 1986, President Corazon Aquino, through Proclamation No. 3, also abolished the 1973 Constitution and put in place a Provisional “Freedom” Constitution. Under Article I, Section 2 of the Freedom Constitution, the provisions of the 1973 Constitution on the judiciary were adopted insofar as they were not inconsistent with Proclamation No. 3.

Article V of Proclamation No. 3 provided for the convening of a Constitutional Commission composed of 50 appointive members to draft a new constitution; this would be implemented by Proclamation No. 9. Under the leadership of retired SC Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma as its President, the Constitutional Commission of 1986 submitted its output of to the people for ratification.

By a vote of 76.30%, the Filipino people then ratified the Constitution submitted to them in a national plebiscite on February 2, 1987.

President Aquino, other civilian officials, and members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, upon the announcement of the ratification of the 1987 Constitution, swore allegiance to the new charter on February 11, 1987 thereby putting an end to the revolutionary government.


The Supreme Court Under
the 1973 Constitution

The declaration of Martial Law through Proclamation No. 1081 by former President Ferdinand E, Marcos in 1972 brought about the transition from the 1935 Constitution to the 1973 Constitution. This transition had implications on the Court’s composition and functions.

This period also brought in many legal issues of transcendental importance and consequence. Among these were the legality of the ratification of a new Constitution, the assumption of the totality of government authority by President Marcos, and the power to review the factual basis for a declaration of Martial Law by the Chief Executive, among others. Also writ large during this period was the relationship between the Court and the Chief Executive who, under Amendment No. 6 to the 1973 Constitution, had assumed legislative powers even while an elected legislative body continued to function.

The 1973 Constitution increased the number of the members of the Supreme Court from 11 to 15, with a Chief Justice and 14 Associate Justices. The Justices of the Court were appointed by the President alone, without the consent, approval, or recommendation of any other body or officials.


The Supreme Court of
the Second Republic

Following liberation from the Japanese occupation at the end of the Second World War and the Philippines’ subsequent independence from the United States, Republic Act No. 296 or the Judiciary Act of 1948 was enacted. This law grouped together the cases over which the Supreme Court could exercise exclusive jurisdiction for review on appeal, certiorari, or writ of error.


The Supreme Court During
the Commonwealth

Following the ratification of the 1935 Philippine Constitution in a plebiscite, the principle of separation of powers was adopted, not by express and specific provision to that effect, but by actual division of powers of the government—executive, legislative, and judicial—in different articles of the 1935 Constitution.

As in the United States, the judicial power was vested by the 1935 Constitution “in one Supreme Court and in such inferior courts as may be established by law.” It devolved on the Judiciary to determine whether the acts of the other two departments were in harmony with the fundamental law.

The Court during the Commonwealth was composed of “a Chief Justice and ten Associate Justices, and may sit en banc or in two divisions, unless otherwise provided by law.”


The Establishment of
the Supreme Court of the Philippines

On June 11, 1901, the Second Philippine Commission passed Act No. 136 entitled “An Act Providing for the Organization of Courts in the Philippine Islands” formally establishing the Supreme Court of the Philippine Islands and creating Courts of First Instance and Justices of the Peace Courts throughout the land. The judicial organization established by the Act was conceived by the American lawyers in the Philippine Commission, with its basic structures patterned after similar organizations in the United States.

The Supreme Court created under the Act was composed of a Chief Justice and six Judges. Five members of the Court could form a quorum, and the concurrence of at least four members was necessary to pronounce a judgment.

Act No. 136 abolished the Audiencia established under General Order No. 20 and declared that the Supreme Court created by the Act be substituted in its place. This effectively severed any nexus between the present Supreme Court and the Audiencia.

The Anglo-American legal system under which the Supreme Court of the Philippine Islands was expected to operate was entirely different from the old Spanish system that Filipinos were familiar with. Adjustments had to be made; hence, the decisions of the Supreme Court during its early years reflected a blend of both the Anglo-American and Spanish systems. The jurisprudence was a gentle transition from the old order to the new.


The Judicial System During
the American Occupation

After Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in the late 1890s, The subsequent occupation by the Americans of the Philippine Islands paved the way for considerable changes in the control, disposition, and governance of the Islands.

The judicial system established during the regime of the military government functioned as an instrument of the executive—not of the judiciary—as an independent and separate branch of government. Secretary of State John Hay, on May 12, 1899, proposed a plan for a colonial government of the Philippine Islands which would give Filipinos the largest measure of self-government. The plan contemplated an independent judiciary manned by judges chosen from qualified locals and Americans.

On May 29, 1899, General Elwell Stephen Otis, Military Governor for the Philippines, issued General Order No. 20, reestablishing the Audiencia Teritorial de Manila which was to apply Spanish laws and jurisprudence recognized by the American military governor as continuing in force.

The Audiencia was composed of a presiding officer and eight members organized into two divisions: the sala de lo civil or the civil branch, and the sala de lo criminal or the criminal branch.

It was General Otis himself who personally selected the first appointees to the Audiencia. Cayetano L. Arellano was appointed President (equivalent to Chief Justice) of the Court, with Manuel Araullo as president of the sala de lo civil and Raymundo Melliza as president of the salo de lo criminal. Gregorio Araneta and Lt. Col. E.H. Crowder were appointed associate justices of the civil branch while Ambrosio Rianzares, Julio Llorente, Major R.W. Young, and Captain W.E. Brikhimer were designated associate justices of the criminal branch. Thus, the reestablished Audiencia became the first agency of the new insular government where Filipinos were appointed side by side with Americans.


The Judicial System Under
the Spanish Regime

During the early Spanish occupation, King Philip II established the Real Audiencia de Manila which was given not only judicial but legislative, executive, advisory, and administrative functions as well. Composed of the incumbent governor general as the presidente (presiding officer), four oidores (equivalent to associate justices), an asesor (legal adviser), an alguacil mayor (chief constable), among other officials, the Real Audiencia de Manila was both a trial and appellate court. It had exclusive original, concurrent original, and exclusive appellate jurisdictions.

Initially, the Audiencia was given a non-judicial role in the colonial administration, to deal with unforeseen problems within the territory that arose from time to time—it was given the power to supervise certain phases of ecclesiastical affairs as well as regulatory functions, such as fixing of prices at which merchants could sell their commodities. Likewise, the Audiencia had executive functions, like the allotment of lands to the settlers of newly established pueblos. However, by 1861, the Audiencia had ceased to perform these executive and administrative functions and had been restricted to the administration of justice.

When the Audiencia Territorial de Cebu was established in 1886, the name of the Real Audiencia de Manila was changed to Audiencia Territorial de Manila.


The Judicial System of the
Pre-Colonization Filipinos

When the Spanish colonizers first arrived in the Philippine archipelago, they found the indigenous Filipinos without any written laws. The laws enforced were mainly derived from customs, usages, and tradition. These laws were believed to be God-given and were orally transmitted from generation to generation.

A remarkable feature of these customs and traditions was that they were found to be very similar to one another notwithstanding that they were observed in widely dispersed islands of the archipelago. There were no judges and lawyers who were trained formally in the law, although there were elders who devoted time to the study of the customs, usages, and traditions of their tribes to qualify them as consultants or advisers on these matters.

The unit of government of the indigenous Filipinos was the barangay, which was a family-based community of 30 to 100 families, occupying a pook (“locality” or “area”) headed by a chieftain called datu who exercised all functions of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—a barangay was not only a political but a social and an economic organization. In the exercise of his judicial authority, the datu acted as a judge (hukom) in settling disputes and deciding cases in his barangay.

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