Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

THIRD DIVISION

G.R. No. 137795            March 26, 2003

COLEGIO DE SAN JUAN DE LETRAN – CALAMBA, petitioner,
vs.
BELEN P. VILLAS, respondent.

CORONA, J.:

This is a petition for review on certiorari of the decision1 of the former Eleventh Division2 of the Court of Appeals affirming the decision3 of Voluntary Arbitrator (VA) Apolonio S. Mayuga that respondent Belen P. Villas was illegally dismissed by petitioner Colegio de San Juan de Letran (School) and thus, entitled to reinstatement and full backwages.

The antecedent facts show that respondent Belen Villas was employed by the petitioner School as high school teacher in September 1985. On May 15, 1995, she applied for a study leave for six months, from June to December 31, 1995. In a letter dated June 2, 1995, Mrs. Angelina Quiatchon, principal of the high school department, told Villas that her request for study leave was granted for one school year subject to the following conditions:

1. The requested study leave takes effect on June 5, 1995 and ends on March 31, 1996;

2. The requested study leave involves no remuneration on the part of the School;

3. The documents that justify the requested study leave should be submitted upon return on April 1, 1996;

4. Faculty Manual – Section 40 Special Provisions on the Granting of Leave of Absence should be observed:

a. Once proven beyond reasonable doubt during the period of the approved leave of absence that the faculty member shall engage himself in employment outside the institution, the administration shall regard the faculty member on leave as resigned;

b. The maximum length of leave of absence that may be applied for by the faculty member and granted by administration is twelve (12) months. If, at the lapse of the period, the faculty member fails to return for work, the administration shall regard the faculty member as resigned.4

Respondent alleged that she intended to utilize the first semester of her study leave to finish her masteral degree at the Philippine Women’s University (PWU). Unfortunately, it did not push through so she took up an Old Testament course in a school of religion and at the same time utilized her free hours selling insurance and cookware to augment her family’s income. However, during the second semester of her study leave, she studied and passed 12 units of education subjects at the Golden Gate Colleges in Batangas City. In response to the letters sent her by petitioner to justify her study leave, she submitted a certification from Golden Gate Colleges and a letter explaining why she took up an Old Testament course instead of enrolling in her masteral class during the first semester.

On June 3, 1996, the President and Rector of the School, Fr. Ramonclaro G. Mendez, O. P., wrote her, stating that her failure to enroll during the first semester was a violation of the conditions of the study leave and that the reasons she advanced for failure to enroll during the first semester were not acceptable, thus:

In the first place, prudence dictates that you should have ascertained first that you are still eligible to study at PWU to finish your masteral degree before applying and securing the approval of your leave by the School. In the second place, you should have informed the School at once that you could not enroll in the first semester so that your leave could have been adjusted for only one-half (1/2) year. Thirdly, your engaging in some part-time business instead of studying in the first semester of your leave is sufficient justification for the School to consider you as resigned under the Faculty Manual. And lastly, your failure to study in the first semester of your study leave without informing the School beforehand constitutes deception, to say the least, which is not a good example to the other teachers.5

Her case was subsequently referred to the grievance committee, as provided for in the collective bargaining agreement, and the report was submitted on July 12, 1996, both to the union and the School. However, since the grievance committee could not reach a decision, the case was referred for voluntary arbitration.

Respondent then filed a case for illegal dismissal and the case was assigned to VA Mayuga who found that respondent was illegally dismissed, thus:

WHEREFORE premises considered, we rule that complainant Mrs. BELEN P. VILLAS was illegally dismissed from her employment by respondent, and as prayed for, respondent COLEGIO DE SAN JUAN DE LETRAN-CALAMBA is hereby ordered to reinstate Mrs. Belen P. Villas to her former position or job in said school without loss of seniority and with full backwages and other monetary benefits effective the start of school year 1996-1997 up to the time she is reinstated.6

Upon denial of its motion for reconsideration, petitioner filed a petition for review with the Court of Appeals. This was denied. Thus, this petition for review. The sole issue is whether or not respondent’s alleged violation of the conditions of the study grant constituted serious misconduct which justified her termination from petitioner School.

Petitioner alleges that the dismissal of respondent was lawful inasmuch as (a) the requirements of due process were followed and (b) she not only violated several lawful regulations but also breached her contractual obligations to the School. All this constituted a valid ground for her dismissal. In assailing the decision of the Court of Appeals, petitioner School basically questions the court a quo’s findings of fact on respondent’s alleged violation of petitioner School’s policy on study leave grants.

The petition has no merit.

Under the Labor Code, there are twin requirements to justify a valid dismissal from employment: (a) the dismissal must be for any of the causes provided in Article 282 of the Labor Code (substantive aspect) and (b) the employee must be given an opportunity to be heard and to defend himself (procedural aspect).7 The procedural aspect requires that the employee be given two written notices before she is terminated consisting of a notice which apprises the employee of the particular acts/omissions for which the dismissal is sought and the subsequent notice which informs the employee of the employer’s decision to dismiss him.8

In the case at bar, the requirements for both substantive and procedural aspects were not satisfied.

According to petitioner, respondent violated the following conditions of her study leave: (a) she failed to report for work on April 1, 1996, the day after the lapse of her leave period, which was violative of Section 40 of the Faculty Manual; (b) she failed to submit proof of her studies during the first semester of her leave period, suggesting that she was not enrolled during this period; and (c) she engaged in employment outside the School. In sum, petitioner School argues that the conduct of respondent breached not only the provisions of the study grant (which was a contractual obligation) but also the Faculty Manual. Respondent was thus guilty of serious misconduct which was a ground for termination.

We affirm the findings of the Court of Appeals that there was no violation of the conditions of the study leave grant. Thus, respondent could not be charged with serious misconduct warranting her dismissal as a teacher in petitioner School. Petitioner has failed to convince us that the three alleged violations of the study leave grant constituted serious misconduct which justified the termination of respondent’s employment.

Misconduct is improper or wrongful conduct. It is the transgression of some established and definite rule of action, a forbidden act, a dereliction of duty, willful in character, and implies wrongful intent and not mere error of judgment.9 Under Article 282 of the Labor Code, the misconduct, to be a just cause for termination, must be serious. This implies that it must be of such grave and aggravated character and not merely trivial or unimportant.10 Examples of serious misconduct justifying termination, as held in some of our decisions, include: sexual harassment (the manager’s act of fondling the hands, massaging the shoulder and caressing the nape of a secretary);11 fighting within company premises;12 uttering obscene, insulting or offensive words against a superior;13 misrepresenting that a student is his nephew and pressuring and intimidating a co-teacher to change that student’s failing grade to passing.14

In this light, the alleged infractions of the respondent could hardly be considered serious misconduct.

With regard to respondent’s alleged failure to report for work on April 1, 1996 and failure to enroll during the first semester, the Court of Appeals and the Voluntary Arbitrator found that she did in fact report for work on April 1, 1996 and that she was in fact enrolled during the first semester. Well–settled is the rule that the factual findings of the Court of Appeals are conclusive on the parties and are not reviewable by the Supreme Court. And they carry even more weight when the Court of Appeals affirms the factual findings of a lower fact-finding body, in this case the Voluntary Arbitrator.15 Likewise, findings of fact of administrative agencies and quasi-judicial bodies which have acquired expertise because their jurisdiction is confined to specific matters, are generally accorded not only great respect but even finality. They are binding upon this Court unless there is a showing of grave abuse of discretion or where it is clearly shown that they were arrived at arbitrarily or in utter disregard of the evidence on record.16

Assuming arguendo that she did fail to report for work on April 1, 1996 and enroll during the first semester, the most respondent could be charged with was simple misconduct. In both instances, there was evidence of substantial compliance by respondent.

Her alleged failure to report for work exactly on April 1, 1996 is not equivalent to "failure to return for work," a sanctionable offense under the Faculty Manual. As correctly pointed out by the VA, petitioner failed to establish that there was a distinct and definite assignment that needed to be done personally by respondent, and specifically on April 1, 1996, which she failed to do on said date. Although we give credence to petitioner’s argument that a private high school teacher still has work at the end of the schoolyear – to assist in the graduation preparations – and in the beginning of the school year – to assist in the enrollment – such tasks cannot be considered a teacher’s main duties, the failure to perform which would be tantamount to dereliction of duty or abandonment. Besides, there is no disagreement that respondent reported for work on May 15, 1996 at which time petitioner School could have asked her to assist in the enrollment period. At most, respondent failed to help out during the preparations for graduation and this, to us, was not a significant reason for terminating or dismissing her from her job.

With regard to her alleged failure to enroll during the first semester, although we agree with the President and Rector, Fr. Mendez, that respondent should have first ascertained whether she was still eligible to study at the PWU before applying for a study leave,17 such lapse was more of an error in judgment rather than an act of serious misconduct. If respondent intended to use her study leave for other unauthorized purposes, as petitioner would like us to believe, she would not have enrolled at the Golden Gate Colleges during the second semester. Yet she did, as borne out by the certification18 prepared by the Registrar of Golden Gate Colleges.

Furthermore, we find that respondent did not violate the prohibition on engaging in employment outside the school as specified in her study leave grant and as provided in the Faculty Manual. Section 40 (a) of the Manual19 states:

a. Once proven beyond reasonable doubt during the period of the approved leave of absence that the faculty member shall engage himself in employment outside the institution, the administration shall regard the faculty member on leave resigned. (Emphasis supplied)

We find the provision of the Faculty Manual ambiguous as the term "employment" connotes a number of meanings. Employment in its general sense connotes any work or service rendered in exchange for money. The loose connotation of employment may therefore cover jobs without an employer-employee relationship. However, inasmuch as in this case, petitioner School drafted the said policy, the term "employment" should be strictly construed against it.20 Moreover, it is a settled rule that in controversies between a laborer and his master, doubts reasonably arising from the evidence, or in the interpretation of agreements and writings should be resolved in the former’s favor.21 The act of respondent in selling insurance and cookware was not the "employment" prohibited by the Faculty Manual. The prohibition against outside employment was enacted to prevent the teacher from using the study leave period for unsanctioned purposes since the School pays the teacher while pursuing further studies. That rationale was not violated by respondent for the reason that her part-time activity of selling insurance and cookware could not have prevented her in any way from studying and, more importantly, she was not being paid by the School while on leave. How did the school expect her and her family to survive without any income for one whole year?

Petitioner also failed to comply with the procedural requirements for a valid dismissal. As earlier noted, the law requires the employer to give the worker to be dismissed two written notices before terminating his employment. Considering that these notices are mandatory, the absence of one renders any management decision to terminate null and void. Petitioner failed to give respondent the first notice which should have informed the latter of the former’s intention to dismiss her. Petitioner argues that it complied with this requirement as there were several exchanges of communication between the School and respondent regarding the cause of her termination. However, we find that these letters did not apprise respondent that her dismissal was being sought by petitioner School as said letters only required respondent to submit proof of enrollment. The letter of Principal Angelina Q. Quiatchon dated April 17, 199622 was worded as follows:

In accordance with the terms of your study leave from June 5, 1995 to March 31, 1996, you must submit credentials/proofs of your study to justify the approved leave.

To this date, April 17, this office has not received your credentials. Please do so within the next three days from receipt hereof so that this office can act accordingly.

Similarly, the May 10, 1996 letter23 of the Academic Affairs Director, Dr. Rhodora G. Odejar, was worded thus:

The Academic Affairs Office has received your certification of graduate studies completed in the second semester of Schoolyear 1995-1996. However, there is no report as to how you utilized your leave in the first semester. You are therefore instructed to submit your report on the matter within three days from receipt hereof.

The next letter from the petitioner, dated June 3, 1996, already informed respondent that she was considered resigned effective schoolyear 1996-1997.

These letters did not comply with the requirements of the law that the first written notice must apprise the employee that his termination is being considered due to a certain act or omission. These letters merely required petitioner to submit proof of her studies and respondent could not have reasonably inferred from them that her dismissal was being considered by the petitioner. The fact that there was a hearing conducted by the grievance committee pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement did not work in petitioner’s favor because this was done after petitioner had informed respondent that she was already considered resigned from her teaching job. Besides, the rights of an employee to be informed of his proposed dismissal are personal to him24 and, therefore, the notice to the union was not notice to the employee.

With regard to the respondent’s claim for the six-month study leave and vacation pay, we affirm the decision25 of the Voluntary Arbitrator that respondent is not entitled to such benefits:

While it is true that the collective bargaining agreement between respondent and complainant’s union provides for six months’ pay for qualified teachers who will go on sabbatical or study leave, the same was expressly waived by complainant when she signed conforme to the letter dated June 2, 1995 approving her study leave which states among others, to wit: ‘2. The requested study leave involves no remuneration on the part of the school.’ And considering that her leave of absence for the whole school year 1995-1996 was presumed to be a leave of absence without pay, then she did not earn her vacation leave incentive for the next coming summer. We find it just, fair and reasonable to grant vacation pay on April and May of every calendar as additional incentive only to those teachers who rendered continuous service to the Collegio the preceding school year.

We similarly affirm the Voluntary Arbitrator’s decision that respondent is not entitled to moral and exemplary damages and attorney’s fees because there is no evidence showing that bad faith or malice attended the dismissal of respondent. Moral damages are recoverable only where the dismissal is attended by bad faith or fraud, or constitutes an act oppressive to labor, or is done in a manner contrary to morals, good customs or public policy. A dismissal may be contrary to law but, by itself alone, it does not necessarily establish bad faith.26

WHEREFORE, the petition is DENIED.

SO ORDERED.

Puno, (Chairman), Panganiban, Sandoval-Gutierrez, and Carpio-Morales, JJ., concur.


Footnotes

1 Penned by Associate Justice Bernardo Ll. Salas; Rollo, p. 52.

2 Composed of Associate Justices Bernardo Ll. Salas, Fermin A. Martin, and Candido V. Rivera.

3 Rollo, p. 102.

4 Annex "B," Rollo, p.124.

5 Annex "G," Rollo, p. 158.

6 Rollo, p. 112.

7 Molato vs. NLRC, 266 SCRA 42, 45 [1997].

8 Aquinas School vs. Magnaye, 278 SCRA 602, 609 [1997]; Molato vs. NLRC, 266 SCRA 42, 45 [1997]; MGG Marine Services, Inc., et al. vs. NLRC and E.A Molina, 259 SCRA 664, 667 [1996].

9 St. Michael’s Institute, et al. vs. NLRC, G.R. No. 145280, December 4, 2001; Department of Labor Manual, Sec. 4343.01.

10 Ibid; Cosep vs. NLRC, 290 SCRA 704, 715 [1998].

11 Libres vs. NLRC, National Steel Corp. et al., 307 SCRA 675 [1999].

12 Royo vs. NLRC, 256 SCRA 639 [1996].

13 Asian Design and Manufacturing Corp. vs. Hon. Deputy Minister of Labor, 142 SCRA 79 [1986].

14 Padilla vs. NLRC and San Beda College, 273 SCRA 457 [1997].

15 Spouses Uy vs. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 109197, June 21, 2001.

16 Naguiat vs. NLRC, 269 SCRA 564, 574 [1997].

17 Letter of Fr. Mendez to Respondent, Rollo, p. 158.

18 Rollo, p. 125.

19 Rollo, p. 124.

20 Article 1377, Civil Code.

21 Violeta vs. NLRC, 280 SCRA 520, 531 [1997]; L.T. Datu and Co., Inc. vs. NLRC, 253 SCRA 440, 449 [1996].

22 Annex "D," Rollo, p. 126.

23 Annex "E," Rollo, p. 127.

24 Century Textile Mills vs. NLRC, 161 SCRA 528 [1988].

25 Rollo, pp. 111-112.

26 Supra note 9 at 716.


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