Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Manila

THIRD DIVISION

A.C. No. 4829               July 21, 2008

ELAINE V. ARMA, Complainant,
vs.
ATTY. ANITA C. MONTEVILLA, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

NACHURA, J.:

The instant controversy arose from a Complaint for Disbarment filed by Elaine V. Arma (complainant) against Atty. Anita Montevilla (respondent) for alleged negligence and irresponsibility in the handling of Labor Case NLRC-NCR Case No. 00-01-00216, which caused irreparable prejudice to her clients including the complainant herein.

The factual antecedents are as follows:

On October 6, 1997, complainant Elaine V. Arma wrote a letter-complaint addressed to then Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, Atty. Renato L. Cayetano. In her handwritten complaint, she sought the help of Atty. Cayetano’s office to assist their group in their plight against their former employer, Tashi Garments, Inc., and their counsel, respondent Atty. Anita C. Montevilla.

In response to that request, the Office of the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel indorsed complainant’s letter-complaint1 to the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA), who in turn, ordered the referral of the same to the Office of the Bar Confidant (OBC).2

On November 6, 1997, the OBC wrote complainant a letter3 requiring her to file a verified complaint together with the documents that would strengthen her allegations against the respondent.

Accordingly, Elaine V. Arma filed a verified Complaint for Disbarment,4 received by the OBC on November 26, 1997. In her complaint, she alleged that she was one of the thirty-two (32) dismissed workers of Tashi Garments, Inc. who filed a complaint5 for illegal dismissal, non-payment of wages, underpayment of wages and money claims before the Department of Labor and Employment. The complainant averred that they availed themselves of the legal services of the respondent, Atty. Montevilla, in this labor case; and that respondent accepted the case on a contingency basis, with a success fee equivalent to thirty percent (30%) of whatever amount they would recover, and Six Hundred Pesos (P600.00) per appearance for her gasoline expense and the daily salary of the counsel’s driver. The laborers obtained a favorable decision from the Labor Arbiter (LA), which ordered the reinstatement of the thirty-two (32) workers with full backwages and awarded the money claims in the aggregate amount of Three Million Three Hundred Ninety Six Thousand Six Hundred Ninety-Four Pesos and Eighty-Four centavos (P3,396,694.84).6 The said decision, however, was appealed to the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), with Tashi Garments, Inc. posting a P500,000.00 cash bond. However, the NLRC reversed the decision of the LA and dismissed the complaint for lack of merit.7

The complainant averred that Atty. Montevilla promised to attend personally to the filing of a motion for reconsideration and an application for the issuance of the restraining order to prevent the NLRC from allowing the withdrawal of the cash bond posted by Tashi Garments, Inc.; that she paid the counsel the amount of P600.00 on July 20, 1997 and P1,000.00 on July 23, 1997 to facilitate the filing of the Motion for Reconsideration (MR); but that upon her verification with the NLRC, the counsel had not filed a motion for reconsideration.8 Complainant added that when she returned to the residence of Atty. Montevilla to seek explanation for her failure to file the said MR, the latter refused to accommodate her and, instead, directed her sister, Emma Montevilla, to hand her back the records of the case including three (3) copies of a signed and postdated Notice of Withdrawal of Counsel.9 Complainant then concluded that she is filing this instant Complaint for Disbarment for the misconduct of Atty. Montevilla which prejudiced their interest as clients.

The Supreme Court Third Division then issued a Resolution10 requiring respondent to comment on the complaint. Later, the Supreme Court Third Division issued a Resolution11 transferring the case to the First Division.

In compliance with the Honorable Court’s order, respondent filed her Comment12 vehemently denying the accusations of the complainant. She contends that the complaint is baseless, unfounded, malicious, and purposely filed to destroy her good name and to blemish her reputation. She, likewise, denied having a verbal agreement for the payment of a 30% contingency fee because if such were the case she would have prepared a Contract of Service. She denied that she received attorney’s fees per appearance. She contends that the complainant merely assured her that they would give her a share should they win the case. The respondent also claimed that she even had to spend her own money for the preparation and filing of their complaint against Tashi Garments, Inc.

Atty. Montevilla alleged that what prompted her to withdraw as counsel was the incident that transpired after the complainant learned that through her painstaking efforts they won the case and were able to obtain an award of P3,396,694.84. Respondent narrated that, at that point, the complainant then insisted that they should make an appointment with Jesusa dela Cruz, owner of Tashi Garments, Inc. so that she could collect her share and that of her sister Lilibeth Eñevo ahead of their co-workers; that, as counsel, she, however, admonished the complainant for her selfishness and disloyalty to her co-workers; and that because of the persistent demand of the complainant, respondent told her to find a new lawyer and advised her to pick up the Motion to Withdraw as Counsel on the following day.

In a Resolution,13 the Supreme Court Third Division referred the case to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) for investigation, report and recommendation.

Hearings were conducted, after which, the IBP-Commission on Bar Discipline (CBD), through Investigating Commissioner Elpidio G. Soriano III, rendered a Report and Recommendation14 which discussed the pertinent issues of whether or not respondent: (1) was negligent in handling the labor case of the complainant; and (2) made a proper withdrawal as counsel on March 19, 1997 or on October 6, 1997.

The Investigating Commissioner found respondent negligent in the filing and service of pleadings, especially the two (2) Motions to Withdraw as Counsel.

Respondent, in her defense, stated that she ordered the complainant to file the March 19, 1997 Motion to Withdraw but that it was not filed because of the fault of the complainant. Per findings of Commissioner Soriano, the motion was never made part of the records of the labor case. The records revealed that, on a later date, Atty. Montevilla even filed a subsequent pleading15 which belies her claim that she withdrew as counsel on March 19, 1997. On one hand, the complainant claimed that the NLRC considered a Notice of Withdrawal as Counsel dated October 6, 1997, but the respondent denied any participation in the preparation and filing of the same.1avvphi1

Since there was irreconcilable conflict in the two contentions, the Investigating Commissioner then sought the professional assistance of the National Bureau of Investigation Questioned Documents Division (NBI-QDD) to determine the genuineness of the signatures in the two Motions to Withdraw. As affirmed by NBI-QDD Report No. 526-1005 and 526-1005 A,16 the questioned signatures matched the specimen signatures of both E. Arma and Atty. Montevilla, giving rise to the conclusion that both parties were at fault for the non-filing or belated filing of the Motion to Withdraw as Counsel. However, the IBP Commissioner concludes that this finding that Atty. Montevilla has been remiss in this instance will not justify the imposition of the supreme administrative sanction of disbarment.

The Investigating Commissioner then recommended that the disbarment complaint against Atty. Montevilla should be dismissed for lack of basis, but the respondent should be admonished for her failure to observe due diligence in the filing and service of pleadings, especially relating to the filing of her Motion to Withdraw as Counsel which she simply delegated to the complainant.

On July 18 2007, the IBP Board of Governors passed a Resolution adopting and approving the recommendation of Commissioner Soriano, as follows:

"RESOLUTION NO. XVII-2006-035

Adm. Case No. 4829

Elaine V. Arma vs. Atty. Anita C. Montevilla

RESOLVED to ADOPT and APPROVE, as it is hereby ADOPTED and APPROVED, the Report and Recommendation of the Investigating Commissioner of the above-entitled case, herein made part of this Resolution as Annex "A"; and, finding the recommendation fully supported by the evidence on record and the applicable laws and rules, considering that the complaint lacks merit, the same is hereby DISMISSED. However, Atty. Anita C. Montevilla is ADMONISHED for her failure to observe the required diligence.

A perusal of the records shows that the evidence adduced by the complainant is insufficient to warrant disbarment.

Disbarment is the most severe form of disciplinary sanction and, as such, the power to disbar must always be exercised with great caution, only for the most imperative reasons and in clear cases of misconduct affecting the standing and moral character of the lawyer as an officer of the court and member of the bar.17

As a rule, an attorney enjoys the legal presumption that he is innocent of the charges proffered against him until the contrary is proved, and that as an officer of the court, he has performed his duties in accordance with his oath.18 In disbarment proceedings, the burden of proof is upon the complainant and the Court will exercise its disciplinary power only if the former establishes its case by clear, convincing, and satisfactory evidence.19 Considering the serious consequence of disbarment, this Court has consistently held that only a clear preponderant evidence would warrant the imposition of such a harsh penalty. It means that the record must disclose as free from doubt a case that compels the exercise by the court of its disciplinary powers. The dubious character of the act done, as well as the motivation thereof, must be clearly demonstrated.20

In this case, the complainant failed to discharge this burden. In addition, the complainant failed to refute the fact alleged by the respondent that the complaint is a vindictive charge of a stubborn client against her counsel who refuses to extrajudicially execute a monetary judgment in order not to jeopardize honesty and loyalty to the other clients. It must be noted, likewise, that this Court affords protection not only to the aggrieved clients but also to members of the bar who are at times maliciously charged.

However, it is worthy to note that respondent indeed fell short of her duty of meticulously ensuring that all pleadings are properly filed and served on the concerned parties. Atty. Montevilla was remiss when she passed on the filing of her Motion to Withdraw as Counsel to her client. Because of this negligence, the Motion to Withdraw was belatedly filed, and the eventual Motion for Reconsideration of the NLRC decision was resultantly filed out of time, thus causing the dismissal of complainant’s case before the NLRC. Were it not for the fact that the Petition for Certiorari filed in the Supreme Court was given due course and the case was remanded to the Court of Appeals, the clients of Atty. Montevilla would have lost the fruits of their adamant suit against their employer. The respondent should have been more diligent in her duties as lawyer, as dictated by the Code of Professional Responsibility and as required by his oath as a lawyer.

Disbarment of lawyers is a proceeding that aims to purge the law profession of unworthy members of the bar. It is intended to preserve the nobility and honor of the legal profession. While the Supreme Court has the plenary power to discipline erring lawyers through this kind of proceedings, it does so in the most vigilant manner so as not to frustrate its preservative principle. The Court, in the exercise of its sound judicial discretion, is inclined to impose a less severe punishment if through it the end desired of reforming the errant lawyer is possible.

In this case, the negligence of the respondent is not so gross as to justify removal from the legal profession. That there is no material damage to the complainant may be considered as a mitigating circumstance21 and this being Atty. Montevilla’s first offense, she should be entitled to some measure of forbearance. A penalty other than disbarment may satisfactorily forewarn the respondent and other members of the bar to be more cautious and diligent in the practice of their profession.

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the prayer for Disbarment is DENIED for lack of merit. Nevertheless, respondent Atty. Anita C. Montevilla is hereby REPRIMANDED and WARNED that a repetition of the same or similar acts shall be dealt with more severely. Let a copy of this Decision be attached to his personal records and another copy be furnished the Integrated Bar of the Philippines.

SO ORDERED.

ANTONIO EDUARDO B. NACHURA
Associate Justice

WE CONCUR:

LEONARDO A. QUISUMBING*
Associate Justice

CONSUELO YNARES-SANTIAGO
Associate Justice
MA. ALICIA AUSTRIA-MARTINEZ
Associate Justice

RUBEN T. REYES
Associate Justice


Footnotes

* In lieu of Associate Justice Minita V. Chico-Nazario per Special Order No. 508, dated June 25, 2008.

1 Indorsement dated October 8, 1997 issued by the Office of the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel; rollo, p. 38.

2 2nd Indorsement dated October 23, 1997, issued by the SC Office of the Court Administrator; rollo, p. 37.

3 Rollo, p.35.

4 Dated November 19, 2007, id. at 1-7.

5 Docketed as NLRC-NCR Case No. 00-01-00216-95 assigned to Labor Arbiter Salimathar Nambi.

6 Annex "A" of the Complaint, rollo, pp. 8-17.

7 Annex "B" of the Complaint, rollo, pp. 18-24.

8 Certification dated October 8, 1997 issued by the National Labor Relations Commission.

9 Annex "E" of the Complaint, rollo, p. 29.

10 Dated January 26, 2008, rollo, p. 43.

11 Dated March 4, 2008.

12 Dated March 6, 2008, rollo, pp. 44-57.

13 Dated April 20, 2008.

14 Dated August 14, 2006.

15 Opposition to Respondent’s Appeal Memorandum and Urgent Motion for Execution with Verification, dated April 18, 1997; rollo, pp. 325-332.

16 Rollo, pp. 359-364.

17 Dela Cruz v. Diesmos, A.C. No. 6850, July 27, 2006, 496 SCRA 525.

18 Agpalo, Legal and Judicial Ethics, 2002, 7th Edition, p. 532.

19 Saquing v. Mora, A.C. No. 6678, October 9, 2006, 504 SCRA 1.

20 Soto v. Lacre, A.C. No. 1019, June 30, 1977, 77 SCRA 453.

21 Maligaya v. Doronilla, Jr., A.C. No. 6198, September 15, 2006, 502 SCRA 1.


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