Republic of the Philippines
SUPREME COURT
Baguio City

THIRD DIVISION

G.R. No. 152364               April 15, 2010

ALEJANDRA S. LAZARO, assisted by her husband, ISAURO M. LAZARO; LEONCIO D. SANTOS; ADOLFO SANTOS; NENITA S. LACAR; ANGELINA S. SAGLES, assisted by her husband, ALBERTO SANTOS, JR.; REGINA SANTOS and FABIAN SANTOS, Petitioners,
vs.
MODESTA AGUSTIN, FILEMON AGUSTIN, VENANCIA AGUSTIN, MARCELINA AGUSTIN, PAUL A. DALALO, NOEL A. DALALO, GREGORIO AGUSTIN and BIENVENIDO AGUSTIN, Respondents.

D E C I S I O N

PERALTA, J.:

Assailed in the present petition for review on certiorari is the Decision1 dated February 21, 2002 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 63321. The CA had affirmed, with modification, the Decision2 dated February 6, 2001 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Laoag City, Branch 13, in Civil Case No. 11951-13, which also affirmed, with modification, the Decision3 dated January 6, 2000 of the Municipal Trial Court in Cities (MTCC) of Laoag City, Branch 1, in Civil Case No. 2834.

The factual and procedural antecedents of the case are as follows:

On November 4, 1998, herein petitioners filed against herein respondents a Complaint4 for partition with the MTCC of Laoag City, alleging as follows:

x x x x

II

That the plaintiffs and the defendants are the descendants of the late Simeon C. Santos, married to Trinidad Duldulao, who died intestate leaving a parcel of land situated in the Barrio of Natividad Nstra. Sra., Municipality of Laoag, designated as Lot No. 10675 of the Cadastral Survey of Laoag;

III

That Simeon C. Santos during his lifetime, married to Trinidad Duldulao, begot four (4) legitimate children, namely: Basilisa D. Santos, Alberto D. Santos, Leoncio D. Santos and Alejandra D. Santos. Basilisa D. Santos, [who] was married to Petronilo Agustin, is now deceased; Alberto Santos, married to Rizalina Guerrero, is now deceased, while Leoncio D. Santos, married to Dictinia Tabeta, and Alejandra D. Santos married to Isauro M. Lazaro, are still living;

IV

That in the desire of the children of Simeon C. Santos from whom the parcel of land originated as owner, his children, namely[:] Alberto, Leoncio and Alejandra, all surnamed Santos, consented that the parcel of land mentioned in paragraph II of this complaint be titled in the name of Basilisa, the latter being the eldest and so Original Certificate of Title No. 20742 in the name of Basilisa Santos was obtained although it was agreed among them that it did not and does not necessarily mean that Basilisa Santos is the sole and exclusive owner of this parcel of land, and as embodied in the Title obtained in the name of Basilisa Santos, the parcel of land is particularly described as follows:

A parcel of land (Lot No. 10676 of the Cadastral survey of Laoag), with the improvements thereon, situated in the Barrio of Natividad Nstra. Sra., Municipality of Laoag. Bounded on the NE. by Lot No. 10677; on the SE. by Panganiban Street; on the SW. by Lot No. 10672; and on NW. by Lot No. 1065, containing an area of three hundred and one (301) square meters, more or less, covered by Tax Declaration No. 010-00224 for the year 1994 in the names of Modesta Agustin, et al. with a market value of P96,320.00 and an assessed value of P14,450.00.

V

That there is a residential house constructed on the lot described in paragraph IV of this complaint and in the construction of which plaintiff Alejandra Santos, then still single, spent the amount of P68,308.60, while Basilisa Santos and her children spent the amount of P3,495.00. Afterwards, Alejandra Santos got married to Isauro M. Lazaro who was employed in a private company and when he retired from the service, some additional constructions were made on the residential house and lot such as a bedroom, azotea, two (2) toilets, two (2) kitchens, a car garage, the money spent for these additional constructions came from the earnings of the spouses Alejandra Santos-Lazaro and Isauro M. Lazaro. The said residential house is now covered by Tax Declaration No. 010-00225 in the names of Basilio Agustin (should be Basilisa Agustin) and Alejandra Santos for the year 1994 with a market value of P93,920.00 and an assessed value of zero;

VI

That without the knowledge and consent of the plaintiffs, the title of the lot described in paragraph IV of the complaint was transferred into another title which is now Transfer Certificate of Title No. T-20695 in the names of Modesta Agustin, Filemon Agustin, Venancia Agustin, Marcelina Agustin, Monica Agustin, Gregorio Agustin and Bienvenido Agustin who are the children of the late Basilisa Santos-Agustin who are herein named as defendants with Monica Agustin now deceased represented by her children Paul A. Dalalo and Noel A. Dalalo as defendants;

VII

That during the lifetime of Basilisa Santos-Agustin, plaintiff Alejandra Santos-Lazaro informed the former, who are sisters, that the transfer of the title covering the lot described in paragraph IV of this complaint in the name of Basilisa Santos into the names of her children would erroneously imply that the lot is solely and exclusively owned by Basilisa Santos-Agustin's children, but Basilisa Santos-Agustin replied [to] plaintiff Alejandra Santos-Lazaro not to worry because an affidavit was already executed by her recognizing and specifying that her brothers Alberto Santos and Leoncio Santos, and her sister Alejandra Santos-Lazaro would each get one fourth (ľ) share of the lot;

VIII

That in a move to determine if the children and the heirs of Basilisa Santos-Agustin, namely: Modesta Agustin, Filemon Agustin, Venancia Agustin, Marcelina Agustin, Paul Dalalo and Noel Dalalo who are the successors of their mother the late Monica Agustin, Gregorio Agustin and Bienvenido Agustin would follow the line of thinking of their mother and grandmother of Paul A. Dalalo and Noel A. Dalalo on the shares of the lot and residential house erected on it, the plaintiffs initiated a partition in the barangay court where the lot is situated described in paragraph IV of this complaint, but that the children of Basilisa Santos-Agustin and her grandchildren Paul A. Dalalo and Noel A. Dalalo refused and opposed the partition claiming that they are the sole and exclusive owners of the lot being that the lot is now titled in their names, and hence there was no settlement as shown by the certification of the barangay court hereto attached as annex "A";

IX

That plaintiffs now invoke the intervention of the court to partition the lot in accordance with the law on intestate succession and to partition the residential house as specified below. x x x

x x x x5

Petitioners also prayed for the grant of attorney's fees, moral and exemplary damages, and costs of suit.

Herein respondents filed their Answer with Counterclaim,6 raising the following as their Special/Affirmative Defenses:

1. The subject parcel of land is owned exclusively by the defendants as heirs of the late Basilisa Santos, wife of Petronilo Agustin, who was the original registered owner of the property evidenced by OCT No. 20742; the plaintiffs never became owners of said land. There was never any agreement between the ascendants of the plaintiffs and defendants, neither is there any agreement between the plaintiffs and defendants themselves that in the ownership, the plaintiffs have a share over the lot;

2. The defendants are the ones paying for the real estate taxes of said land;

3. Some of the plaintiffs were able to stay on the subject house because defendants' mother Basilisa Santos was the eldest sibling and she had to take care of her brother Leoncio and sister Alejandra when these siblings were not yet employed and Basilisa allowed them to reside in the house constructed within the lot; Alejandra Santos stayed in the house up to the present with the agreement that she will spend for the renovation of the house in lieu of monthly rentals that she has to pay when she already became financially able;

4. Prior to 1962, subject property was mortgaged by Basilisa Santos Agustin to the Philippine National Bank and the property was foreclosed by PNB when the loan was not paid, hence, TCT No. (T-9522)-4495, under the name of the Philippine National Bank was issued (Annex "A"). Thereafter, Basilisa Santos-Agustin, purchased it from the PNB and TCT No. T-5662 was issued under her name (Annex "B"); the property was later on transferred to her direct descendants, the defendants herein as evidenced by TCT No. T-20695 (Annex "C");

x x x x7

Respondents then prayed that petitioners' complaint be dismissed. In their Counterclaim, respondents asked the court to direct petitioners to pay reasonable compensation for the latter's use of the disputed property, exemplary and moral damages, attorney's fees, and costs of suit.

After the issues were joined and the pre-trial was terminated, trial on the merits ensued.

On January 6, 2000, the MTCC rendered its Decision8 dismissing the complaint and denying petitioners' prayer for partition.

The MTCC ruled, among others, that no evidentiary value could be given to the affidavit allegedly executed by Basilisa, wherein she purportedly acknowledged her co-ownership of the subject property with her siblings Alberto, Leoncio and Alejandra, because the affiant was not presented on the witness stand, such that all the statements made in her affidavit were hearsay. Moreover, the MTCC held that two credible witnesses testified in plain, simple and straightforward manner that at the time the affidavit was supposed to have been signed and sworn to before the notary public, Basilisa was already bedridden and an invalid who could not even raise her hand to feed herself. In addition, the MTCC also gave credence to the testimony of the notary public, before whom the document was supposedly signed and sworn to, that the said affidavit was already complete and thumbmarked when the same was presented to him by a person who claimed to be Basilisa.

Petitioners filed an appeal with the RTC of Laoag City.

On February 6, 2001 the RTC issued a Decision9 affirming, with modification, the judgment of the MTCC. The RTC found that the house erected on the disputed lot was built and renovated by petitioners in good faith. As a consequence, the RTC held that petitioners were entitled to indemnity representing the costs of the construction and renovation of the said house. The dispositive portion of the RTC Decision, thus, reads:

WHEREFORE, the decision of the lower court is hereby affirmed with the modification directing the appellees [herein respondents] to indemnify the appellants [herein petitioners] in the amount of P68,308.60 as proved by them.

Considering the apparent error of the lower court in quoting the questioned lot as Lot No. 10675, the same is hereby corrected so as to reflect the correct lot number as Lot No. 10676 to conform to the evidence presented.

SO ORDERED.10

Aggrieved by the RTC Decision, petitioners filed a petition for review with the CA.

On February 21, 2002, the CA issued its presently assailed Decision disposing as follows:

WHEREFORE, the decision dated February 6, 2001 rendered in Civil Case No. 11951-13 is hereby AFFIRMED subject to the MODIFICATION that appellees [herein respondents] pay the amount of P68,308.60 in indemnity solely to appellant Alejandra Santos-Lazaro.

SO ORDERED.11

Hence, the instant petition based on the following grounds:

I. THE SWORN STATEMENT OF BASILISA S. AGUSTIN IS A DECLARATION AGAINST INTEREST WHICH ESTABLISHES THE CO-OWNERSHIP OF LOT NO. 10676 BY AND AMONG THE PETITIONERS AND RESPONDENTS AS HEIRS OF THE LATE SIMEON C. SANTOS.12

II. THE CO-OWNERSHIP OF LOT NO. 10676 BY AND AMONG BASILISA S. AGUSTIN, ALBERTO D. SANTOS, ALEJANDRA S. LAZARO AND LEONCIO D. SANTOS DID NOT TERMINATE AS A RESULT OF THE TRANSFER OF THE LOT'S OWNERSHIP PRECIPITATED BY ACTS OF BASILISA S. AGUSTIN WITH RESPECT TO THE SUBJECT PROPERTY.13

III. PETITIONER ALEJANDRA S. LAZARO IS A CO-OWNER OF THE RESIDENTIAL HOUSE ON LOT NO. 10676 NOT MERELY A BUILDER IN GOOD FAITH WITH RESPECT THERETO AND AS SUCH, IS ENTITLED TO A PARTITION OF THE SUBJECT HOUSE.14

In their first assigned error, petitioners contend that Basilisa's sworn statement which recognizes her siblings' share in the disputed property is a declaration against interest which is one of the recognized exceptions to the hearsay rule. Petitioners argue that since the sworn statement was duly notarized, it should be admitted in court without further proof of its due execution and authenticity; that the testimonies of Basilisa's nurse and physician cannot qualify as clear and convincing evidence which could overthrow such notarized document; that the notary public cannot impugn the same document which he notarized for to do so would render notarized documents worthless and unreliable resulting in prejudice to the public.

As to the second assigned error, petitioners aver that their co-ownership of the questioned property with Basilisa did not cease to exist when the Philippine National Bank (PNB) consolidated its ownership over the said parcel of land. Petitioners assert that they did not lose their share in the property co-owned when their share was mortgaged by Basilisa without their knowledge and consent; that the mortgage was limited only to the portion that may be allotted to Basilisa upon termination of their co-ownership; that PNB acquired ownership only of the share pertaining to Basilisa; that when Basilisa bought back the property from PNB, she simply re-acquired the portion pertaining to her and simply resumed co-ownership of the property with her siblings. Petitioners also contend that Basilisa's children did not acquire ownership of the subject lot by prescription, and that neither Basilisa nor respondents repudiated their co-ownership.

Anent the third assignment of error, petitioners argue that Alejandra Lazaro, being a co-owner of the disputed parcel of land and not simply a builder in good faith, is entitled to a partition of the subject residential house.

At the outset, it bears to point out that it is wrong for petitioners to argue that Basilisa's alleged sworn statement is a declaration against interest. It is not a declaration against interest. Instead, it is an admission against interest.1avvphi1

Indeed, there is a vital distinction between admissions against interest and declarations against interest. Admissions against interest are those made by a party to a litigation or by one in privity with or identified in legal interest with such party, and are admissible whether or not the declarant is available as a witness.15 Declarations against interest are those made by a person who is neither a party nor in privity with a party to the suit, are secondary evidence, and constitute an exception to the hearsay rule. They are admissible only when the declarant is unavailable as a witness.16 In the present case, since Basilisa is respondents' predecessor-in-interest and is, thus, in privity with the latter's legal interest, the former's sworn statement, if proven genuine and duly executed, should be considered as an admission against interest.

A cursory reading of the subject sworn statement also reveals that it refers to a parcel of land denominated as Lot No. 10678 while the property being disputed is Lot No. 10676.17 On this basis, it cannot be concluded with certainty that the property being referred to in the sworn statement is the same property claimed by petitioners.

Having made the foregoing observations and discussions, the question that arises is whether the subject sworn statement, granting that it refers to the property being disputed in the present case, can be given full faith and credence in view of the issues raised regarding its genuineness and due execution.

The Court rules in the negative.

Settled is the rule that generally, a notarized document carries the evidentiary weight conferred upon it with respect to its due execution, and documents acknowledged before a notary public have in their favor the presumption of regularity.18 However, this presumption is not absolute and may be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.19

Moreover, not all notarized documents are exempted from the rule on authentication.20 Thus, an affidavit does not automatically become a public document just because it contains a notarial jurat.21 The presumptions that attach to notarized documents can be affirmed only so long as it is beyond dispute that the notarization was regular.22

However, a question involving the regularity of notarization as well as the due execution of the subject sworn statement of Basilisa would require an inquiry into the appreciation of evidence by the trial court. It is not the function of this Court to review, examine and evaluate or weigh the probative value of the evidence presented. A question of fact would arise in such event. Settled is the rule that questions of fact cannot be raised in an appeal via certiorari before the Supreme Court and are not proper for its consideration.23 The rationale behind this doctrine is that a review of the findings of fact of the trial courts and the appellate tribunal is not a function this Court normally undertakes.24 The Court will not weigh the evidence all over again unless there is a showing that the findings of the lower courts are totally devoid of support or are clearly erroneous so as to constitute serious abuse of discretion.25 Although there are recognized exceptions26 to this rule, none exists in the present case to justify a departure therefrom.

Petitioners rely heavily on the presumption of regularity accorded by law to notarized documents. While indeed, a notarized document enjoys this presumption, the fact that a deed is notarized is not a guarantee of the validity of its contents.27 As earlier discussed, the presumption is not absolute and may be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.28 The presumption cannot be made to apply to the present case because the regularity in the execution of the sworn statement was challenged in the proceedings below where its prima facie validity was overthrown by the highly questionable circumstances under which it was supposedly executed, as well as the testimonies of witnesses who testified on the improbability of execution of the sworn statement, as well as on the physical condition of the signatory, at the time the questioned document was supposedly executed. The trial and appellate courts were unanimous in giving credence to the testimonies of these witnesses. The Court has repeatedly held that it will not interfere with the trial court's determination of the credibility of witnesses, unless there appears on record some fact or circumstance of weight and influence which has been overlooked or the significance of which has been misinterpreted.29 The reason for this is that the trial court was in a better position to do so, because it heard the witnesses testify before it and had every opportunity to observe their demeanor and deportment on the witness stand.30

Considering the foregoing, the Court finds no reason to reverse the rulings of the MTCC, the RTC and the CA. Although the questioned sworn statement is a public document having in its favor the presumption of regularity, such presumption was adequately refuted by competent witnesses.

The Court further agrees with the ruling of the RTC that:

The testimony of [the notary public] Atty. Angel Respicio did not suffice to rebut the evidence of the appellees considering his admission that the affidavit was already thumbmarked when presented to him by one who claimed to be Basilisa Santos and whom, the witness said he did not know personally. Further, what makes the documents suspect is the fact that it was subscribed on the same date as the financial statement of Alejandra Santos.

It may not be amiss to point out, at this juncture, that the principal function of a notary public is to authenticate documents.31 When a notary public certifies to the due execution and delivery of a document under his hand and seal, he gives the document the force of evidence.32 Indeed, one of the purposes of requiring documents to be acknowledged before a notary public, in addition to the solemnity which should surround the execution and delivery of documents, is to authorize such documents to be given without further proof of their execution and delivery.33 A notarial document is by law entitled to full faith and credit upon its face. Courts, administrative agencies and the public at large must be able to rely upon the acknowledgment executed before a notary public and appended to a private instrument.34 Hence, a notary public must discharge his powers and duties, which are impressed with public interest, with accuracy and fidelity.35 A notary public should not notarize a document unless the persons who signed the same are the very same persons who executed and personally appeared before him to attest to the contents and truth of what are stated therein.36

In the instant case, the notary public should have exercised utmost diligence in ascertaining the true identity of the person executing the said sworn statement. However, the notary public did not comply with this requirement. He simply relied on the affirmative answers of the person appearing before him attesting that she was Basilisa Santos; that the contents of the sworn statement are true; and that the thumbmark appearing on the said document was hers. However, this would not suffice. He could have further asked the person who appeared before him to produce any identification to prove that she was indeed Basilisa Santos, considering that the said person was not personally known to him, and that the thumbmark appearing on the document sought to be notarized was not affixed in his presence. But he did not. Thus, the lower courts did not commit any error in not giving evidentiary weight to the subject sworn statement.

The second and third assigned errors proceed on the presumption that petitioners are co-owners of the disputed property. Since the Court has already ruled that the lower courts did not err in finding that petitioners failed to prove their claim that they were co-owners of the said property, there is no longer any need to discuss the other assigned errors.

WHEREFORE, the petition is DENIED. The February 21, 2002 Decision of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 63321 is AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

DIOSDADO M. PERALTA
Associate Justice

WE CONCUR:

RENATO C. CORONA
Associate Justice
Chairperson

PRESBITERO J. VELASCO, JR.
Associate Justice
ANTONIO EDUARDO B. NACHURA
Associate Justice

JOSE CATRAL MENDOZA
Associate Justice

A T T E S T A T I O N

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 Courtís Division.

RENATO C. CORONA
Associate Justice
Third Division, Chairperson

C E R T I F I C A T I O N

Pursuant to Section 13, Article VIII of the Constitution and the Division Chairpersonís 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 Courtís Division.

REYNATO S. PUNO
Chief Justice


Footnotes

1 Penned by Associate Justice Oswaldo D. Agcaoili, with Associate Justices Jose L. Sabio, Jr. and Sergio L. Pestaño, concurring; rollo, pp. 62-72.

2 Records, pp. 301-305.

3 Id. at 266-269.

4 Id. at 1-7.

5 Id. at 2-4.

6 Id. at 20-23.

7 Id. at 21-22.

8 Rollo, pp. 53-56.

9 Id. at 57-61.

10 Id. at 61.

11 Id. at 72.

12 Id. at 21.

13 Id. at 26.

14 Id. at 29.

15 Unchuan v. Lozada, G.R. No. 172671, April 16, 2009, 585 SCRA 421, 435.

16 Id.

17 See Exhibit "C," records, p. 85.

18 De Jesus v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 127857, June 20, 2006, 491 SCRA 325, 334; Pan Pacific Industrial Sales Co., Inc. v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 125283, February 10, 2006, 482 SCRA 164, 174.

19 Potenciano v. Reynoso, 449 Phil. 396, 406 (2003).

20 Cequeña v. Bolante, 386 Phil. 419, 427 (2000).

21 Id.

22 Dela Rama v. Papa, G.R. No. 142309, January 30, 2009, 577 SCRA 233, 244.

23 Cabang v. Basay, G.R. No. 180587, March 20, 2009, 582 SCRA 172, 186.

24 Id.

25 Id. at 186-187.

26 These recognized exceptions are: (1) when the findings are grounded entirely on speculation, surmises or conjectures; (2) when the inference made is manifestly mistaken, absurd or impossible; (3) when there is grave abuse of discretion; (4) when the judgment is based on a misapprehension of facts; (5) when the findings of fact are conflicting; (6) when in making its findings, the Court of Appeals went beyond the issues of the case, or its findings are contrary to the admissions of both the appellant and the appellee; (7) when the findings are contrary to those of the trial court; (8) when the findings are conclusions without citation of specific evidence on which they are based; (9) when the facts set forth in the petition as well as in the petitionerís main and reply briefs are not disputed by the respondent; (10) when the findings of fact are premised on the supposed absence of evidence and contradicted by the evidence on record (Bernaldo v. The Ombudsman and the Department of Public Works and Highways, G.R. No. 156286, August 13, 2008, 562 SCRA 60); and (11) when the Court of Appeals manifestly overlooked certain relevant facts not disputed by the parties, which, if properly considered, would justify a different conclusion (Superlines Transportation Co., Inc. v. Philippine National Coordinating Council, G.R. No. 169596, March 28, 2007, 519 SCRA 432, 441, citing Insular Life Assurance Co., Ltd. v. Court of Appeals, 428 SCRA 79, 85-86 [2004]; see also Grand Placement and General Services Corporation v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 142358, January 31, 2006, 481 SCRA 189, 202, citing Mayon Hotel & Restaurant v. Adana, 458 SCRA 609, 624 [2005]; Castillo v. NLRC, 367 Phil. 603, 619 [1999] and Insular Life Assurance Co. Ltd. v. CA, supra; Sampayan v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 156360, January 14, 2005, 448 SCRA 220, 229, citing Insular Life Assurance Co. Ltd. v. Court of Appeals,, supra, citing Langkaan Realty Development, Inc. v. United Coconut Planters Bank, 400 Phil. 1349, 1356 [2000]; Nokom v. National Labor Relations Commission, 390 Phil. 1228, 1242-1243 [2000] and Sta. Maria v. Court of Appeals, 349 Phil. 275, 282-283 [2000]; Aguirre v. Court of Appeals, 421 SCRA 310, 319 [2004]; C & S Fishfarm Corporation v. Court of Appeals, 442 Phil. 279, 288 [2002]).

27 San Juan v. Offril, G.R. No. 154609, April 24, 2009, 586 SCRA 439, 445-446.

28 China Banking Corporation, Inc. v. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. 155299, July 24, 2007, 528 SCRA 103, 110.

29 San Juan v. Offril, supra note 27.

30 Id. at 446-447.

31 Vda. de Bernardo v. Restauro, 452 Phil. 745, 751 (2003).

32 Id.

33 Id.

34 Id.

35 Id.

36 Bautista v. Bernabe, A.C. No. 6963, February 9, 2006, 482 SCRA 1, 6.


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