CASE 2011-0031: JESSIE R. DE LEON VS. ATTY. EDUARDO G. CASTELO (A.C. NO. 8620, 12 JANUARY 2011, BERSAMIN, J.) SUBJECTS: OBLIGATION OF LAWYER TO TELL TRUTH; COMPLAINT AGAINST LAWYER MUST BE MOTIVATED BY GOOD FAITH.

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D E C I S I O N  

BERSAMIN, J.:

 

          This administrative case, which Jessie R. De Leon initiated on April 29, 2010, concerns respondent attorney’s alleged dishonesty and falsification committed in the pleadings he filed in behalf of the defendants in the civil action in which De Leon intervened.

Antecedents

On January 2, 2006, the Government brought suit for the purpose of correcting the transfer certificates of title (TCTs) covering two parcels of land located in Malabon City then registered in the names of defendants Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu due to their encroaching on a public callejon and on a portion of the Malabon-Navotas River shoreline to the extent, respectively, of an area of 45 square meters and of about 600 square meters. The suit, entitled Republic of the Philippines, represented by the Regional Executive Director, Department of Environment and Natural Resources v. Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu, Gorgonia Flores, and the Registrar of Deeds of Malabon City, was docketed as Civil Case No. 4674MN of the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 74, in Malabon City.[1][1]

De Leon, having joined Civil Case No. 4674MN as a voluntary intervenor two years later (April 21, 2008), now accuses the respondent, the counsel of record of the defendants in Civil Case No. 4674MN, with the serious administrative offenses of dishonesty and falsification warranting his disbarment or suspension as an attorney. The respondent’s sin was allegedly committed by his filing for defendants Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu of various pleadings (that is, answer with counterclaim and cross-claim in relation to the main complaint; and answer to the complaint in intervention with counterclaim and cross-claim) despite said spouses being already deceased at the time of filing.[2][2]

De Leon avers that the respondent committed dishonesty and falsification as follows:

xxx in causing it (to) appear that persons (spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu) have participated in an act or proceeding (the making and filing of the Answers) when they did not in fact so participate; in fact, they could not have so participated because they were already dead as of that time, which is punishable under Article 172, in relation to Article 171, paragraph 2, of the Revised Penal Code.

Respondent also committed the crime of Use of Falsified Documents, by submitting the said falsified Answers in the judicial proceedings, Civil Case No. 4674MN;

Respondent also made a mockery of the aforesaid judicial proceedings by representing dead persons therein who, he falsely made to appear, as contesting the complaints, counter-suing and cross-suing the adverse parties.

12. That, as a consequence of the above criminal acts, complainant respectfully submits that respondent likewise violated:

(a)    His Lawyer’s Oath:

xxx

(b)   The Code of Professional Responsibility:[3][3]

xxx

On June 23, 2010, the Court directed the respondent to comment on De Leon’s administrative complaint.[4][4]

In due course, or on August 2, 2010,[5][5] the respondent rendered the following explanations in his comment, to wit:

1.  The persons who had engaged him as attorney to represent the Lim family in Civil Case No. 4674MN were William and Leonardo Lim, the children of Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu;

2.  Upon his (Atty. Castelo) initial queries relevant to the material allegations of the Government’s complaint in Civil Case No. 4674MN, William Lim, the representative of the Lim Family, informed him:

a.     That the Lim family had acquired the properties from Georgina Flores;

b.     That William and Leonardo Lim were already actively managing the family business, and now co-owned the properties by virtue of the deed of absolute sale their parents, Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu, had executed in their favor; and

c.  That because of the execution of the deed of absolute sale, William and Leonardo Lim had since honestly assumed that their parents had already caused the transfer of the TCTs to their names.

3.  Considering that William and Leonardo Lim themselves were the ones who had engaged his services, he (Atty. Castelo) consequently truthfully stated in the motion seeking an extension to file responsive pleading dated February 3, 2006 the fact that it was “the family of the defendants” that had engaged him, and that he had then advised “the children of the defendants” to seek the assistance as well of a licensed geodetic surveyor and engineer;

4.     He (Atty. Castelo) prepared the initial pleadings based on his honest belief that Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu were then still living.  Had he known that they were already deceased, he would have most welcomed the information and would have moved to substitute Leonardo and William Lim as defendants for that reason;

5.     He (Atty. Castelo) had no intention to commit either a falsehood or a falsification, for he in fact submitted the death certificates of Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu in order to apprise the trial court of that fact; and

6.     The Office of the Prosecutor for Malabon City even dismissed the criminal complaint for falsification brought against him (Atty. Castelo) through the resolution dated February 11, 2010. The same office denied the complainant’s motion for reconsideration on May 17, 2010.

On September 3, 2010, the complainant submitted a reply,[6][6]  whereby he asserted that the respondent’s claim in his comment that he had represented the Lim family was a deception, because the subject of the complaint against the respondent was his filing of the answers in behalf of Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu despite their being already deceased at the time of the filing. The complainant regarded as baseless the justifications of the Office of the City Prosecutor for Malabon City in dismissing the criminal complaint against the respondent and in denying his motion for reconsideration.

The Court usually first refers administrative complaints against members of the Philippine Bar to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) for investigation and appropriate recommendations. For the present case, however, we forego the prior referral of the complaint to the IBP, in view of the facts being uncomplicated and based on the pleadings in Civil Case No. 4674MN. Thus, we decide the complaint on its merits.

Ruling

We find that the respondent, as attorney, did not commit any falsehood or falsification in his pleadings in Civil Case No. 4674MN. Accordingly, we dismiss the patently frivolous complaint.

I

Attorney’s Obligation to tell the truth

All attorneys in the Philippines, including the respondent, have sworn to the vows embodied in following Lawyer’s Oath,[7][7] viz:

I, ___________________, do solemnly swear that I will maintain allegiance to the Republic of the Philippines; I will support its Constitution and obey the laws as well as the legal orders of the duly constituted authorities therein; I will do no falsehood, nor consent to the doing of any in court; I will not wittingly or willingly promote or sue any groundless, false or unlawful suit, nor give aid nor consent to the same.  I will delay no man for money or malice, and will conduct myself as a lawyer according to the best of my knowledge and discretion with all good fidelity as well to the courts as to my clients; and I impose upon myself this voluntary obligation without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion. So help me God.

The Code of Professional Responsibility echoes the Lawyer’s Oath, providing:[8][8]

CANON 1 – A LAWYER SHALL UPHOLD THE CONSTITUTION, OBEY THE LAWS OF THE LAND AND PROMOTE RESPECT FOR LAW AND LEGAL PROCESSES.

Rule 1.01 – A lawyer shall not engage in unlawful, dishonest, immoral or deceitful conduct.

CANON 10 – A LAWYER OWES CANDOR, FAIRNESS AND GOOD FAITH TO THE COURT.

Rule 10.01 – A lawyer shall not do any falsehood, nor consent to the doing of any in Court; nor shall he mislead, or allow the Court to be misled by any artifice.

The foregoing ordain ethical norms that bind all attorneys, as officers of the Court, to act with the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness.  All attorneys are thereby enjoined to obey the laws of the land, to refrain from doing any falsehood in or out of court or from consenting to the doing of any in court, and to conduct themselves according to the best of their knowledge and discretion with all good fidelity as well to the courts as to their clients. Being also servants of the Law, attorneys are expected to observe and maintain the rule of law and to make themselves exemplars worthy of emulation by others.[9][9] The least they can do in that regard is to refrain from engaging in any form or manner of unlawful conduct (which broadly includes any act or omission contrary to law, but does not necessarily imply the element of criminality even if it is broad enough to include such element).[10][10] 

To all attorneys, truthfulness and honesty have the highest value, for, as the Court has said in Young v. Batuegas:[11][11]

A lawyer must be a disciple of truth. He swore upon his admission to the Bar that he will “do no falsehood nor consent to the doing of any in court” and he shall “conduct himself as a lawyer according to the best of his knowledge and discretion with all good fidelity as well to the courts as to his clients.” He should bear in mind that as an officer of the court his high vocation is to correctly inform the court upon the law and the facts of the case and to aid it in doing justice and arriving at correct conclusion. The courts, on the other hand, are entitled to expect only complete honesty from lawyers appearing and pleading before them. While a lawyer has the solemn duty to defend his client’s rights and is expected to display the utmost zeal in defense of his client’s cause, his conduct must never be at the expense of truth.

Their being officers of the Court extends to attorneys not only the presumption of regularity in the discharge of their duties, but also the immunity from liability to others for as long as the performance of their obligations to their clients does not depart from their character as servants of the Law and as officers of the Court.  In particular, the statements they make in behalf of their clients that are relevant, pertinent, or material to the subject of inquiry are absolutely privileged regardless of their defamatory tenor. Such cloak of privilege is necessary and essential in ensuring the unhindered service to their clients’ causes and in protecting the clients’ confidences. With the cloak of privilege, they can freely and courageously speak for their clients, verbally or in writing, in the course of judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings, without running the risk of incurring criminal prosecution or actions for damages.[12][12]

Nonetheless, even if they enjoy a number of privileges by reason of their office and in recognition of the vital role they play in the administration of justice, attorneys hold the privilege and right to practice law before judicial, quasi-judicial, or administrative tribunals or offices only during good behavior.[13][13]

II

Respondent did not violate the Lawyer’s Oath

and the Code of Professional Responsibility

On April 17, 2006, the respondent filed an answer with counterclaim and cross-claim in behalf of Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu, the persons whom the Government as plaintiff named as defendants in Civil Case No. 4674MN.[14][14] He alleged therein that:

         2.  The allegations in paragraph 2 of the complaint are ADMITTED.  Moreover, it is hereby made known that defendants spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu had already sold the two (2) parcels of land, together with the building and improvements thereon, covered by Transfer Certificate of Title No. (148805) 139876 issued by the Register of Deeds of  Rizal, to Leonardo C. Lim and William C. Lim, of Rms. 501 – 502 Dolores Bldg., Plaza del Conde, Binondo, Manila. Hence, Leonardo Lim and William Lim are their successors-in-interest and are the present lawful owners thereof.

 

         In order to properly and fully protect their rights, ownership and interests, Leonardo C. Lim and William C. Lim shall hereby represent the defendants-spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu as substitute/representative parties in this action. In this manner, a complete and expeditious resolution of the issues raised in this case can be reached without undue delay.  A photo copy of the Deed of Absolute Sale over the subject property, executed by herein defendants-spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu in favor of said Leonardo C. Lim and William C. Lim, is hereto attached as Annex “1” hereof.

xxx

         21. There is improper joinder of parties in the complaint.  Consequently, answering defendants are thus unduly compelled to litigate in a suit regarding matters and facts as to which they have no knowledge of nor any involvement or participation in.

         22. Plaintiff is barred by the principle of estoppel in bringing this suit, as it was the one who, by its governmental authority, issued the titles to the subject property.

This action is barred by the principles of prescription and laches for plaintiff’s unreasonable delay in brining this suit, particularly against defendant Flores, from whom herein answering defendants acquired the subject property in good faith and for value.  If truly plaintiff has a clear and valid cause of action on the subject property, it should not have waited thirty (30) years to bring suit.

Two years later, or on April 21, 2008, De Leon filed his complaint in intervention in Civil Case No. 4674MN.[15][15] He expressly named therein as defendants vis-à-vis his intervention not only the Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu, the original defendants, but also their sons Leonardo Lim, married to Sally Khoo, and William Lim, married to Sally Lee, the same persons whom the respondent had already alleged in the answer, supra, to be the transferees and current owners of the parcels of land.[16][16]

The following portions of De Leon’s complaint in intervention in Civil Case No. 4674MN are relevant, viz:

2.   Defendant spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu, are Filipino citizens with addresses at 504 Plaza del Conde, Manila and at 46 C. Arellano St., San Agustin, Malabon City, where they may be served with summons and other court processes;

3.  Defendant spouses Leonardo Lim and Sally Khoo and defendant spouses William Lim  and Sally Lee are all of legal age and with postal address at Rms. 501-502 Dolores Bldg., Plaza del Conde, Binondo, Manila, alleged purchasers of the property in question from defendant  spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu;

4.  Defendants Registrar of Deeds of Malabon City holds office in Malabon City, where he may be served with summons and other court processes.  He is charged with the duty, among others, of registering decrees of Land Registration in Malabon City under the Land Registration Act;

xxx

7.  That intervenor Jessie de Leon, is the owner of a parcel of land located in Malabon City described in TCT no. M-15183 of the Register of Deeds of Malabon City, photocopy of which is attached to this Complaint as Annex “G”, and copy of the location plan of the aforementioned property is attached to this complaint as Annex “H” and is made an integral part hereof;

8.  That there are now more or less at least 40 squatters on intervenor’s property, most of them employees of defendant spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu and defendant spouses Leonardo Lim and Sally Khoo and defendant spouses William Lim and Sally Lee who had gained access to intervenor’s property and built their houses without benefit of any building permits from the government who had made their access to intervenor’s property thru a two panel metal gate more or less 10 meters wide and with an armed guard by the gate and with permission from defendant spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu and/or  and defendant spouses Leonardo Lim and Sally Khoo and defendant spouses William Lim and Sally Lee illegally entered intervenor’s property thru a wooden ladder to go over a 12 foot wall now separating intervenor’s property from the former esquinita which is now part of defendant spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu’s and defendant spouses Leonardo Lim and Sally Khoo’s and defendant spouses William Lim and Sally Lee’s property and this illegally allowed his employees as well as their relatives and friends thereof to illegally enter intervenor’s property through the ladders defendant spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu installed in their wall and also allowed said employees and relatives as well as friends to build houses and shacks without the benefit of any building permit as well as permit to occupy said illegal buildings;

9.  That the enlargement of the properties of spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu had resulted in the  closure of street lot no. 3 as described in TCT no. 143828, spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu having titled the street lot no. 3 and placed a wall at its opening on C. Arellano street, thus closing any exit or egress or entrance to intervenor’s property as could be seen from Annex “H” hereof and thus preventing intervenor from entering into his property resulted in preventing intervenor from fully enjoying all the beneficial benefits from his property;

 10.  That defendant spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu and later on defendant spouses Leonardo Lim and Sally Khoo and defendant spouses William Lim and Sally Lee are the only people who could give permission to allow third parties to enter intervenor’s  property and their control over intervenor’s property is enforced through his armed guard thus exercising illegal beneficial rights over intervenor’s property at intervenor’s loss and expense, thus depriving intervenor of legitimate income from rents as well as legitimate access to intervenor’s property  and the worst is preventing the Filipino people from enjoying the Malabon Navotas River and  enjoying the right of access to the natural fruits and products of the Malabon Navotas River and instead it is defendant spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu and defendant spouses Leonardo Lim and Sally Khoo and defendant spouses William Lim and Sally Lee using the public property exclusively to enrich their pockets;

xxx

13.  That defendant spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu and defendant spouses Leonardo Lim and Sally Khoo and defendant spouses William Lim and Sally Lee were confederating, working and helping one another in their actions to inhibit intervenor Jessie de Leon to gain access and beneficial benefit from his property;

On July 10, 2008, the respondent, representing all the defendants named in De Leon’s complaint in intervention, responded in an answer to the complaint in intervention with counterclaim and cross-claim,[17][17] stating that “spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu xxx are now both deceased,” to wit:

xxx

2.  The allegations in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the Complaint are ADMITTED, with the qualification that defendants-spouses Leonardo Lim and Sally Khoo Lim, William Lim and Sally Lee Lim are the registered and lawful owners of the subject property covered by Transfer Certificate of Title No. M-35929, issued by the Register of Deeds for Malabon City, having long ago acquired the same from the defendants-spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu, who are now both deceased.  Copy of the TCT No. M-35929 is attached hereto as Annexes “1” and “1-A”.  The same title has already been previously submitted to this Honorable Court on December 13, 2006.

xxx

The respondent subsequently submitted to the RTC a so-called clarification and submission,[18][18] in which he again adverted to the deaths of Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu, as follows:

1.  On March 19, 2009, herein movants-defendants Lim filed before this Honorable Court a Motion for Substitution of Defendants in the Principal Complaint of the plaintiff Republic of the Philippines, represented by the DENR;

2.  The Motion for Substitution is grounded on the fact that the two (2) parcels of land, with the improvements thereon, which are the subject matter of the instant case, had long been sold and transferred by the principal defendants-spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu to herein complaint-in-intervention defendants Leonardo C. Lim and William C. Lim, by way of a Deed of Absolute Sale, a copy of which is attached to said Motion as Annex “1” thereof.

3.  Quite plainly, the original principal defendants Lim Hio and Dolores Chu, having sold and conveyed the subject property, have totally lost any title, claim or legal interest on the property.  It is on this factual ground that this Motion for Substitution is based and certainly not on the wrong position of Intervenor de Leon that the same is based on the death of defendants Lim Hio and Dolores Chu.

4.  Under the foregoing circumstances and facts, the demise of defendants Lim Hio and Dolores Chu no longer has any significant relevance to the instant Motion.  To, however, show the fact of their death, photo copy of their respective death certificates are attached hereto as Annexes “1” and “2” hereof.

5.  The Motion for substitution of Defendants in the Principal Complaint dated March 18, 2009 shows in detail why there is the clear, legal and imperative need to now substitute herein movants-defendants Lim for defendants Lim Hio and Dolores Chu in the said principal complaint.

6. Simply put, movants-defendants Lim have become the indispensable defendants in the principal complaint of plaintiff DENR, being now the registered and lawful owners of the subject property and the real parties-in-interest in this case.  Without them, no final determination can be had in the Principal complaint.

7.  Significantly, the property of intervenor Jessie de Leon, which is the subject of his complaint-in-intervention, is identically, if not similarly, situated as that of herein movants-defendants Lim, and likewise, may as well be a proper subject of the Principal Complaint of plaintiff DENR.

8.  Even the plaintiff DENR, itself, concedes the fact that herein movants-defendants Lim should be substituted as defendants in the principal complaint as contained in their Manifestation dated June 3, 2009, which has been filed in this case.

WHEREFORE, herein movants-defendants Lim most respectfully submit their Motion for substitution of Defendants in the Principal Complaint and pray that the same be granted.

xxx

Did the respondent violate the letter and spirit of the Lawyer’s Oath and the Code of Professional Responsibility in making the averments in the aforequoted pleadings of the defendants?

A plain reading indicates that the respondent did not misrepresent that Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu were still living. On the contrary, the respondent directly stated in the answer to the complaint in intervention with counterclaim and cross-claim, supra, and in the clarification and submission, supra, that the Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu were already deceased.

Even granting, for the sake of argument, that any of the respondent’s pleadings might have created any impression that the Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu were still living, we still cannot hold the respondent guilty of any dishonesty or falsification. For one, the respondent was acting in the interest of the actual owners of the properties when he filed the answer with counterclaim and cross-claim on April 17, 2006. As such, his pleadings were privileged and would not occasion any action against him as an attorney. Secondly, having made clear at the start that the Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu were no longer the actual owners of the affected properties due to the transfer of ownership even prior to the institution of the action, and that the actual owners (i.e., Leonardo and William Lim) needed to be substituted in lieu of said spouses, whether the Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu were still living or already deceased as of the filing of the pleadings became immaterial. And, lastly, De Leon could not disclaim knowledge that the Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu were no longer living. His joining in the action as a voluntary intervenor charged him with notice of all the other persons interested in the litigation. He also had an actual awareness of such other persons, as his own complaint in intervention, supra, bear out in its specific allegations against Leonardo Lim and William Lim, and their respective spouses. Thus, he could not validly insist that the respondent committed any dishonesty or falsification in relation to him or to any other party.

III

Good faith must always motivate any complaint

against a Member of the Bar

 

According to Justice Cardozo,[19][19] “xxx the fair fame of a lawyer, however innocent of wrong, is at the mercy of the tongue of ignorance or malice. Reputation in such a calling is a plant of tender growth, and its bloom, once lost, is not easily restored.”

A lawyer’s reputation is, indeed, a very fragile object.  The Court, whose officer every lawyer is, must shield such fragility from mindless assault by the unscrupulous and the malicious. It can do so, firstly, by quickly cutting down any patently frivolous complaint against a lawyer; and, secondly, by demanding good faith from whoever brings any accusation of unethical conduct. A Bar that is insulated from intimidation and harassment is encouraged to be courageous and fearless, which can then best contribute to the efficient delivery and proper administration of justice.

The complainant initiated his complaint possibly for the sake of harassing the respondent, either to vex him for taking the cudgels for his clients in connection with Civil Case No. 4674MN, or to get even for an imagined wrong in relation to the subject matter of the pending action, or to accomplish some other dark purpose. The worthlessness of the accusation – apparent from the beginning – has impelled us into resolving the complaint sooner than later.

WHEREFORE, we dismiss the complaint for disbarment or suspension filed against Atty. Eduardo G. Castelo for utter lack of merit.

SO ORDERED.

         

                                                                    LUCAS P. BERSAMIN

                                                                           Associate Justice

WE CONCUR:

CONCHITA CARPIO MORALES

Associate Justice

Chairperson

      ARTURO D. BRION              MARTIN S. VILLARAMA, JR.

           Associate Justice                               Associate Justice

MARIA LOURDES P.A. SERENO 

Associate Justice


 


[1][1]   Rollo, pp. 8-21.

[2][2]   Id., pp. 1-7.

[3][3]   Id., pp. 4-5.

[4][4]   Id., p. 62.

[5][5]   Id., pp. 63-76.

[6][6]   Id., pp. 137-153.

[7][7]   Form No. 28, attached to the Rules of Court.

[8][8]   Macias v. Selda, A.C. No. 6442, October 21, 2004, 441 SCRA 65.

[9][9]   Agpalo, Comments on the Code of Professional Responsibility and the Code of Judicial Conduct, 2001 Edition.

[10][10] In Re:Report on the Financial Audit Conducted on the Books of Accounts of Atty. Raquel G. Kho, Clerk of Court IV, Regional Trial Court, Oras, Eastern Samar, A. M. No. P-06-2177, April 13, 2007, 521 SCRA 25.

[11][11]         A.C. No. 5379, May 9, 2003, 403 SCRA 123.

[12][12] Agpalo, Legal and Judicial Ethics, Eighth Edition (2009), pp.8-9.

[13][13] Id., p. 8.

[14][14]         Rollo, pp. 22-33 (Note that the cross-claim was against Georgina Flores, the transferor/predecessor-in-interest of Spouses Lim Hio and Dolores Chu).

[15][15]         Id., pp. 34-42.

[16][16]         The Registrar of Deeds of Malabon City was also named by the complainant as a defendant to his complaint in intervention.

[17][17]         Rollo, pp. 43-54.

[18][18]         Id., pp. 56-61.

[19][19]         People of the State of New York ex rel. Alexander Karlin v. Charles W. Culkin, as Sheriff of the County of New York, 248 N.Y. 465, 162 N.E. 487, 60 A.L.R. 851.

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