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G.R. No. 159302 - CITIBANK, N.A. v. NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS COMMISSION, ET AL.

G.R. No. 159302 - CITIBANK, N.A. v. NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS COMMISSION, ET AL.

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

SECOND DIVISION

[G.R. NO. 159302 : February 6, 2008]

CITIBANK, N.A., Petitioner, v. NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS COMMISSION and ROSITA TAN PARAGAS, Respondents.

D E C I S I O N

CARPIO MORALES, J.:

Subject of this Petition for Review is the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) Resolution dated October 24, 2001 granting the MOTION FOR PARTIAL RECONSIDERATION of respondent Rosita Tan Paragas (Rosita) relative to her appeal in an illegal dismissal case, which the Court of Appeals affirmed in toto by Decision of January 24, 2003 and Resolution of July 29, 2003.1

Rosita was found by Labor Arbiter Geobel Bartolabac to be an employee of petitioner Citibank, N.A. for around eighteen (18) years from August 8, 1979 to September 4, 1997. At the time her employment was terminated by petitioner for serious misconduct, willful disobedience, gross and habitual neglect of duties and gross inefficiency, she was occupying the position of filing clerk.

The relevant facts pertaining to respondent's employment history may be gleaned from the following salient portions of the labor arbiter's Decision of June 29, 1998:

On 8 August 1979, complainant Paragas joined respondent Citibank as Secretary to the Premises Administration (up to 1981): Corporate Teller (1981-1982): Secretary to Assistant Vice Presidents Ed Katigbak and Z.P. Molina (up to 1987); Secretary to Vice-President-Legal Counsel, Atty. Renato J. Fernandez (up [to] 1988); Secretary to the Employer/Employee Relations Officer, Atty. Beatriz Alo and later to the Public Affairs Director Vice President, Maximo J. Edralin, Jr. When the latter retired in 1992, complainant was assigned to Cash Management Services as Remittance Processor.

Sometime in the early part of 1993, as a result of the reorganization, respondent bank declared certain officers and employees, or their positions/functions, redundant. Among these affected was complainant Paragas. However, to accommodate the union officers' request, complainant's employment was not terminated but was assigned to Records Management Unit of the Quality Assurance Division as bank statement retriever, a filing clerk job described by complainant as "non-brainer job."

In the latter part of July 1994, complainant was assigned to file Universal Account Opening Forms (UAOF) in file boxes and retrieving such UAOFs from the file boxes upon internal customers' request from time to time. In the same month, she was also assigned to process or develop microfilms. However, on 20 February 1995, she complained that the processing of microfilms was proving to be harmful to her health. Thus, the job was reassigned to another clerk. Accordingly, beginning 21 February 1995, complainant's job in the bank was to file and retrieve UAOFs. x x x

x    x    x

On 11 December 1996, complainant was assigned to undertake the special project of reorganizing the UAOF's from 13 December 1996 to 15 May 1997. The work to be done are as follows:

A. Review of existing files in order to verify misfiles

b. Pull-out of misfiles and file them in their proper places

c. Interfile new/incoming UAOFs received for the day

d. Add new file boxes and make an allowance of at least - inch for each file box for incoming UAOFs and for future explasion [sic]

e. Labelling of all file boxes and Corporate UAOFs and their actual contents

f. Transfer of the UAOFs from the Citicenter basement to the new compactors at the third floor

g. Submit a status report (accomplishment for the week) every Monday

On 10 January 1997, AVP Narciso Ferrera issued a Memo to complainant calling her attention on the following, to wit:

10 January 1997

TO Rosita T. Paragas

CC: Randy J. Uson

SUBJECT: REORGANIZATION OF THE UNIVERSAL ACCOUNT OPENING FORMS (UAOF's)

In connection with the Reorganization of the Universal Account Opening Forms (UAOF's), I would like to call your attention on the following, viz:

A. Various misfiling on the reorganized UAOF file I had the reorganized file counter-checked by your co-employees and they came out with the following misfiling, e.g.

1. Belo, Jose; Belo, Matilde, Belo William interfiled with BELLO

2. BARRAGER, RAYMOND misfiled with BARANGAN and BARANUELO Box (BARBARO)

3. EUGENIO BARAOIDANs interfiled with BARNUEVO AND BARRAMEDA

4. VICTOR AGIUS filed with the AGUIRREs

5. Several AGUILAs interfiled with File box ALF-ALI

6. LETICIA AMANSEC filed with AMAR and AMARGO

7. Several BARON interfiled between BARROGA AND BARRON

8. AMANDA CAMELLO interfiled between CAMERO and CAMERON

9. PETER CARSON interfiled between CARR and CARRAD

They went thru 9 files boxes only and found 9 misfiles. This level of errors is not acceptable. Remember a misfiled document is considered LOST and you will have to go through the file one by one to be able to retrieve it.

b. Submission of a weekly status report every Monday. As per our agreement, report every Monday effective January 6, 1997. As of February 10, 1997; I have not received a single report from you.

c. Trimming/cutting of edges of attached documents like xerox copies of Ids, Passports, Drivers license, etc. I would like to reiterate my previous instructions to do away with the trimming and cutting of attached documents as it only consumes valuable time and will prolong the reorganization process. We started the reorganization last December 13, 1996 and as today 10 February 1997, you are still in letter C for a total of 163 file boxes. There are still 348 file boxes to reorganize

d. Accumulation of incoming newly received UAOFs. I have noticed that you have accumulated two (2) boxes full of personal UAOFs at the basement and at the third floor. Arce and Sammy are complaining on the retrieval of these files. It is taking them more time and efforts. In the monthly meeting we had last December, 1996, interfiling incoming UAOFs is your responsibility.

In view of the above, please concentrate on the filing process and stop trimming the attachments. Our goal in the reorganization of the UAOFs is ACCURATE FILING so that these documents could be located when requested. I hope you exhaust all means and efforts to finish the project within the given time frame.

Please be guided accordingly.

(Sgd.) Narciso M. Ferrera
Assistant Vice President

Again, on 2 April 1997, complainant received another memo from AVP Ferrera called her attention (a) to the same nine (9) cases misfiled UAOF's in Annex 16, (b) to three (3) other cases of misfiled UAOFs (c) her persistent failure to submit weekly report on the progress of her work under the Special Project, and (d) that despite the lapse of three (3) months, she was still in letter D (or UAOFs covering clients whose surnames begin with letter D).

As she failed to complete the project on 30 May 1997, complainant was given another 30 days to complete it. However, by the end of June 1997, her accomplishment was only 30% of the total work to be done.

On 25 July 1997, AVP Ferrera directed complainant to explain in writing why her employment should not be terminated on the ground of serious misconduct, willful disobedience, gross and habitual neglect of her duties and gross inefficiency. Correspondingly, complainant was placed under Preventive suspension. Complainant submitted her written explanation on 31 July 1997.

On 29 August 1997, an administrative conference took place with the complainant, her counsel and the Union President in attendance.

Finally, on 4 September 1997, the respondent bank thru AVP Ferrera notified complainant that her written explanation and those which she ventilated during the administrative conference held on 29 August 1997 were found self-serving, and consequently, terminating her employment on the ground of serious misconduct, willful disobedience, gross and habitual neglect of duties and gross inefficiency.2

Following the termination of her services, respondent filed a complaint for illegal dismissal, praying for reinstatement, backwages, damages and attorney's fees.3 By the aforementioned Decision of June 29, 1998, the labor arbiter dismissed the complaint for lack of merit, finding that her dismissal on the ground of work inefficiency was valid.

On appeal, the NLRC, by Resolution of October 24, 2000, affirmed the decision of the labor arbiter with the modification that respondent should be paid separation pay "as a form of equitable relief" in view of her length of service with petitioner.

Respondent filed a MOTION FOR PARTIAL RECONSIDERATION of the NLRC Resolution. She no longer challenged her dismissal on the ground of work inefficiency, but prayed that petitioner be ordered to pay her the "Provident Fund" benefits under its retirement plan for which she claimed to be qualified pursuant to petitioner's "Working Together" Manual, specifically the provision on page 12.5 thereof which states:

Should you (employee) resign or be discharged for reasons other than misconduct prior to your earliest retirement date, you will be paid a percentage of your share in the Fund according to the following schedule:

Completed Years of Continuous Service

Vesting

20 or more years

100%

19 years

95%

18 years

90%

x x x x

x x x x4

(Emphasis and underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary

Respondent, claiming that the labor arbiter upheld her dismissal on the ground of merely "work inefficiency" and not for any misconduct on her part, asserted that she is entitled to 90% of the retirement benefits.

Petitioner did not move to reconsider the NLRC October 24, 2000 Resolution.

Finding that respondent's dismissal was "for causes other than misconduct," the NLRC, by the above-mentioned October 24, 2001 Resolution granted respondent's motion for partial reconsideration.5 Petitioner moved to reconsider this Resolution, but the same was denied by the NLRC.

Petitioner thereupon filed a petition for certiorari with the Court of Appeals to set aside and nullify the October 24, 2001 NLRC Resolution. The appellate court, by Decision dated January 24, 2003, dismissed petitioner's petition for lack of merit and affirmed in toto the challenged NLRC Resolution. Its motion for reconsideration having been denied by the appellate court by Resolution of July 29, 2003, the present petition6 was filed, petitioner asserting as follows:

1. The NLRC has no authority to pass upon and resolve issues and grant claims not pleaded and proved before the Labor Arbiter.

2. The NLRC acted without authority or without or in excess of jurisdiction when it granted the entirely new/subsequent claim (for payment of retirement benefits) of Paragas.

3. In any case, (a) the actuations of Paragas narrated in petitioner's motion for reconsideration [of the NLRC Resolution dated October 24, 2001] for which petitioner had dismissed her on the ground of Serious Misconduct, among other grounds and (b) the decision of the Labor Arbiter dismissing Paragas' complaint for illegal dismissal for lack of merit, which the NLRC affirmed, show that Paragas is not entitled to her new claim for retirement benefits; for as Paragas herself has shown in her motion for partial reconsideration, under the Retirement Plan of the bank a bank employee who has been dismissed for misconduct is not entitled to retirement benefit.

4. In any event, even assuming that Paragas was entitled to retirement benefit, her claim therefor is already time-barred.

5. Thus, the Court of Appeals erred when it dismissed petitioner's petition in CA-G.R. No. SP 69642.7

The petition is impressed with merit.

That respondent did not expressly claim retirement benefits in the proceedings before the labor arbiter is not disputed. Indeed, she admits that the first time she explicitly prayed for such benefits was in her Motion for Partial Reconsideration filed with the NLRC. She argues, nonetheless, that the grant thereof by the NLRC was warranted based on the principle that rules of procedure and evidence should not be applied rigidly and technically in labor cases. Moreover, she alleges that her claim for retirement benefits was implicit in her general prayer in her position paper for "such other reliefs as may be just and equitable."

While it is established that technical rules of procedure may be relaxed in labor cases, Mañebo v. NLRC8 instructs

We wish, however, to stress some points. Firstly, while it is true that the Rules of the NLRC must be liberally construed and that the NLRC is not bound by the technicalities of law and procedure, the Labor Arbiters and the NLRC itself must not be the first to arbitrarily disregard specific provisions of the Rules which are precisely intended to assist the parties in obtaining just, expeditious, and inexpensive settlement of labor disputes. One such provision is Section 3, Rule V of the New Rules of Procedure of the NLRC which requires the submission of verified position papers within fifteen days from the date of the last conference, with proof of service thereof on the other parties. The position papers "shall cover only those claims and causes of action raised in the complaint excluding those that may have been amicably settled, and shall be accompanied by all supporting documents including the affidavits of their respective witnesses which shall take the place of the latter's testimony." After the submission thereof, the parties "shall not be allowed to allege facts, or present evidence to prove facts, not referred to and any cause or causes of action not included in the complaint or position papers, affidavits and other documents."(Emphasis and underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary

Respondent indeed prayed for "other just and equitable relief," but the same may not be interpreted so broadly as to include even those which are not warranted by the factual premises alleged by a party. Thus the January 24, 2003 Decision of the Court of Appeals correctly stated: "It has been ruled in this jurisdiction that the general prayer for 'other reliefs' is applicable to such other reliefs which are warranted by the law and facts alleged by the respondent in her basic pleadings and not on a newly created issue."9 (Underscoring supplied) Particularly in People v. Lacson,10 this Court held:

x x x Case law has it that a prayer for equitable relief is of no avail, unless the petition states facts which will authorize the court to grant such relief. A court cannot set itself in motion, nor has it power to decide questions except as presented by the parties in their pleadings. Anything that is resolved or decided beyond them is coram non judice and void. (Emphasis supplied)cralawlibrary

Respondent's assertion that she mentioned the matter regarding the Provident Fund even prior to her Motion for Partial Reconsideration - on page 14 of her position paper and again on pages 2 and 7 of her "Notice of Appeal and Appeal Memorandum" - is unavailing.

Her "Notice of Appeal and Appeal Memorandum" was filed after she had already submitted her position paper. Thus, any mention of the Provident Fund therein would fail to adhere to the above-ruling in Mañebo, the thrust of which was precisely that all facts, evidence, and causes of action should already be proffered in the position papers and the supporting documents thereto, not in any later pleading.

As to respondent's position paper, there was only the mere mention of "Provident A & C," with the corresponding amount of P1,086,335.43, among the actual damages that she was allegedly suffering from her continued severance from employment.11 Respondent made no attempt to define what this "Provident A & C" was, nor offer any substantiation for including it to be among her actual damages. She did not even hint how "Provident A & C" had a bearing on retirement benefits. Thus, while respondent did refer to the Provident Fund in her position paper, such reference was too vague to be a basis for any court or administrative body to grant her retirement benefits.

Respondent justifies her failure to claim for retirement benefits before the labor arbiter by alleging that it would be inconsistent with her prayer for reinstatement. Respondent, however, could have easily claimed such benefits as an alternative relief.

In any event, respondent is not entitled to retirement benefits as this Court finds that she was validly dismissed for serious misconduct and not merely for work inefficiency.

While findings of fact in administrative decisions such as those rendered by the NLRC are to be accorded not only great weight and respect, but even finality, the rule only applies for as long as these findings are supported by substantial evidence.12 In the present case, the NLRC was absolutely silent on why it did not give credence to petitioner's evidence on respondent's misconduct. It was content merely to state that "the separation is not for reasons of misconduct but for other grounds"13 without any substantiation and in total disregard of the evidence proffered by petitioner. Colegio de San Juan de Letran-Calamba v. Villas14 instructs:

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.(Emphasis and underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary

True, the NLRC adopted the findings of the labor arbiter, but the labor arbiter did not expressly rule on the issue of respondent's alleged misconduct - which is not surprising, for a ruling thereon was not then strictly necessary. At that stage, the main issue which had to be resolved was only whether respondent's dismissal was valid, and not whether she was qualified for retirement benefits. Only when respondent raised the claim of retirement benefits did it become crucial to determine whether she was validly dismissed on the specific ground of serious misconduct, not only on the ground of poor work performance.

As reflected above, this Court, after a review of the NLRC finding that respondent did not commit serious misconduct, finds otherwise.

While the labor arbiter did not explicitly rule that respondent committed serious misconduct, his decision leads to that conclusion, for the documentary evidence which it cites as basis to prove her work inefficiency shows, upon close examination, also her commission of serious misconduct.

In support of its ruling that respondent's dismissal was valid, the labor arbiter relied on the performance appraisals of respondent from July to December 1994, from January to June 1995, and from July to December 1996, all of which were submitted by petitioner's Assistant Vice-President, Narciso M. Ferrera. The labor arbiter noted that Ferrera's evaluation of respondent was not lacking in objectivity.

These performance appraisals, however, did not merely show that respondent was not able to meet performance targets. More relevantly, they also consistently noted significant behavioral and attitudinal problems in respondent. In particular, respondent was found to be very argumentative;15 she had difficulty working with others;16 she was hard to deal with;17 and she never ceased being the subject of complaints from co-workers.18

Moreover, beyond the documents referred to in the labor arbiter's decision, there are other pieces of evidence on record which further establish that respondent was validly dismissed not only for work inefficiency but for serious misconduct. The Court sees no reason why these should not be accorded credibility along with those cited by the labor arbiter.

The assessment of respondent's performance by Randy Uson, another superior of respondent, was given weight by the labor arbiter who noted that Uson was "described as [a] very professional and fair person by complainant [herein-respondent] herself."19 Significantly, Uson later commented on respondent's behavior as follows:

"Less tangible but none the less real, are the common concerns raised by her peers and supervisor, on the stress and tension created when Rose is around. The conscious effort to 'get out of her way' and avoid conflict, hinders productivity and efficiency and has adversely affected the morale of the entire unit. x x x"20 (Emphasis and underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary

More. For the appraisal period from June to December 1995, respondent's performance appraisal report stated that her attitude towards her work, the bank, and superiors needed reformation.21 The report for January to June 1996 made the same observation,22 indicating that there was no improvement on her part.

The performance appraisal report of respondent for the period of January to June 1997, besides stating that she was still "hard to deal with," described her as "belligerent," one who had "a negative presence which affects the morale of the entire unit," and who "pick[ed] fights with peers and other employees even without provocation."23

The evaluation of respondent cited above finds corroboration in her admission that "she may have been tactless and insolent in dealing with her superior but it does not allegedly warrant the supreme penalty of dismissal."24

Finally, even the NLRC, its later ruling that respondent was not guilty of misconduct notwithstanding, was aware that the problem with respondent was not merely her poor work output, but her unreasonable behavior and unpleasant deportment. Thus, as its Resolution of October 24, 2000 drew to a close, it stated that petitioner was "correct" in invoking Cathedral School of Technology v. NLRC,25 specifically the following portion of this Court's decision therein:

An evaluative review of the records of this case nonetheless supports a finding of a just cause for termination. The reason for which private respondent's services were terminated, namely, her unreasonable behavior and unpleasant deportment in dealing with the people she closely works with in the course of her employment, is analogous to the other "just causes" enumerated under the Labor Code. (Emphasis supplied)cralawlibrary

It bears noting that petitioner cited Cathedral School of Technology in its Comment/Reply to Complainant-Appellant's Appeal Memorandum precisely to show that its dismissal of complainant on the ground of "gross inefficiency and unreasonable behavior" (emphasis supplied) was correctly upheld by the labor arbiter.26

When an employee, despite repeated warnings from the employer, obstinately refuses to curtail a bellicose inclination such that it erodes the morale of co-employees, the same may be a ground for dismissal for serious misconduct.

As this Court held in National Service Corp. v. Leogardo, Jr.,27 "[a] series of irregularities when put together may constitute serious misconduct, which under Article 283 of the Labor Code, is a just cause for termination." And as it held in Asian Design and Manufacturing Corporation v. Deputy Minister of Labor, acts destructive of the morale of one's co-employees may be considered serious misconduct.28

It is respondent's obstinate refusal to reform herself which ultimately persuades this Court to find that her dismissal on the ground of serious misconduct was valid. Clearly, the following statement of Jaime R. Paraiso, head of petitioner's Records Management Unit, quoted with approval both by the labor arbiter and the NLRC, relates not only to respondent's inefficiency but also to her admittedly tactless and insolent dealings with her superior.

While we all have strengths and good points we also have weaknesses and shortcomings. However, the first step towards self-improvement is acknowledging and accepting one's weaknesses and shortcomings. This is followed by a resolve to change for the better, in turn followed by appropriate action. These elements are not evident in the responses given [by respondent to the performance appraisal report] and there is no clear indication of a desire for self-improvement or any plans in that direction. There continues to be a need to address this situation.29 (Emphasis supplied)cralawlibrary

Having been validly dismissed on the ground of serious misconduct, respondent is thus disqualified from receiving her retirement benefits pursuant to the provision of petitioner's "Working Together" Manual quoted earlier.

WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The Court of Appeals Decision of January 24, 2003 and Resolution of July 29, 2003 are SET ASIDE. The NLRC Resolution dated October 24, 2001 granting private respondent's MOTION FOR PARTIAL RECONSIDERATION is thus VACATED.

SO ORDERED.

Quisumbing, J., Chairperson, , Carpio, Tinga, Velasco, Jr., JJ., concur.

Endnotes:


1 Both penned by Court of Appeals Associate Justice Eugene S. Labitoria, with the concurrence of Associate Justices Renato C. Dacudao and Danilo B. Pine. CA rollo, pp. 281-287 and 325-326, respectively.

2 Rollo, pp. 130-133.

3 WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing consideration, it is most respectfully prayed that judgment be rendered against Respondents/Citibank, N.A., Suresh Maharaj, Narciso M. Ferrera, Beatriz C. Alo, Raul (Randy) J. Uson, Atul R. Patel jointly and severally as follows:

1. Ordering the immediate reinstatement of complainant to her original or equivalent position without loss of seniority, with backwages from the time she was suspended and terminated from the services until reinstatement.

2. Ordering the payment to complainant the sum of P50,754.00 representing Christmas bonus and 13th month pay.

3. Ordering respondents to pay complainant all the monetary benefits accruing to her under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

4. Ordering the respondents to pay actual damages in the sum of One Hundred Forty Six Thousand Four Hundred Ninety Four & 50/100 (P146,494.50) and medical bills of Twenty Thousand Pesos (P20,000).

5. Ordering respondent to pay moral damages in the sum Two Million Pesos P2,000,000.00.

6. Ordering respondent to pay the sum of Two Hundred Thousand P200,000 by way of exemplary damages.

7. Ordering respondent to pay the sum of Fifty Thousand Pesos P50,000.00 by way of nominal damages.

8. Ordering the respondent to pay the sum of P50,000 by way of temperate or moderate damages.

9. Ordering respondents to pay complainant the sum of Two Hundred Thousand Pesos only (P200,000.00) by way of attorney's fees.

10. Enjoining respondents from declaring complainant's housing loan due and payable and ordering it to cease and desist from foreclosing the real estate mortgage of complainant should respondents planned to do so, until the termination of instant case;

11. Ordering respondents to cease and desist from declaring due and payable all the company loans extended to complainant by reason of her employment, until final termination of instant case.

Complainant further prays for such other reliefs as may be just and equitable. (Rollo, pp. 81-82)

4 Annex "A" of Motion for Partial Reconsideration, NLRC records (Vol. II), no page number indicated.

5 The NLRC disposed as follows:

WHEREFORE, the Resolution dated October 24, 2000 is PARTIALLY RECONSIDERED and the respondents are further ORDERED to pay the complainant her retirement benefits equivalent to 90% of the total retirement benefits had she completed twenty years of service to respondent Bank pursuant to the Citibank N.A. Retirement Plan for Philippine Branches and consistent with the existing guidelines and regulations of respondent Bank. (Rollo, p. 158)

6 The petition was earlier denied by this Court's Resolution dated September 24, 2003 (rollo, p. 237) on procedural grounds, but was reinstated on petitioner's motion by Resolution dated August 17, 2005 (rollo, p. 311).

7 Rollo, p. 36.

8 G.R. No. 107721, January 10, 1994, 229 SCRA 240, 248.

9 Rollo, p. 61.

10 459 Phil. 330, 366 (2003).

11 Page 14 of Position Paper of respondent-complainant, NLRC records (Vol. I), p. 40.

12 Agoy v. NLRC, 322 Phil. 636, 644-645 (1996).

13 Page 5 of NLRC Resolution dated October 24, 2001, rollo, p. 154.

14 447 Phil. 692, 700 (2003).

15 NLRC records (Vol. I), pp. 118, 123.

16 Id. at 118, 123.

17 Id. at 134

18 Ibid.

19 Rollo, p. 100.

20 NLRC records (Vol. I), p. 140.

21 Id. at 127.

22 Id. at 130.

23 Id. at 54.

24 Id. at 258.

25 G.R. No. 101438, October 13, 1992, 214 SCRA 551, 559.

26 CA rollo, p. 167.

27 215 Phil. 450, 457 (1984).

28 226 Phil. 20, 23 (1986).

29 Rollo, p. 138.

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