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G.R. No. 165550 - STANDARD CHARTERED BANK v. STANDARD CHARTERED BANK EMPLOYEES UNION (SCBEU)

G.R. No. 165550 - STANDARD CHARTERED BANK v. STANDARD CHARTERED BANK EMPLOYEES UNION (SCBEU)

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

SECOND DIVISION

[G.R. NO. 165550 : October 8, 2008]

STANDARD CHARTERED BANK, Petitioners, v. STANDARD CHARTERED BANK EMPLOYEES UNION (SCBEU), Respondents.

D E C I S I O N

LEONARDO-DE CASTRO, J.:

Before this Court is the Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court of Standard Chartered Bank assailing the Decision1 dated July 1, 2004 as well as the Resolution2 dated September 23, 2004 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 71448. The questioned Decision and Resolution of the appellate court affirmed the Orders3 dated March 11, 2002 and April 29, 2002 of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) which sustained the outpatient medicine reimbursements of the employees of petitioner as well as the maternity benefits of the spouses of its male employees. Respondent Standard Chartered Bank Employees Union (SCBEU) filed its Comment (to the petition)4 on March 28, 2005 and petitioner filed its Reply5 thereto on June 21, 2005.

The facts are culled from the records of the case.

On August 25, 1998, petitioner Standard Chartered Bank entered into a Collective Bargaining Agreement6 (CBA) with respondent Standard Chartered Bank Employees Union (SCBEU), which provided, among others, for medical benefits. Under Article XI, Section 1 of the CBA, petitioner committed to "continue to cover all its employees with a group hospitalization and major surgical insurance plan including maternity benefits."7 7"> At the time of the signing of the said CBA, the group hospitalization insurance plan in force was Group Policy No. P-1620 issued by the Philippine American Life (Philamlife) Insurance Company with * Additional Member as per Special Order No. 520.

an effective date of March 3, 1977.8

After the signing of the CBA, petitioner changed its insurance provider from Philamlife to Maxicare, a Health Maintenance Organization, to allegedly provide its employees with improved medical benefits under the CBA.

Subsequently, respondent charged petitioner with unfair labor practice before the DOLE for alleged gross violation of the economic provisions of the CBA and diminution or removal of benefits. Respondent contested, among others, the exclusion of the outpatient medicine reimbursements of the employees and the maternity benefits granted to the spouses of the male employees of petitioner in the new insurance policy provided by Maxicare.

In support of its allegations, respondent presented a letter addressed to petitioner's Personnel Manager from the Group Marketing Officer of Philamlife and documents indicating reimbursements for outpatient services to prove that the petitioner's employees had been enjoying outpatient medicine reimbursements. Respondent also cited Schedule L of the CBA and affidavits of employees to prove that the spouses of the male employees of petitioner were entitled to maternity benefits.

Petitioner, in turn, argued that there was no diminution of benefits as the insurance policy issued by Maxicare contained similar benefits to those contained in the previous Philamlife policy. Petitioner alleged that outpatient medicine reimbursement was not expressly provided for in the Philamlife insurance policy and that this was precisely the reason petitioner's employees were provided with a medicine allowance under the CBA. Petitioner also contended that the maternity benefits as provided in the CBA were exclusive to its female employees and that the past practices cited by the respondent were "malpractices" which it seeks to curtail and correct.

In a Decision dated May 31, 2001, the DOLE gave credit to the claims of respondent. It ruled that the "outpatient benefit [had] been a regular feature of the [petitioner's] medical coverage and as a regular feature, cannot be withdrawn unilaterally."9 The insurance policy issued by Philamlife allowed outpatient benefits as claims against maximum disablement, notwithstanding the lack of an express provision regarding outpatient benefits. Moreover, the DOLE found that petitioner acknowledged, without disapproval or objection, employees' requests for reimbursement of outpatient medical expenses under the old insurance plan. The DOLE also held that the spouses of the male employees of petitioner were entitled to maternity benefits as a matter of practice. This finding was supported by the claims for reimbursement of maternity expenses of the spouses of bank employees covering the period from 1984 to 1998. The 1984 claims indicated that the same were approved by petitioner and that there was no showing that it disapproved or challenged the other claims. The DOLE said that these circumstances negated petitioner's contention that there was a mistake in the processing of claims for the said maternity benefits.

In an Order10 dated October 5, 2001, the DOLE acted on the separate motions for reconsideration of the parties and sustained its earlier findings but reversed its ruling that the maternity benefits granted by petitioner extend to the spouses of its male employees. Respondent allegedly failed to dispute the assertion of petitioner that there were only three out of four claims covering the period of twenty years that were processed by Philamlife. The DOLE was convinced that there was no voluntary practice of giving said maternity benefits to spouses of male employees.

Respondent filed a second motion for reconsideration11 and contended that it submitted documentary evidence showing that there were nine claims of the subject maternity benefits that were processed and approved. These were in addition to the four affidavits of bank employees attesting to the fact that the medical hospitalization plan of Philamlife included such maternity benefits. Respondent further pointed out that these benefits were even integrated in the CBA.

In the assailed Order dated March 11, 2002, the DOLE reverted to its original ruling that the spouses of male employees of petitioner were entitled to maternity benefits. Petitioner disagreed and filed a second motion for reconsideration to this ruling and a motion for clarification regarding the grant of "outpatient benefits" to the employees. In a subsequent Order dated April 29, 2002, the DOLE denied the said motion and clarified that the grant of outpatient benefits includes medicine reimbursements.

Petitioner elevated this case before the appellate court through a special civil action for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court. The said court dismissed the petition and affirmed the assailed Orders dated March 11, 2002 and April 29, 2002 of the DOLE and held that the basis for the grant of the subject maternity benefits was Schedule L of the CBA of the parties. The appellate court likewise denied petitioner's motion for reconsideration thereto for lack of merit.

Hence, the instant Petition for Review on Certiorari .

Petitioner assails the rulings of the appellate court on the ground that the same are not in accord with evidence, law, and the applicable decisions of this Court and raises the following issues:

ISSUES

A. Whether or not, on the basis of evidence on record, the appellate court is correct in ruling that spouses of male employees are entitled to maternity benefits despite its own finding that there was no established company practice of granting maternity benefits to male employees' spouses; andcralawlibrary

B. Whether or not, on the basis of the evidence on record, the appellate court is correct in ruling that there is an established company practice of granting outpatient medicine reimbursements to petitioner's employees.

Anent the first issue, petitioner claims that the spouses of its male employees are not entitled to maternity benefits as these are exclusively intended for its female employees. It is petitioner's view that the CA erred in finding that Schedule L of the CBA obligates it to pay maternity benefits to spouses of its male employees, despite ruling that there is no company practice granting maternity benefits to such persons.

According to petitioner, the literal interpretation of Schedule L of the CBA is not the real intention of the parties to the contract. Such an interpretation is purportedly iniquitous to the bank as the same will also mean (a) that the children of married employees and the mothers of single employees will enjoy the same benefits and (b) that the spouses of the male employees who also happen to be employed in the bank or any other company will benefit twice. Schedule L of the CBA should instead be read compatibly with the provisions of the contract itself to determine the real intention of the parties thereto.

Petitioner points out Section 1 of Article XI of the CBA and claims that this provision shows that the maternity benefits provided in Schedule L extend only to its employees, thus, the spouses of its male employees are not entitled to these benefits. Petitioner asserts that the CBA would have stated expressly that spouses of male employees are entitled to the said benefit had this been the intention of the parties, similar to the provision granting of advances and medicine allowances to the employees and their dependents. Moreover, the CA allegedly erred in applying Article 4 of the Labor Code in interpreting Schedule L of the CBA instead of Articles 1370-1379 of the Civil Code.

Petitioner adds that its previous medical insurance policy which was provided by Philamlife granted insurance benefits only to its "regular, full-time employees" and that there is nothing in the said policy granting maternity benefits to the spouses of its male employees. Hence, petitioner asserts that the CA, having correctly ruled that petitioner had no company practice of extending such benefits to the spouses of its male employees, should not have granted such benefits on the basis of Schedule L of the CBA.

Anent the second issue, petitioner claims that the appellate court erred in ruling that its employees are entitled to "outpatient medicine reimbursements" distinct and separate from the "medicine allowances" granted in the CBA. This would allegedly result in the unjust enrichment of the employees at the expense of petitioner.

In its Comment, respondent contends that the instant petition must fail as it raises questions of fact when it should be limited to questions of law. Respondent adds that there is no real and material conflict between the findings of fact of the DOLE and the appellate court so as to claim that this case is an exception to the rule that only questions of law are elevated to this Court under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court. The appellate court allegedly shares the conclusion of the DOLE that the maternity benefits granted to the employees extend to the spouses of the male employees of petitioner although the basis for the ruling is not anchored on an established company practice but rather on the basis of Schedule L of the CBA.

In its Reply, petitioner claims that "when the facts are undisputed, then the question of whether or not the conclusion drawn therefrom by the Court of Appeals is correct is a question of law." 12 The issues before this Court are thus questions of law because petitioner seeks the review of the "evidence on record and the conclusion drawn by the appellate court."

In the alternative, petitioner further asserts that assuming the issues raised are questions of fact, this Court is still not precluded from taking cognizance of the case as the same falls within the exceptions laid in the case of Fuentes v. Court of Appeals.13 The factual findings of the CA may be reviewed by this Court (i) when the appellate court fails to notice certain relevant facts which will justify a different conclusion; and (ii) when the findings of fact are conflicting. Petitioner points out that the appellate court erroneously concluded that the spouses of its male employees are entitled to maternity benefits on the basis of Schedule L of the CBA despite finding that there is no company practice of granting the said benefit. Petitioner adds that this finding is consistent with the finding of the DOLE that the said company practice does not exist.

The petition is bereft of merit.

With respect to the procedural issue, we agree with respondent that the issues raised by the bank are essentially questions of fact that cannot be the subject of this Petition for Review on certiorari. Section 1 of Rule 45 of the Rules of Court provides that only questions of law may be raised on appeal by certiorari. Well-settled in our jurisprudence is the principle that this Court is not a trier of facts and that it is neither the function of this Court to analyze or weigh the evidence of the parties all over again.14 The ruling in Microsoft Corporation v. Maxicorp, Inc.15 elucidates the distinction of a question of law and a question of fact as follows:

'A question of law exists when the doubt or difference centers on what the law is on a certain state of facts. A question of fact exists if the doubt centers on the truth or falsity of the alleged facts.

xxx xxx xxx

There is a question of law if the issue raised is capable of being resolved without need of reviewing the probative value of the evidence. The resolution of the issue must rest solely on what the law provides on the given set of circumstances. Once it is clear that the issue invites a review of the evidence presented, the question posed is one of fact. If the query requires a re-evaluation of the credibility of witnesses, or the existence or relevance of surrounding circumstances and their relation to each other, the issue in that query is factual. Our ruling in Paterno v. Paterno is illustrative on this point:

Such questions as whether certain items of evidence should be accorded probative value or weight, or rejected as feeble or spurious, or whether or not the proofs on one side or the other are clear and convincing and adequate to establish a proposition in issue, are without doubt questions of fact. Whether or not the body of proofs presented by a party, weighed and analyzed in relation to contrary evidence submitted by adverse party, may be said to be strong, clear and convincing; whether or not certain documents presented by one side should be accorded full faith and credit in the face of protests as to their spurious character by the other side; whether or not inconsistencies in the body of proofs of a party are of such gravity as to justify refusing to give said proofs weight - all these are issues of fact. [Emphasis supplied]

Petitioner wants this Court to determine if (i) the maternity benefits provided to its female employees extend to the spouses of its male employees and if (ii) its employees are entitled to "outpatient medicine reimbursements" as a matter of company practice. Indeed, petitioner, in phrasing the issues in this Petition, urges this Court to scrutinize the "evidence based on record." Such language militates against petitioner's contention that the Petition involves purely questions of law.

We disagree with petitioner that the conclusion drawn by the appellate court from the "evidence based on record" is a question of law. This is the opposite definition of a question of law. Petitioner's reliance on the ruling in Commissioner of Immigration v. Garcia16 that "when the facts are undisputed, then the question of whether or not the conclusion drawn therefrom by the Court of Appeals is correct is a question of law" is misplaced. In the present case, the facts are disputed. Respondent claims that there is an existing company practice entitling petitioner's employees to "outpatient medicine reimbursements" and entitling the spouses of its male employees to maternity benefits. Petitioner persistently argues the contrary. Both parties point to their CBA and various documents inclined to prove or disprove their respective factual contentions.

This case likewise does not fall within any of exceptions to the rule that only questions of law are proper in a Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court. The findings and conclusions of the appellate court show that the evidence and the arguments of the parties had all been carefully considered and passed upon. There are no "relevant facts" that will justify a different conclusion which the said court failed to consider. There are likewise no factual conclusions of the CA and the DOLE which are in conflict.

In any event, even if this Court evaluates petitioner's arguments on the merits, we still find no reason to disturb the findings of the CA on the basis of the records of this case, particularly the attachments to the Petition.

With respect to the first issue, the CA ruled in this wise:

xxx

Indeed, it has been held that for benefits to be considered as voluntary employer practice which cannot later on be unilaterally withdrawn by the employer under Article 100, Labor Code, it must be shown that the practice has been, for a long period of time, consistently and deliberately made by the employer.

The Court finds that the element of consistency in the alleged practice of giving maternity benefits to spouses of petitioner's male employees is lacking in this case.

In its motion for reconsideration of public respondent's Order dated March 11, 2002, petitioner enumerated names of twenty (20) male employees whose spouses gave birth during the alleged period of entitlement (1984-1998) but who did not avail of maternity benefits. In its comment on the motion for reconsideration, while private respondent disputed the names of ten (10) employees, it did not contest the rest of the names mentioned in the list. This only shows that the granting of maternity benefits to spouses of male employees was not consistently practiced by petitioner.

Nonetheless, the Court still sustains the grant of maternity benefits to spouses of male employees on the basis of Schedule L of the 1998-2000 CBA, explicitly providing the coverage of the "Group Hospitalization Benefits" (which include maternity benefits), to include married staff and spouses and eligible children.

Schedule L, referred to in Article XI of the CBA, provides:

Basic Medical Php
Room & Board (31) 750
Hospital Service 7,500
Doctor's Call (31) 600
Maternity Benefits
Normal Delivery 10,000
Miscarriage 22,837.50
Caesarian 20,000

xxx xxx xxx

Coverage

Married staff and spouse and eligible children as defined in the plan. Single staff and one parent who has not reached 65 year of age.

Petitioner, however, gives a different interpretation of the foregoing provision and claims that "the persons enumerated in Schedule L refer only to those who are covered by the insurance in case of hospitalization due to ill health considering that in such a circumstance, immediate dependents are likewise covered." The claim cannot prevail over the specific provision of said coverage of benefits. If ever the provision is capable of two interpretations, the same must be resolved in favor of labor. Nonetheless, since the grant of maternity benefits to spouses of male employees of petitioner is premised on the CBA, the same may be the subject of future renegotiation. As held in "Globe Mackay Cable and Radio Corp. v. NLRC", 163 SCRA 71 (1988), "the CBA is the law between the parties and, if not acceptable, can be the subject of future renegotiation."17 (emphasis and underscoring supplied)

xxx

Petitioner exhorts this Court to interpret Schedule L of the CBA in relation to Section 1, Article XI of the CBA which provides:

Section 1. Group Hospitalization Insurance

The BANK shall continue to cover all its employees with a group hospitalization and major surgical insurance plan including maternity benefits with a disablement maximum amount of PHP100,000.00 per illness per year. All employees will be furnished with a copy of the booklet explaining the coverage of the Plan (See Schedule L).

The BANK shall continue extending advances to staff members (or their dependents as defined in the insurance plan), who have been hospitalized due to ill health. The amount advanced will be the amount fully reimbursable under the Group Hospitalization Plan less Medicare but including the twenty percent (20%) deductible under the plan which absorbed by the BANK. Any shortfall is to be met by the employee.18

Petitioner argues that the above-quoted provision expressly limits the grant of benefits, specifically maternity benefits, under the group hospitalization insurance plan to its own employees and that dependents of employees are only entitled to benefits for hospitalization due to ill-health. In addition, petitioner stresses that there is nothing in the group hospitalization insurance plan which expressly provides for maternity benefits for spouses of its male employees. Thus, petitioner asserts that maternity benefits under the CBA should be deemed granted only to petitioner's female employees.

We are unconvinced by petitioner's reasoning. A reading of Section 1, Article XI of the CBA shows that at the time the CBA was signed there was already an existing group hospitalization insurance plan and petitioner was committing under the CBA to "continue" the same. It is undisputed that the plan referred to in said provision is Philamlife's Group Policy No. P-1620, a copy of which was attached to the Petition as Annex "O." In determining the coverage of the benefits under the said plan, it is the provisions of the plan itself that govern. In the said plan, the term "dependent" includes "a member's spouse who is not more than 65 years of age."19 The plan further provides that "[u]nless dependents are excluded in any particular Insurance Schedule the term 'insured person' shall be deemed to include any dependent insured under the Policy."20 In other words, dependents enjoy the same benefits as the insured person unless they are expressly excluded in the Insurance Schedules of benefits. This Court notes that there is nothing in the Insurance Schedules or the plan itself which excludes dependents from availing of the maternity benefits granted under the plan. Thus, Schedule L appears to accurately summarize the provisions of the existing group hospitalization insurance plan with respect to the types of benefits under the plan and the persons who may avail them. The CA did not err in relying on Schedule L in finding that the spouses of petitioner's male employees may avail of maternity benefits.

Neither can petitioner believably claim that it had no intention to extend maternity benefits to the spouses of its male employees under the CBA. Under the same Section 1, Article XI of the CBA, petitioner also committed to furnish all employees with a booklet explaining the coverage of the group hospitalization insurance plan. A copy of that booklet called the "Standard Chartered Bank Employee Medical Insurance Plan" was attached to the Petition as Annex "P."21 Petitioner points to the following passage in Appendix B of the booklet to bolster its position that only female employees can avail of maternity benefits:

Do I qualify for Maternity Benefits even if I am pregnant at the time I become eligible?cralawred

If you are a female employee and your pregnancy commences prior to your eligibility date for this insurance, you can claim for the benefits stated in the Schedule of Medical Insurance Benefits provided you apply for this insurance within 31 days from the date you become eligible for this insurance. However, the dependent of an insured employee can only claim under this benefit after the insured dependent has been continuously insured for a period of 9 months. (emphasis supplied)

In its pleadings, petitioner conveniently omits the second sentence of the foregoing quote but this Court is not misled by such dissembling tactic. It is undeniable from the full text of petitioner's explanation of maternity benefits that the dependent of an insured employee can claim maternity benefits subject only to the condition that she has been continuously insured for a period of nine months. This booklet appears to be a publication solely of petitioner and it is clear evidence that petitioner itself interprets Philamlife Group Policy No. P-1620 as authorizing the grant of maternity benefits to dependents of its employees. Having knowingly and voluntarily incorporated by reference the provisions of its Philamlife group hospitalization insurance plan in the CBA (as can be seen in Article XI, Section 1 thereof in relation to Schedule L), petitioner cannot now assert that it never intended to extend maternity benefits to the spouses of its male employees under the CBA.

Anent the second issue, the Court likewise finds no reason to deviate from the factual finding of both the DOLE and the CA that there is an established company practice of reimbursement of outpatient services, including medicine reimbursement, despite the absence of a provision in the group hospitalization insurance plan regarding outpatient benefits.

Petitioner admits that outpatient benefits, as a matter of practice, were paid by Philamlife as claims against the "disablement maximum." However, petitioner is not assailing the payment of outpatient benefits in the present case but only assailing the inclusion of "outpatient medicine reimbursements" in the term "outpatient benefits."

In this regard, we find well-taken the following excerpt from the DOLE's Order22 dated April 29, 2002, attached as Annex "N" of the Petition:

xxx

Insofar as the outpatient benefit is concerned, it must be stressed that this Office directed the Bank to continue with the outpatient benefit under the old insurance plan and to carry it over to the new health care plan. This means that the components of the old health insurance scheme on this particular benefit should be the same component under the new health plan. In the Decision dated 31 May 2001, this Office made particular mention of the claims for reimbursement appearing as Annex "O" of the Union's Position Paper as basis for its directive to the Bank to continue with the outpatient benefits. These claims refer not only to x-ray services but also to reimbursement of prescription drugs. The existence of these benefits were further buttressed in the Union's "Reply to SCB's Motion for Reconsideration" (dated 11 July 2001) where the Union submitted copies of claims for doctor's fees, prescription drugs and laboratory fees processed, approved and paid. These should provide ample guidance to the parties in the grant of outpatient benefits, which includes medicine reimbursements as earlier practised [sic].

In making this clarification, we are not unaware of the Bank's position that medicine reimbursement is not part of the HMO package but was unilaterally granted by the service provider. Even if this were so, however, we do not believe that the grant by the service provider was without the conformity of the Bank in light of the exhibits submitted by the Union in its "Reply to the SCB's Motion for Reconsideration" (dated 11 July 2001, Annexes "B-86-1" to "B-99-1," covering the period 1986 to 1999). Thus, viewed from another angle, a conclusion similar to the spousal maternity benefit obtains, i.e., that a practice on medicine reimbursement has similarly developed which the Bank cannot now unilaterally withdraw. (emphasis supplied)

xxx

We see no reversible error in the CA's adoption of said findings of the DOLE. It is elementary that factual findings of labor officials, who are deemed to have acquired expertise in matters within their jurisdiction, are accorded not only respect but finality.23 In a recent case, it was similarly held that where the factual findings of the labor tribunals or agencies conform to, and are affirmed by, the CA, the same are accorded respect and finality, and are binding upon this Court.24

WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, the instant petition is hereby DENIED for lack of merit and the Decision dated July 1, 2004 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 71448 is hereby AFFIRMED.

Costs against petitioner.

SO ORDERED.

Endnotes:


1 Penned by Associate Justice Fernanda L. Peralta with Associate Justices Josefina G. Salonga and Juan Q. Enriquez, Jr., concurring. Rollo, pp. 38-47.

2 Id. at 48.

3 Id. at 124-126; 147-150.

4 Id. at 197-205.

5 Id. at 217-230.

6 Id. at 68-91, Annex "E" of the Petition.

7 Id. at 79.

8 Id. at 151-169, Annex "O" of the Petition.

9 Id. at 98.

10 Id. at 107-112.

11 Id. at 113-122.

12 Citing the case of Commissioner of Immigration v. Garcia, 57 SCRA 603, 610.

13 G.R. No. 109849, February 26, 1997, 268 SCRA 703, 708-709.

14 Nicolas v. Court of Appeals, No. L-37631, October 12, 1987, 154 SCRA 635, 642.

15 G.R. No. 140946, September 13, 2004, 438 SCRA 224, 230-231.

16 Supra note 12.

17 Rollo, pp. 43-44.

18 Id. at 79.

19 Id. at 156.

20 Id.

21 Id. at 171-186.

22 Id. at 146-150.

23 Land and Housing Development Corporation v. Esquillo,G.R. No. 152012, September 30, 2005, 471 SCRA 488, 494.

24 C.F. Sharp Crew Management, Inc. v. Hon. Undersecretary Jose M. Espanol, Jr., et al., G.R. No. 155903, September 14, 2007, 533 SCRA 424, 440.

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