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A.M. No. RTJ-07-2052 - LORENA P. ONG v. JUDGE OSCAR E. DINOPOL, RTC BR. 24, KORONADAL CITY, SO. COTABATO

A.M. No. RTJ-07-2052 - LORENA P. ONG v. JUDGE OSCAR E. DINOPOL, RTC BR. 24, KORONADAL CITY, SO. COTABATO

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

SECOND DIVISION

[A.M. NO. RTJ-07-2052 : March 30, 2009]

LORENA P. ONG, Complainant, v. JUDGE OSCAR E. DINOPOL, Regional Trial Court, Branch 24, Koronadal City, South Cotabato, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

CARPIO MORALES, J.:

The present administrative case arose in the course of the proceedings in Civil Case No. 1632, "Lorena P. Ong, Plaintiff, v. Domingo Ong, Defendant" (the civil case), an action for declaration of nullity of marriage or legal separation and damages filed before the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Koronadal City and raffled to Branch 24 thereof, presided over by Judge Oscar E. Dinopol (respondent).

In the course of the trial of the civil case, the therein plaintiff-herein complainant Lorena P. Ong filed on April 1, 2005 a motion for the issuance of a "protection order"1 praying for the custody of her two children, Lorenzo Ruiz Ong2 and Maria Monica Loren Ong,3 then 10 and 4 years old, respectively, and support from her husband-therein defendant Domingo Ong (Domingo).

By Order4 of June 23, 2005, respondent ordered Domingo to turn over to complainant the custody of Maria Monica Loren. During the pendency of the hearing on the custody of Lorenzo Ruiz, Domingo sought reconsideration of the June 23, 2005 Order, but it was denied by Order of September 15, 2005.5

After the issuance of the September 15, 2005 Order, respondent interviewed the parties' children the result of which is incorporated in his Order6 dated September 22, 2005, viz:

In the working area of the staff of RTC Branch 24 and in their presence, the Presiding Judge past 10:00 a.m. of September 15, 2005 conducted an unannounced interview of the children of the parties for about 30 minutes and discovered that both children, in spite of the encouragement of the Presiding Judge, refused to sleep with their mother, plaintiff in this case, they apparently are well treated and cared of by their father while they are forced to do things by their mother. It also appeared from the manifestation in court by counsel for the plaintiff that the latter is enrolled in a nursing school that required her to devote her quality time in school and away from her children. (Underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary

By said Order of September 22, 2005, respondent thus set aside his June 23 and September 15, 2005 Orders, disposing as follows:

ACCORDINGLY, as the children are bound to be in the custody of plaintiff for a minimal period each day, and considering the paramount interest of the children who should not be further traumatized as narrated by them, the previous order denying the motion for reconsideration is hereby set aside. Meantime, let a status quo ante before the filing of this case be maintained and custody of the children remain temporarily with defendant until the hearing on 19 January 2006, subject to the inherent right of plaintiff to be with her children, but not forcing them to sleep with her. The parties are likewise encouraged to attend to their Sunday obligations as a family. (Underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary

Complainant filed a motion for reconsideration7 of this Order. In the meantime, respondent issued an Order8 dated February 22, 2006 directing the court-appointed Social Welfare Officer, Hidelisa O. Soria (Soria), to conduct a child study report on the minor children and recommend who, between their parents, would have preliminary custody over them.

In her Social Case Study Report,9 Soria recommended that: (1) both complainant and Domingo "must undergo and submit themselves to a Neuro-Psychiatric Evaluation and Therapy and be referred to Dra. Agnes Padilla, Department Head, Davao Medical Center, Psychiatry Department, JP Laurel Avenue, Davao City," and (2) both children will remain under the custody of their father, Domingo, during school days from Monday to Friday afternoon, and of their mother from Friday evening to Sunday, the arrangement to be implemented on "a six months (6) trial custody to prevent a traumatic turn-over of the minors, considering that solidarity between father-son-daughter relationships is visibly intact." In the same Report, Soria manifested that she would submit a progress report after six months to determine who shall have permanent custody of the children.

By Order10 of August 17, 2006, respondent approved Soria's recommendation. To this Order Domingo filed a motion for reconsideration, praying that complainant should be given custody over their children only on Sundays since "during Saturdays they (children) still need to wind up their academic activities and requirements, which they can do well if they are in the place they consider a home - where defendant and the children are staying." Domingo capped his motion, though, by imploring complainant that "with open arms, they are still waiting for [her] to come home and stay with him and their children."11 Complainant opposed the motion.

Respondent thereupon issued an Order12 dated August 25, 2006 modifying the schedule of custody by giving 1) complainant custody of the children from 8:00 o'clock in the morning of Saturday, beginning August 26, 2006 and every Saturday thereafter, until 7:00 o'clock Monday morning of August 28, 2006, and every Monday thereafter; and 2) Domingo custody from 7:00 o'clock Monday morning of August 28, 2006 and every Monday thereafter, until 8:00 o'clock of Saturday morning, and every Saturday thereafter. The Order stated that the alternate custody scheme was only for a three-month trial period.

Significantly, complainant did not file any motion for reconsideration of the August 25, 2006 Order.

Perceiving, however, that respondent had become "patently partial in favor of [Domingo]," complainant filed on September 15, 2006 a motion for inhibition13 of respondent from further hearing the case, which motion she set for hearing on September 22, 2006.

Respondent set the hearing of the motion for inhibition, however, to November 16, 2006 as he ordered Domingo to comment thereon.14

Before her motion for inhibition could be heard, however, complainant filed on October 31, 2006 the present verified letter-complaint15 dated October 25, 2006 against respondent charging him for: (1) gross violation of Sections 18,16 2017 and 2818 of Republic Act No. 9262 (otherwise known as the "Anti-Violence Against Women and Their Children Act of 2004"); (2) gross violation of judicial ethics and knowingly rendering an unjust judgment relative to Civil Case No. 1632; and (3) unduly and unreasonably delaying the resolution of her motion to inhibit. She prayed that respondent "be administratively investigated and sanctioned" and, "in the meantime, be directed to inhibit himself from further hearing [the civil] case due to obvious partiality."

By 1st Indorsement19 dated November 2, 2006, complainant's letter-complaint was endorsed by the Office of the Chief Justice for appropriate action to the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA).

In the meantime, Domingo submitted in the civil case his comment20 on complainant's motion for inhibition, disputing complainant's charge of partiality on the part of respondent towards him, contending that respondent's orders were properly issued in the exercise of his sound discretion.

By Order21 of November 3, 2006, respondent denied complainant's motion for reconsideration of the September 22, 2005 Order, as well as her motion for inhibition. Complainant filed a motion for reconsideration of the Order of November 3, 2006, stressing that with her filing of the present administrative complaint, respondent "should inhibit himself from further hearing the civil case."22 This motion was denied by Order23 dated January 3, 2007.

Back to the administrative complaint, respondent, in compliance with the directive24 of the OCA, filed his Answer/Comment25 thereon dated January 12, 2007 denying the charges leveled against him and praying that the complaint be dismissed for being totally unfounded.

By Resolution of June 13, 2007, this Court's Second Division referred the administrative case to Executive Justice Teresita Dy-Liacco Flores of the Court of Appeals (CA), Mindanao Station, for assignment by raffle among the associate justices there, and for investigation, report and recommendation. The case was raffled to Associate Justice Edgardo A. Camello.

By his December 14, 2007 Investigation Report, Justice Camello recommended the dismissal of the administrative complaint "for insufficiency of evidence,"26 Nevertheless, he went on to recommend that "respondent should be strongly reminded to refrain from entertaining litigants outside the court premises to avoid any suspicion of impropriety,"27 in light of respondent's admission in his Affidavit proffered during the hearing of the administrative complaint, viz: that "Domingo Ong visited [his] house one evening complaining that he had been deceived by his counsel and Lorena Ong because sometime in December 2006, while he and his wife Lorena were observing the alternate shared custody of their minor children, his lawyer told him to allow Lorena to take custody of Lorenz during the Christmas break, and assured him that Lorena will return the child to him," but that "since February 11, 2007, Lorena did not anymore return Lorenz until [that day]"; and that again, "on September 4, 2007, Domingo Ong visited [his] house to complain that Lorena brainwashed Lorenz against [him] because Lorenz suddenly turned against him and did not anymore return to him."28

Thus, the Investigating Justice reported:

Parenthetically, the admission made by respondent in his affidavit that one of the parties in Civil Case No. 1632-24, Domingo, visited him twice in his residence during the pendency of the case below should not be taken against him for purposes of the present administrative charge. That matter was not even alleged in the complaint. It was the respondent who volunteered the information in his affidavit presented during the hearing in order to prove that he is hiding nothing and to prove that he is impartial in the discharge of his duties as judge. x x x. Domingo's visits (sometime in March or April 2007 and on September 4, 2007) to the house of respondent took place long after the happening of the following material events to the case, i.e., issuance of the assailed Order, the filing of the motion for inhibition, the denial of the motion for inhibition and the filing of this administrative case before the Office of the Court Administrator. Apparently, the purpose of Domingo's visit was to complain to the respondent about what Domingo perceived as connivance between his lawyer and complainant Lorena, which resulted in the refusal of minor Lorenzo Ruiz to be under his custody, a situation discordant to the court-ordered shared custody over the feuding couple's children for the three-month trial period. The complainant presented no proof that the visits of Domingo were upon the prodding of the respondent. The circumstances per se could hardly be equated with the improper conduct of fraternizing with litigants. Still and all, the broad injunction of Section 1, Canon 4 of the New Code of Judicial Conduct for the Philippine Judiciary that judges should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all their activities, warrants a strong reminder to the respondent that he should in the future refrain from entertaining any party to a case pending before his sala outside the court premises most especially in his own residence, for no matter how innocent such act might be in truth, the probability of its being publicly perceived as malicious is not remote at all. x x x. Like Caesar's wife, a judge must not only be pure but beyond suspicion (State Prosecutors v. Muro, A.M. No. RTJ-92-876, Sept. 19, 1994 (Underscoring supplied).29

The recommendation is well-taken.

The established rule is that in administrative proceedings, the complainant bears the onus of proving, in general by substantial evidence, the allegations in the complaint.30 Such burden must overcome the presumption of regularity in the performance of a judge's functions. The presumption necessarily springs from a judge's solemn oath of office to administer justice according to the law and evidence, without respect to any person and without fear or favor.31 Complainant failed to discharge the onus, however.

Under the first ground of her complaint, complainant alleged that respondent "grossly violated" R.A. No. 9262, specifically Sections 18 (requiring prompt action for any application for protection order), 20 (treating an application for a protection order a priority over all other cases) and 28 (granting to the mother automatic custody of "children below seven years old or older but with mental or physical disabilities," "unless the court finds compelling reasons to order otherwise").

Complainant contradicted herself, however, when she stated in her complaint that upon filing her motion for protection order, which mainly prayed that the custody of her children be given to her, respondent acted properly, thus:

When I filed through my counsel a motion for provisional remedies among others, the custody of my children especially Maria Monica Loren who is still below seven years old, Judge Dinopol was initially on the right tract (sic). He issued an order dated April 19, 2005 giving the defendant, my husband, five days from receipt of the order to show cause why the custody of my children should not be given to me as provided for in Article 213 of the Family Code x x x. On June 23, 2005, he issued an order directing the defendant to turn over to me the custody of my daughter Monica Loren Ong x x x. I even started to testify in court insofar as the prayer for the custody of my son, Lorenzo Ruiz Ong who is already over seven years old, is concerned. On July 14, 2005, defendant through his counsel filed a motion for reconsideration of the order dated June 23, 2005 x x x. The motion was denied in Judge Dinopol's order dated September 15, 2005 x x x.32 (Underscoring supplied)ςηαñrοblεš  Î½Î¹r†υαl  lαω  lιbrαrÿ

Complainant anchors the second ground of her complaint on respondent's issuance of the Order of September 22, 2005 giving back the temporary custody of the children to Domingo "until the hearing on January 19, 2006." She contends that respondent grossly violated judicial ethical standards and knowingly rendered an unjust judgment in the civil case, thus:

x x x. In the order dated September 22, 2005, Judge Dinopol made a sudden turn around and revised his previous orders granting me the custody of my daughter who is below seven years old. His reason was his alleged "unannounced interview" with the children on September 15, 2005 x x x where the children expressed their desire to stay with their father and that I could not devote my quality time with the children because I was enrolled at a nursing school. I had gone over the Rules on Civil Procedure and other provisions of the Rules of Court, but I had never encountered such procedures as "unannounced interview" which was conducted by Judge Dinopol. x x x. It is obvious that the "unannounced interview" was made as a result of the out-of-court discussion of defendant's counsel and Judge Dinopol, a gross violation of judicial ethical standards. x x x. The other reason for Judge Dinopol's reversal of his previous orders that I could not devote quality time with my children because I was enrolled in a nursing school is illogical. x x x.33 (Underscoring supplied)cralawlibrary

Refuting complainant's charge, respondent narrated the circumstances leading to the issuance of his Order of September 22, 2005:

But, while the order (dated June 23, 2005) transferring temporary custody of Ma. Monica to complainant was signed due to lack of opposition from Domingo, the Court pursuant to the last paragraph of Article 213, Civil Code and Article 8 of P.D. No. 603, still made known its intention to interview the children.

COURT:

x x x

And bring the children next hearing. [TSN, June 23, 2005, p. 40; underscoring supplied]

x x x

ATTY. IGNES:

We just want to be clarified. Who among the parties will bring to Court the children?cralawred

COURT:

On August 3, the two (2) children should be also in Court. The parties are directed to bring Lorenzo Ruiz and Monica Loren. [Ibid., p. 42]

Unfortunately, further testimony of Lorena on August 3, 2005 was reset to September 15, 2005 (Annex "1"). On September 15, 2005 the parties moved for a joint resetting to January 19, 2006 (Annex "2"), and the court issued an Order (Annex "3") on even date denying the motion for reconsideration filed by Domingo Ong. When respondent went out of his chamber, his staff informed him of the presence of the two minors, and without much thought he started talking to both minors. He encouraged them to be with their mother who loves them and that they should sleep with her. Respondent was shocked how the minors resisted being and sleeping with their mother. Your respondent obtained by himself from the mouth of the two minors their desire not to be with their mother and instead expressed to continue living with and be with their father. The revelation of the minors, indeed, affirmed the testimony of Lorena on June 23, 2006 that her daughter did not like her either. These are her declarations:

Q [to herein complainant]

How is your relationship with Ma. Monica your younger child?cralawred

A She doesn't want to go with me. She was so attached to the father because everything was given to her, not in my case that I have to discipline her.

Q What do you mean by everything is given to her by the father?cralawred

A She is spoiled.

Q Did you ever try to relate to your daughter?cralawred

A Yes, but because most often I spent less time than the father, I am in Tacurong and the father is always in Marbel same house, same work, so they are more close.

Q Was there ever a time that you wanted to hug your daughter or take her into your arms?cralawred

A Yes, but she refused like lately she doesn't want to sit with me any more then I come to her and she will say, "Daddy, daddy nandiyan si Mommy." I tried twice. I went inside the room they saw me and they locked immediately the room.

Q You wanted to get near them they hid inside the bathroom and locked it?cralawred

A Yes, sir.

Q Did they say anything to you?cralawred

A "Bawal pumasok daw," sir.

x x x

Q How does the child talk to you?cralawred

A Very impolite, sir.

Q What does she say to you?cralawred

A "Ayaw ko sa 'yo." She doesn't even talk. She just ran away. She would not even play with me unless the mother would insist (mother of Domingo).

x x x x [Id., pp. 32-34; underscoring supplied]

COURT:

x x x

Q The Court is curious. I noted in your marriage contract that you are a Catholic. Do you attend mass every Sunday with your children?cralawred

A Before I used to go with them but later on after that incident I did not anymore because there is no point going with them particularly to my husband.

Q But in what year, if you could remember you stopped going to mass together with your family?cralawred

A Two (2) years after the birth of Monica, sir.

x x x

Q Who usually invites that the whole family will go to church on Sunday?cralawred

A The respondent because after the mass I have to go back to work on Sunday. [Id., pp. 30-31; underscoring supplied]

Given these declarations of complainant Lorena in Court admitting the dislike of her children to sleep with her and which her said children similarly expressed to herein respondent in his presence after conducting an interview on September 15, 2005, respondent was personally caught in opposing sides of sympathy with Lorena and the future growth of her children. There being a compelling reason, it was the view of respondent that a phased or gradual transfer of custody to her without drastically imposing a condition that would further traumatize the children in case of sudden turn over of custody was a practical option beneficial to Lorena and her minor children. And so, after seriously evaluating the rights of Lorena and her children, on September 22, 2005, respondent issued the contested order ordering a status quo ante. To further ascertain the true relationship of the children with Lorena, after the latter's counsel filed a motion for reconsideration, respondent ordered on February 22, 2006 the court-appointed social worker to conduct a child study report to be submitted in 30 days, but on May 12, 2006 (Annex "4") the social worker asked an extension of 90 days. The Court on June 20, 2006 directed the social worker to submit the report until September 7, 2006. Curiously enough, even the social worker in her eight (8)-page report recommended (Annex "5") that -

x x x x34

From a consideration of complainant's second ground of her complaint vis a vis respondent's explanation thereon, the Court finds that complainant is assailing the correctness of respondent's exercise of judicial discretion in issuing the questioned Order of September 22, 2005. Any perceived errors in the exercise of such discretion cannot be reviewed and corrected through the present administrative case, however,35 but via judicial recourse, such as an appeal or a petition for certiorari, which is an adequate remedy in law.36

As the Court finds no appreciable presence of fraud, dishonesty, corruption or bad faith, the acts of respondent rendered in his judicial capacity are not subject to disciplinary action, even if they are erroneous.37 That respondent had previously ruled in favor of complainant in fact dispels complainant's charge that he is biased.38

Complainant's charge that respondent knowingly rendered an unjust "judgment" is unsubstantiated. Suffice it to say that there is no judgment or decision to speak of as the proceedings in the civil case have, at the time the present complaint was filed, been on-going.

As for complainant's charge that respondent is "unreasonably delaying the resolution of [her] motion to inhibit" by still "granting defendant [Domingo] fifteen (15) days to comment [thereon] without the [latter] asking for it,"39 the same fails. She herself set her motion for inhibition for hearing. It was just fair for respondent to hear Domingo's side.

WHEREFORE, the complaint against respondent is DISMISSED. He is REMINDED and WARNED, however, against entertaining litigants outside the court premises, failing which he could be faulted.

SO ORDERED.

Endnotes:


* Additional member per Special Order No. 571 dated February 12, 2009 in lieu of Justice Dante O. Tinga who is on official leave.

1 Rollo, pp. 28-30. While the motion was so captioned, the prayer therein was limited only to the custody and support of the children.

2 Born on July 6, 1994.

3 Born on April 29, 2000.

4 Id. at 32.

5 Id. at 39.

6 Id. at 40.

7 Id. at 41-44.

8 Id. at 45.

9 Id. at 46-54.

10 Id. at 55-56.

11 Id. at 57-62.

12 Id. at 63-66. The dispositive portion of the Order reads:

ACCORDINGLY, the defendant is hereby directed to allow plaintiff to take custody of the minor children starting not later than eight (8) o'clock in the morning of August 26, 2006 and every Saturday thereafter, for a period of three (3) months reckoned from August 26, 2006. In like manner, plaintiff shall allow defendant to recover custody of the children not later than seven (7) o'clock in the morning of August 28, 2006 and every Monday thereafter. In the alternate custody of the parties, the other shall have visitorial rights over the children.

Meantime, as directed in paragraph No. 1 of the order, the parties are directed to undergo the court sought Neuro Psychiatric Evaluation, within twenty [four] (24) hours upon notice, by Dra. Agnes Padilla. The court, however, earnestly admonishes the parties to comply with their Sunday (spiritual) obligations together.

SO ORDERED.

13 Id. at 67-70.

14 Id. at 71.

15 Id. at 73-79.

16 Section 18. Mandatory Period for Acting on Application for Protection Order. - Failure to act on an application for a protection order within the reglementary period specified in the previous section without justifiable cause shall render the official or judge administratively liable.

17 Section 20. Priority of Application for a Protection Order. - Ex-parte and adversarial hearings to determine the basis of applications for a protection order under this Act shall have priority over all other proceedings. Barangay officials and the courts shall schedule and conduct hearings on applications for a protection order under this Act above all other business and, if necessary, suspend other proceedings in order to hear applications for a protection order.

18 Section 28. Custody of Children. - The woman victim of violence shall be entitled to the custody and support of her grandchildren. Children below seven (7) years old or older but with mental or physical disabilities shall automatically be given to the mother, with right to support, unless the court finds compelling reasons to order otherwise.

19 Rollo, p. 72.

20 Id. at 213-214.

21 Id. at 215-217.

22 Id. at 218-220.

23 Id. at 222-225.

24 Id. at 142.

25 Id. at 145-160.

26 Investigation Report, p. 36.

27 Ibid.

28 Rollo, pp. 317-318.

29 Investigation Report, pp. 33-34.

30 Datuin, Jr. v. Soriano, A.M. No. RTJ-01-1640, October 15, 2002, 391 SCRA 1, 5, citing Lorena v. Encomienda, 302 SCRA 632, 641 (1999) and Office of the Court Administrator v. Sumilang, 271 SCRA 316, 324 (1997).

31 Datuin, Jr. v. Soriano, id., citing Soriano v. Angeles, 339 SCRA 366, 375 (2000); People v. Kho, G.R. No. 139381, April 20, 2001, 357 SCRA 290, citing Go v. CA, 221 SCRA 397 (1993).

32 Rollo, p. 75.

33 Id. at 75-76.

34 Id. At 147-151.

35 Dionisio v. Escano, A.M. No. RTJ 98-1400, February 1, 1999, 302 SCRA 411, 422.

36 Claro v. Efondo, A.M. No. MTJ-05-1585, March 31, 2005, 454 SCRA 218, 226, citing De Guzman v. Pamintuan, A.M. No. RTJ-02-1736, June 26, 2003, 405 SCRA 22; People v. Kho, G.R. No. 139381, April 20, 2001, 357 SCRA 290, 298.

37 Datuin, Jr. v. Soriano, supra, citing Canson v. Garchitorena, 311 SCRA 268, 287 (1999); Causin v. Demecilio, A.M. No. RTJ-04-1860, September 8, 2004, 437 SCRA 594, 606; Rondina v. Bello, Jr., A.M. No. CA-05-43, July 8, 2005, 463 SCRA 1, 14.

38 People v. Kho, supra at 298.

39 Rollo, p. 17.

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