[G.R. NO. 170482 : September 4, 2009]
MANILA ELECTRIC COMPANY, Petitioner, v. AGUIDA VDA. DE SANTIAGO, Respondent.
D E C I S I O N
This Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court assails the Decision1 dated April 22, 2005 and the Resolution2 dated November 21, 2005, of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CV No. 78800. The appellate court had reversed the Decision3 dated November 18, 2002 of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Malolos, Bulacan, Branch 18, in Civil Case No. 249-M-2000. Earlier the RTC dismissed the complaint for damages filed by Aguida vda. de Santiago (Aguida) against the Manila Electric Company (Meralco) and ordered Aguida to pay Meralco a differential billing amount of
P65,819.754 in her electric billing. The Court of Appeals, however, reversed the RTC's decision and found that Aguida had been deprived of electricity without due process of law. It ordered Meralco to pay Aguida moral and exemplary damages, and attorney's fees and dismissed Meralco's claim for differential billing.
The facts of the case, as summarized by the Court of Appeals, are as follows:
Respondent Aguida vda. de Santiago is the widow of the late Jose Santiago, a registered customer of petitioner Meralco. Since the death of her husband in October 1990, Aguida, along with her daughter Elsa, her five grandchildren and a housemaid, have been living in their residential house located at No. 26, Purok I Meyto, Calumpit, Bulacan, under the same contract of service entered into by Jose Santiago.
On March 10, 2000, Antonio Cruz, an inspector of Meralco, together with two other Meralco inspectors, conducted a routine inspection of Aguida's meter installation posted outside the gate of their ancestral house at a distance of more or less twenty meters.
After inspection, Cruz found that a self-grounding wire connected to the electric meter was being used to deflect the actual consumption of electricity. Cruz immediately disconnected the electric service and prepared a Meter/Socket Inspection Report5 and Notice of Disconnection6 which Aguida was made to sign. Thereafter, Cruz demanded payment of a differential billing amounting to
P65,819.75. On the same day, Aguida filed a protest with the Malolos branch of Meralco and its main office in Ortigas, Pasig City. Aguida claimed that the electric meter was inspected without her knowledge or prior permission, nor were her neighbors called to witness the inspection. She also denied having seen a policeman in uniform during the inspection.
Meralco, on the other hand, relied on Cruz' report and sent a differential billing to Aguida totaling
P385,467.10. It likewise invoked the provisions of the contract of service and Republic Act No. 7832,7 otherwise known as the "Anti-Electricity and Electric Transmission Lines/Materials Pilferage Act of 1994," to justify its right to effect immediate disconnection of the electric service.8
On April 4, 2000, Aguida filed a complaint for damages against Meralco before the RTC of Malolos, Branch 18.9
In a Decision dated November 18, 2002, the RTC dismissed the complaint for damages and ordered Aguida to pay Meralco
P65,819.75 differential billing. The dispositive portion of the decision reads:
WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, Judgment is hereby rendered in favor of defendants [Meralco and Antonio Cruz] and against plaintiff [Aguida vda. de Santiago]:
1. dismissing plaintiff's Complaint for damages against defendants Manila Electric Company (Meralco) and Antonio Cruz;
2. ordering plaintiff or her representative to pay or deposit with defendant Manila Electric Company (Meralco) the "differential billing" in the amount of Sixty-Five Thousand Eight Hundred Nineteen Pesos and Seventy-Five Centavos (
P65,819.75), Philippine currency, within ten (10) days from receipt of this Decision; andcralawlibrary
3. ordering defendant Manila Electric Company (Meralco) to immediately restore or reconnect its electric service to plaintiff at [the] latter's residence at No. 26, Purok 1, Meyto, Calumpit, Bulacan, under the name of registered customer Jose Santiago, Aguida Vda. de Santiago, as user, upon payment by plaintiff of the foregoing "differential billing" of Sixty-Five Thousand Eight Hundred Nineteen Pesos and Seventy-Five Centavos (
P65,819.75) with defendant Meralco. In the interest of public service and public interest, this particular disposition, with respect to immediate restoration of electric service only, is immediately executory without prejudice to any appeal that may be taken therefrom by any of the parties.
No pronouncement as to costs.
Both parties appealed to the Court of Appeals. Meralco protested the order to pay
P65,819.75, arguing it should be P385,467.10, while Aguida argued that the RTC erred in finding that there was a regular inspection of her residence.
On April 22, 2005, the Court of Appeals reversed the RTC's ruling after finding that there was no due process in the disconnection of Aguida's electric service.Ï‚Î·Î±Ã±rÎ¿blÎµÅ¡ Î½Î¹râ€ Ï…Î±l lÎ±Ï‰ lÎ¹brÎ±rÃ¿
WHEREFORE, premises considered, the Decision of the RTC Branch 18, Malolos, Bulacan is hereby SET ASIDE and REVERSED. Defendant-appellant MERALCO is hereby ordered to pay plaintiff-appellant the sum of
P100,000.00 as moral damages and P50,000.00 exemplary damages plus P20,000.00 as attorney's fees. Furthermore, MERALCO's claim for P385,467.10 differential billing is hereby DISMISSED for lack of merit. Finally, the MERALCO is hereby ordered to immediately restore the electric supply of plaintiff-appellant.
Meralco's motion for reconsideration was denied. Hence, the instant appeal by Meralco where it raises the following issues:
WHETHER OR NOT THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN RULING THAT THERE WAS NO SUFFICIENT PROOF THAT RESPONDENT WAS FOUND USING SELF-GROUND WIRE.
WHETHER OR NOT THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN FINDING THAT PETITIONER MERALCO DID NOT OBSERVE DUE PROCESS OF LAW WHEN IT DISCONTINUED THE ELECTRIC SUPPLY OF RESPONDENT.
WHETHER OR NOT THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN DISREGARDING THE RIGHT OF PETITIONER TO DISCONNECT RESPONDENT'S ELECTRIC SERVICE PURSUANT TO THE PROVISIONS OF RA 7832.
WHETHER OR NOT THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS ERRED IN REVERSING THE RULING OF [THE] COURT A QUO BY AWARDING DAMAGES IN FAVOR OF RESPONDENT.12
Simply, the issue is: Did the Court of Appeals err in reversing the RTC's decision dismissing respondent's complaint for damages against petitioner for allegedly disconnecting respondent's electric service without due process of law?cralawred
At the onset, well-settled is the rule that the Supreme Court is not a trier of facts. When supported by substantial evidence, the findings of fact of the Court of Appeals are conclusive and binding on the parties and are not reviewable by this Court, unless the case falls under any of the following recognized exceptions:
(1) When the conclusion is a finding grounded entirely on speculation, surmises and conjectures;
(2) When the inference made is manifestly mistaken, absurd or impossible;
(3) Where there is a grave abuse of discretion;
(4) When the judgment is based on a misapprehension of facts;
(5) When the findings of fact are conflicting;
(6) When the Court of Appeals, in making its findings, went beyond the issues of the case and the same is contrary to the admissions of both appellant and appellee;
(7) When the findings are contrary to those of the trial court;
(8) When the findings of fact are conclusions without citation of specific evidence on which they are based;
(9) When the facts set forth in the petition as well as in the petitioners' main and reply briefs are not disputed by the respondents; andcralawlibrary
(10) When the findings of fact of the Court of Appeals are premised on the supposed absence of evidence and contradicted by the evidence on record.13 (Emphasis supplied.)
As a rule, only questions of law are entertained by this Court in Petitions for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45. It is not our function to analyze or weigh all over again the evidence presented. It is a settled doctrine that in a civil case, final and conclusive are the factual findings of the trial court, but only if supported by clear and convincing evidence on record.14
In this case, the findings of the Court of Appeals are contrary to the findings of the RTC. Hence, a review thereof is in order.
Section 4 of Rep. Act No. 7832 states:
SEC. 4. Prima Facie Evidence. âˆ’ (a) The presence of any of the following circumstances shall constitute prima facie evidence of illegal use of electricity, as defined in this Act, by the person benefitted thereby, and shall be the basis for: (1) the immediate disconnection by the electric utility to such person after due notice, (2) the holding of a preliminary investigation by the prosecutor and the subsequent filing in court of the pertinent information, and (3) the lifting of any temporary restraining order or injunction which may have been issued against a private electric utility or rural electric cooperative:
(i) The presence of a bored hole on the glass cover of the electric meter, or at the back or any other part of said meter;
(ii) The presence inside the electric meter of salt, sugar and other elements that could result in the inaccurate registration of the meter's internal parts to prevent its accurate registration of consumption of electricity;
(iii) The existence of any wiring connection which affects the normal operation or registration of the electric meter;
(iv) The presence of a tampered, broken, or fake seal on the meter, or mutilated, altered, or tampered meter recording chart or graph, or computerized chart, graph or log;
(v) The presence in any part of the building or its premises which is subject to the control of the consumer or on the electric meter, of a current reversing transformer, jumper, shorting and/or shunting wire, and/or loop connection or any other similar device;
(vi) The mutilation, alteration, reconnection, disconnection, bypassing or tampering of instruments, transformers, and accessories;
(vii) The destruction of, or attempt to destroy, any integral accessory of the metering device box which encases an electric meter or its metering accessories; andcralawlibrary
(viii) The acceptance of money and/or other valuable consideration by any officer or employee of the electric utility concerned or the making of such an offer to any such officer or employee for not reporting the presence of any of the circumstances enumerated in subparagraphs (i), (ii), (iii), (iv), (v), (vi), or (vii) hereof: Provided, however, That the discovery of any of the foregoing circumstances, in order to constitute prima facie evidence, must be personally witnessed and attested to by an officer of the law or a duly authorized representative of the Energy Regulatory Board (ERB).
(b) The possession, control or custody of electric power transmission line/material by any person, natural or juridical, not engaged in the transformation, transmission or distribution of electric power, or in the manufacture of such electric power transmission line/material shall be prima facie evidence that such line/material is the fruit of the offense defined in Section 3 hereof and therefore such line/material may be confiscated from the person in possession, control or custody thereof. (Emphasis supplied.)
Under the above provision, the prima facie presumption that will authorize immediate disconnection will arise only upon the satisfaction of certain requisites. One of these requisites is the personal witnessing and attestation by an officer of the law or by an authorized ERB representative when the discovery was made.15
After a careful review of the evidence on record, we affirm the appellate court's holding that "there is no solid, strong and satisfactory evidence to prove the alleged meter-tampering."
The Court of Appeals correctly held:
After our careful scrutiny of the records, we find merit to plaintiff-appellant's appeal. We believe that there is no solid, strong and satisfactory evidence to prove the alleged meter-tampering. The law states that, in order to constitute prima facie evidence of electric pilferage, the discovery thereof must be personally witnessed and attested to by at least a police officer or a representative of [the] Energy Regulatory Board (ERB).
Here, PO2 Chavez had allegedly witnessed and attested to the conduct of routine inspection. It is intriguing to note, however, that the inspection was conducted in Calumpit, Bulacan whereas PO2 Chavez is a police officer assigned in Caloocan City. PO2 Chavez likewise failed to present a written order from [the] Caloocan Police Station that allowed/sent him to escort MERALCO inspectors in Calumpit, Bulacan. Moreover, PO2 Chavez likewise admitted that the inspection team did not coordinate with [the] Calumpit Police Station for assistance in the conduct of said inspection. This fact alone makes us wary of imputing any legitimacy or regularity in the conduct of operation by [the] MERALCO inspection team.
We are inclined to lend credence to the testimony of plaintiff-appellant and her daughter Elsa that there was no policeman in uniform during the inspection.
Moreover, if the meter-tampering was really committed, it could have been discovered at the earliest opportunity during the previous inspection on the subject meter installation conducted by [the] MERALCO, Malolos Branch in July 1999. Besides, plaintiff-appellant's billing records from May 1999 to February 2000 marked as EXHS. "A" to "A-9", will attest to the fact that her average monthly electric consumption ranges from 578 to 721 kwh. or with equivalent billing of
P2,000 to P3000. There was no showing of drastic changes in the billing except only for the billing period of April 16, 1999 to May 18, 1999 when it had gone up to P7,793.60 which prompted the plaintiff-appellant to lodge a protest for investigation, re-computation and refund for over billing. Upon investigation, [the] MERALCO, Malolos Branch found the meter to be DEFECTIVE but not tampered. Thus, it replaced the defective meter but despite thereof, MERALCO did not make a corresponding refund in favor of the plaintiff-appellant. Furthermore, the meter was last seen in January 2000 and yet MERALCO found no traces of meter-tampering. Surprisingly, after barely two months from the last inspection, plaintiff-appellant is charged of meter-tampering by defendant CRUZ.
The RTC had evidently failed to consider some relevant facts and circumstances, which if considered, would have altered its conclusion and judgment.16
Like the Court of Appeals, we are also wary of imputing legitimacy or regularity to the acts of PO2 Chavez, who allegedly witnessed and attested to the conduct of the inspection at respondent's house, since he is a police officer of Caloocan City and not Bulacan. Police officers must act only within their assigned territory.
In view of the foregoing, we affirm the ruling of the Court of Appeals.
WHEREFORE, the petition is DENIED. The assailed Decision dated April 22, 2005 and the Resolution dated November 21, 2005 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CV No. 78800 are AFFIRMED. Costs against petitioner.
* Additional member per Raffle of July 29, 2008 in place of Associate Justice Arturo D. Brion who concurred in the assailed Decision and Resolution.
1 Rollo, pp. 40-55. Penned by Associate Justice Eugenio S. Labitoria, with Associate Justices Edgardo P. Cruz and Arturo D. Brion (now a member of this Court) concurring.
2 Id. at 75-76.
3 CA rollo, pp. 57-64. Penned by Presiding Judge Victoria C. Fernandez-Bernardo.
4 Id. at 64.
5 Records, Vol. I, p. 393.
6 Id. at 394.
7 An Act Penalizing the Pilferage of Electricity and Theft of Electric Power Transmission Lines/Materials, Rationalizing System Losses by Phasing Out Pilferage Losses as a Component Thereof, and for Other Purposes, approved on December 8, 1994.
8 Records, Vol. I, p. 122.
9 Id. at 3-14.
10 CA rollo, pp. 63-64.
11 Rollo, p. 53.
12 Id. at 340.
13 Ontimare, Jr. v. Elep, G.R. No. 159224, January 20, 2006, 479 SCRA 257, 265.
14 Vibram Manufacturing Corporation v. Manila Electric Company, G.R. No. 149052, August 9, 2005, 466 SCRA 178, 183.
15 Quisumbing v. Meralco, G.R. No. 142943, April 3, 2002, 380 SCRA 195, 204.
16 Rollo, pp. 242-244.