A.C. No. 4945, October 08, 2013 - MA. JENNIFER TRIA-SAMONTE, Complainant, v. EPIFANIA “FANNY” OBIAS, Respondent.
For the Court’s resolution is an administrative Complaint-affidavit1
filed by Ma. Jennifer Tria-Samonte (complainant) against Epifania “Fanny” Obias (respondent) charging her for grave misconduct and/or gross malpractice.The Facts
In 1997, spouses Prudencio and Loreta Jeremias (Sps. Jeremias), through respondent, offered for sale a parcel of agricultural land covered by Transfer Certificate of Title No. 597 (subject property) to the late Nestor Tria (Nestor) and Pura S. Tria (Sps. Tria), for a consideration of P2,800,000.00 and payable in installments.2
Respondent, who was to receive the payment from Sps. Tria and transmit the same to Sps. Jeremias, undertook to deliver the deed of sale and owner’s copy of the title to her clients (Sps. Tria) upon full payment of the purchase price.3
She further undertook to cause the conversion of the subject property from agricultural to residential, and the transfer of the title to the names of Sps. Tria as part of the package agreement.4
Respondent received all the installment payments made by Sps. Tria and issued receipts therefor.5
After full payment of the purchase price on July 11, 1997,6
and after giving an additional P115,000.00 for capital gains tax and other expenses,7
Sps. Tria requested from respondent the delivery of the deed of sale and the owner’s copy of the title to them but respondent failed to comply explaining that the Department of Agrarian Reform clearance for conversion of the subject property from agricultural to residential was taking time.8
Despite several subsequent demands, respondent still failed to fulfill her undertakings under the package agreement.9cralawlibrary
On May 22, 1998, Nestor was fatally shot and died.10
Thereafter, complainant, daughter of Sps. Tria, again demanded from respondent and Sps. Jeremias the delivery of the deed of sale and the certificate of title of the subject property to them, but to no avail. For their part, Sps. Jeremias informed complainant that they had received the consideration of P2,200,000.00 and they had executed and turned-over the sale documents to respondent.11cralawlibrary
Complainant later discovered that a deed of sale over the subject property was executed by Sps. Jeremias and notarized by respondent in favor of someone else, a certain Dennis Tan, on May 26, 1998 for a consideration of P200,000.00.12cralawlibrary
In defense, respondent, in her Comment,13
claimed that Nestor instructed her in November 1997 not to proceed with the processing of the deed of sale and, instead, to just look for another buyer.14
She further averred that Nestor also demanded from her the return of the purchase price, and that she complied with the said demand and returned the P2,800,000.00 in cash to Nestor sometime during the latter part of January 1998.15
However, she did not ask for a written receipt therefor. In fact, Nestor told her not to return the P115,000.00 intended for capital gains taxes and other expenses, and to just apply the said sum as attorney’s fees for the other legal services that she rendered for him.16cralawlibrary
In the Court’s Resolution17
dated August 30, 1999, the case was referred to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) for investigation, report, and recommendation. After numerous postponements, mostly at the instance of respondent,18
only the complainant and her witnesses testified before the IBP. Eventually, respondent’s right to present evidence was considered waived.19cralawlibraryThe IBP’s Report and Recommendation
On September 25, 2007, the IBP Investigating Commissioner, Wilfredo E.J.E. Reyes (Investigating Commissioner), issued his Report and Recommendation,20
finding respondent to have violated her oath as a lawyer due to her participation in the second sale of the subject property despite the lack of any lawful termination of the prior sale of the same property to Sps. Tria. The Investigating Commissioner observed that respondent received, and admitted to have received, from Sps. Tria the P2,800,000.00 purchase price and the amount of P115,000.00 for expenses. He further found the second sale of the same property to Dennis Tan as a clear indication that respondent: (a
) employed serious deceit or fraud against Sps. Tria and their family; (b
) violated their proprietary rights; and (c
) violated the trust and confidence reposed in her.21
On the other hand, the Investigating Commissioner did not give credence to respondent’s defense that she returned the P2,800,000.00 purchase price given by Sps. Tria and that the latter caused the cancellation of the sale of the subject property in their favor, absent any receipt or documentation to prove the same.22
As counsel for Sps. Tria, respondent failed in her obligation to observe honesty and diligence in their transaction and, as such, she was found guilty of grave misconduct and gross malpractice in violation of Canons 17 and 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility (Code).23
Accordingly, the Investigating Commissioner recommended that respondent be suspended from the practice of law for a period of five years.24cralawlibrary
Finding the recommendation to be fully supported by the evidence on record and the applicable laws and rules, and considering respondent’s violation of Canons 17 and 18 of the Code, the IBP Board of Governors adopted and approved the Investigating Commissioner’s Report and Recommendation in Resolution No. XVIII-2007-18525
dated October 19, 2007 but reduced the suspension of respondent from the practice of law from five years to one year.
Both complainant and respondent filed their respective motions for reconsideration26
which were, however, denied in the IBP Board of Governors’ Resolution No. XX-2012-109 dated March 10, 2012.27cralawlibraryThe Issue Before the Court
The essential issue in this case is whether or not respondent should be held administratively liable for violating Canons 17 and 18 of the Code.The Court’s Ruling
The Court finds no cogent reason to disturb the findings of the IBP. Indeed, respondent, in her Comment, already admitted that she rendered legal services to Sps. Tria,28
which necessarily gave rise to a lawyer-client relationship between them. The complete turnaround made by respondent in her motion for reconsideration from the IBP Board of Governors’ Resolution No. XX-2012-109, where she contended that there was no lawyer-client relationship between her and Sps. Tria,29
cannot thus be given any credence.
Since respondent publicly held herself out as lawyer, the mere fact that she also donned the hat of a real estate broker did not divest her of the responsibilities attendant to the legal profession. In this regard, the legal advice and/or legal documentation that she offered and/or rendered regarding the real estate transaction subject of this case should not be deemed removed from the category of legal services.30
Case law instructs that if a person, in respect to business affairs or troubles of any kind, consults a lawyer with a view to obtaining professional advice or assistance, and the attorney voluntarily permits or acquiesces with the consultation, then the professional employment is established.31
Thus, in view of the fact that Sps. Tria knew respondent to be, and transacted with her as, a lawyer, her belated and unilateral classification of her own acts as being limited to those of a real estate broker cannot be upheld. In any case, the lawyer-client relationship between Sps. Tria and respondent was confirmed by the latter’s admission that she rendered legal services to the former. With this relationship having been established, the Court proceeds to apply the ethical principles pertinent to this case.
It is a core ethical principle that lawyers owe fidelity to their clients’ cause and must always be mindful of the trust and confidence reposed in them.32
They are duty-bound to observe candor, fairness, and loyalty in all their dealings and transactions with their clients.33
Irrefragably, the legal profession demands of attorneys an absolute abdication of every personal advantage conflicting in any way, directly or indirectly, with the interests of their clients.34
As enshrined in Canons 17 and 18 of the Code:chanroblesvirtualawlibrary
Canon 17 - A lawyer owes fidelity to the cause of his client and he shall be mindful of the trust and confidence reposed in him.
Canon 18 - A lawyer shall serve his client with competence and diligence.chanrob1esvirtualawlibrary
In the present case, respondent clearly transgressed the above-mentioned rules as her actions were evidently prejudicial to her clients’ interests. Records disclose that instead of delivering the deed of sale covering the subject property to her clients, she wilfully notarized a deed of sale over the same property in favor of another person. Accordingly, far removed from protecting the interest of her clients, Sps. Tria, who had, in fact, already fully paid the purchase price of the subject property, respondent participated and was even instrumental in bringing about the defeat of their rights over the said property. Hence, respondent grossly violated the trust and confidence reposed in her by her clients, in contravention of Canons 17 and 18 of the Code. To add, by turning against her own clients, respondent also violated Rule 1.01, Canon 1 of the Code which provides that a lawyer shall not engage in unlawful, dishonest and immoral or deceitful conduct. Lest it be forgotten, lawyers are bound to maintain not only a high standard of legal proficiency, but also of morality, honesty, integrity, and fair dealing.35
These unyielding standards respondent evidently failed to adhere to.
Anent the proper penalty to be imposed, records bear out that the penalty of suspension from the practice of law recommended by the Investigating Commissioner was decreased from a period of five years to just one year by the IBP Board of Governors in Resolution No. XVIII-2007-185. However, the Court observes that the said resolution is bereft of any explanation showing the bases for such modification in contravention of Section 12(a), Rule 139-B of the Rules of Court which mandates that “[t]he decision of the Board upon such review shall be in writing and shall clearly and distinctly state the facts and the reasons on which it is based.” Verily, the Court frowns on the unexplained change made by the IBP Board of Governors in the recommended penalty. Be that as it may, the Court proceeds to correct the same.
Jurisprudence reveals that in similar cases where lawyers abused the trust and confidence reposed in them by their clients as well as committed unlawful, dishonest, and immoral or deceitful conduct, as in this case, the Court found them guilty of gross misconduct and disbarred them. In Chua v. Mesina, Jr.
the Court disbarred the lawyer who, upon his misrepresentations, breached his promise to his clients to transfer to them the property subject of that case, but instead, offered the same for sale to the public. Also, in Tabang v. Gacott
the penalty of disbarment was meted out against the lawyer who, among others, actively sought to sell the properties subject of that case contrary to the interests of his own clients. As the infractions in the foregoing cases are akin to those committed by respondent in the case at bar, the Court deems that the same penalty of disbarment be imposed against her. Clearly, as herein discussed, respondent committed deliberate violations of the Code as she dishonestly dealt with her own clients and advanced the interests of another against them resulting to their loss. For such violations, respondent deserves the ultimate punishment of disbarment consistent with existing jurisprudence.
As a final point, it bears to note that the foregoing resolution does not – as it should not – include an order for the return of the P2,800,000.00 purchase price and the amount of P115,000.00 for expenses allegedly received by respondent, albeit the Investigating Commissioner’s findings on the same. In Roa v. Moreno
it has been held that disciplinary proceedings against lawyers are only confined to the issue of whether or not the respondent-lawyer is still fit to be allowed to continue as a member of the Bar and that the only concern is his administrative liability.39
Thus, the Court’s findings during administrative-disciplinary proceedings have no bearing on the liabilities of the parties involved which are purely civil in nature – meaning, those liabilities which have no intrinsic link to the lawyer’s professional engagement40
– as the same should be threshed out in a proper proceeding of such nature.WHEREFORE
, respondent Epifania “Fanny” Obias is found guilty of gross misconduct and is accordingly DISBARRED
Let a copy of this Resolution be furnished the Office of the Bar Confidant, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, and the Office of the Court Administrator for circulation to all the courts.SO ORDERED.Sereno, C.J., Carpio, Velasco, Jr., Leonardo-De Castro, Brion, Peralta, Bersamin, Del Castillo, Abad, Perez, Mendoza, Reyes, Perlas-Bernabe
, and Leonen, JJ.
, concur.Villarama, Jr., J.
, on official leave.
1Rollo, pp. 1-5.cranad
2 Id. at 1.cranad
5 Id. at 2. See also various attached receipts issued by respondent; id. at 12-16.cranad
6 Id. See also receipt issued by respondent for the additional expenses; id. at 16.cranad
7 Id. at 17.cranad
8 See TSN, March 17, 2005, id. at 554.cranad
9 See TSN, March 17, 2005, id. at 554-555 and 576.cranad
10 Id. at 2. The Court takes judicial notice of the fact that respondent was charged with the murder of Nestor. In its November 24, 2010 Decision in G.R. No. 175887, entitled “Heirs of the Late Nestor Tria v. Atty. Epifania Obias,” the Court even sustained the probable cause finding against respondent for the said crime. (See Heirs of the Late Nestor Tria v. Obias, G.R. No. 175887, November 24, 2010, 636 SCRA 91.)
11 Id. at 3.cranad
12 Id. at 3-4. See also Deed of Sale dated May 26, 1998; id. at 23-24.cranad
13 Id. at 56-59.cranad
14 Id. at 57.cranad
16 Id. at 57-58.cranad
17 Id. at 72.cranad
18 Id. at 628.cranad
20 Id. at 620-639.cranad
21 Id. at 638.cranad
22 Id. at 637.cranad
24 Id. at 639.cranad
25 Id. at 619.cranad
26 Id. at 640-646 (for complainant); and id. at 669-674 (for respondent).cranad
27 Id. at 697.cranad
28 Paragraph 5 of respondent’s comment states: “It is hereby further pointed out that undersigned Respondent had been appearing as counsel for Nestor Tria since 1995 in administrative cases and in investigations by the Office of the Ombudsman for violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and had rendered legal services by way of documenting, or giving legal advice on, acquisition of many valuable real properties not only in Camarines Sur but in Metro Manila in the names of the spouses Nestor Tria and Pura S. Tria, or of their children[.]” (Id. at 58; emphasis supplied)
29 Id. at 656-657.cranad
30 See Barnachea v. Atty. Quiocho, 447 Phil. 67 (2003).cranad
31Burbe v. Atty. Magulta, 432 Phil 840, 848-849 (2002).cranad
32 Id. at 849.cranad
33Barnachea v. Atty. Quiocho, supra note 30, at 75.cranad
35Tabang v. Gacott, A.C. No. 6490, July 9, 2013, citing In the Matter of the IBP Membership Dues Delinquency of Atty. Marcial A. Edillon, 174 Phil. 55, 62 (1978) and Ventura v. Samson, A.C. No. 9608, November 27, 2012, 686 SCRA 430, 433.cranad
36 479 Phil. 796 (2004).cranad
37 See supra note 35.cranad
38 A.C. No. 8382, April 21, 2010, 618 SCRA 693.cranad
39 “[W]e cannot sustain the IBP’s recommendation ordering respondent to return the money paid by complainant. In disciplinary proceedings against lawyers, the only issue is whether the officer of the court is still fit to be allowed to continue as a member of the Bar. Our only concern is the determination of respondent’s administrative liability. Our findings have no material bearing on other judicial action which the parties may choose to file against each other.” (Roa v. Moreno, id. at 700; emphasis supplied.)
40 An example of a liability which has an intrinsic link to the professional engagement would be a lawyer’s acceptance fees.