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G.R. No. 156205, November 12, 2014 - REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES, REPRESENTED BY THE REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, REGION IV, DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES, Petitioner, v. MARJENS INVESTMENT CORPORATION AND PATROCINIO P. VILLANUEVA, Respondents.

G.R. No. 156205, November 12, 2014 - REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES, REPRESENTED BY THE REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, REGION IV, DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES, Petitioner, v. MARJENS INVESTMENT CORPORATION AND PATROCINIO P. VILLANUEVA, Respondents.

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

FIRST DIVISION

G.R. No. 156205, November 12, 2014

REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES, REPRESENTED BY THE REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, REGION IV, DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCES, Petitioner, v. MARJENS INVESTMENT CORPORATION AND PATROCINIO P. VILLANUEVA, Respondents.

D E C I S I O N

LEONARDO-DE CASTRO, J.:

This petition for review on certiorari seeks to reverse the November 19, 2002 Decision[1 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 50023, which dismissed petitioner Republic of the Philippines' petition on the ground that the disputed property had already been segregated and classified as private property and no longer form part of the public domain.

Background

The Court of Appeals gave a short background on the subject property.

In Land Registration Case No. 52, G.L.R.O. Rec. No. 3454, entitled, "Hammon H. Buck, et al. vs. Director of Lands," the then Court of First Instance of Batangas rendered a Decision dated March 30, 1951 x x x granting the application for registration of several parcels of land in favor of the applicants therein, Hammon H. Buck, et al.

In the said judgment, it was established that the lands described in Plans Psu-118922 and 114430 were originally owned by Rita Vda. de Ilustre since 1890. In 1923, the parcels of land applied for were purchased by Donato Punzalan. Later, the lots under Plan Psu-114430 were purchased from Donato Punzalan by Agustin Canoso and Gregorio Decepeda and in consideration of the survey and registration thereof, Lots 1 and 2, Plan Psu-114430 were ceded to Hammon H. Buck. This was to become the basis of Hammon H. Buck's application for registration under Land Registration Case No. 52.

As a consequence of the final and executory decision in Land Registration Case No. 52, Decree No. 6610 was awarded to Hammon H. Buck which finally led to the issuance in his name of Original Certificate of Title No. 0-669 x x x on February 18, 1952.2

The Facts of the Case

On December 22, 1998, or almost 46 years after the issuance of Original Certificate of Title (OCT) No. 0-669, petitioner Republic, represented by the Region IV Regional Executive Director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), filed a petition before the Court of Appeals for annulment of judgment, cancellation of title, and reversion against respondents Marjens Investment Corporation (Marjens) and Patrocinio Villanueva (Villanueva), the Register of Deeds for the Province of Batangas (Tanauan, Batangas), and the Regional Trial Court of LipaCity.3chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Petitioner, through the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), alleges that respondents Marjens and Villanueva appear as registered owners of a land identified as Lot 1 (LRC) Pcs-943, which is a portion of Lots 1 and 2, plan Psu-114430 LRC (G.L.R.O.) Record No. N-3454, with an area of five thousand (5,000) square meters, covered by Transfer Certificate of Title (TCT) No. T-18592 issued on April 7, 1976 by the Office of the Register of Deeds of Tanauan, Batangas.4chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The OSG avers that TCT No. T-18592 appears to have emanated from Original Certificate of Title (OCT) No. 0-669 in the name of Hammon H. Buck issued by virtue of a Decision5 dated March 30, 1951, rendered in Land Registration Case No. 52, G.L.R.O. Record No. N-3454 of the Court of First Instance (CFI) of Lipa City, Batangas, Eighth Judicial District.6chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The OSG further alleges that upon verification through a certification7 dated April 30, 1997 issued by the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) of the DENR in Batangas City, it was ascertained that the land covered by TCT No. T-18592 is within the unclassified public forest per Land Classification Control Map No. 10 for the Provinces of Batangas and Cavite.

The OSG argues that the land in question cannot be the subject of disposition or registration, and the trial court did not acquire jurisdiction over said property, much less to decree the same as private property. Therefore, the registration proceedings, the judgment in the subject case, the OCT No. O-669 issued pursuant thereto, and all subsequent titles are null and void. The land covered by TCT No. T-18592, not having been legally registered, remains and forms part of the public domain of the State.8chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

In their comment, respondents deny the OSG's allegations. They claim that their titles, their predecessors' titles, and their mother title are issued in accordance with law, and that the property was registered and brought under the Torrens system. Respondents contend that the subject property was already private property even before the Spanish Crown ceded sovereignty over the Philippine Islands to the United States of America.9chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Respondents assert that the government has lost its rights by laches and estoppel to question the validity of the OCT No. 0-669, the proceedings in LRC Case No. 52, G.L.R.O. Record No. N-3454, and the corresponding decree (Decree 6610) issued after almost 50 years have lapsed. They maintain that the proceeding for its registration was made in accordance with the requirements of the law, including the publication of notices addressed to the Solicitor General, the Director of Lands, and the Director of Forestry, among others, in the Official Gazette (Vol. 46, No. 12, pp. 6381-6382 and Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 438-439). Despite the notices, there was no opposition from the government.10chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Respondents insist that it will be most unfair and will violate their right to due process if they will again be required to undergo another trial to establish their long continued, open, public, adverse possession and cultivation of the property in the concept of owners as against the whole world, now that all their witnesses are long dead, senile, or impossible to locate. They also point out that the subject property has transferred to various parties who have been regularly assessed and paying realty taxes for several years.11chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Respondents allege that the government through the Bureau of Lands had presumably issued various free patents over the subject property that has constrained petitioners to file a petition for annulment based on these free patent titles that overlap with the respondents' title. They questioned why the government issued free patents over the subject property when it believed that the same is part of an unclassified public forest. They even suggested to implead the individuals with titles overlapping with their titles for a complete determination of the issues in the case and to avoid unnecessary and wasteful duplication of valuable time and resources of the OSG.12chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

To bolster its argument, respondents cited that there are many real estate developments going on near or around the area where the property is located, one of which is the Splendido Gardens, a resort and golf course. Respondents speculated how the said developments proceeded if the property covered therein is within the unclassified public forest as the government claims, and that is assuming all the requisite government approvals have been secured by the developers.13chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Respondents availed of two modes of discovery, and moved to serve written interrogatories to parties and for the production of documents.14 The Court of Appeals granted the motions,15 to which the petitioner filed its comments. The Court of Appeals likewise directed both parties to file their respective memoranda, after which the case was submitted for decision.16chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The Court of Appeals Decision

On November 19, 2002, the Court of Appeals dismissed the petition as follows:chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, the instant petition is ordered DISMISSED. No cost.17ChanRoblesVirtualawlibrary

The Court of Appeals applied the case of Cariho v. Insular Government of the Philippine Islands,18 which recognized private ownership of lands already possessed or held by individuals under claim of ownership as far back as testimony or memory goes and therefore never to have been public land that Spain could bequeath to the United States of America.

Reiterating the CFI Decision, the Court of Appeals held that the subject properties under Plan Psu-114430 were originally owned by Rita Vda. de Ilustre since 1890 before the Treaty of Paris. Reckoned from such time, under the Cariño ruling, the subject property had already ceased to be public, had been appropriated into private ownership, and therefore excluded from the "public domain" ceded by Spain to the United States of America in the Treaty of Paris of 1898.19chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The Court of Appeals pronounced that the CFI of Batangas is unmistakably equipped with jurisdiction and authority to legally adjudicate the land applied for in Registration Case No. 52 in favor of the applicants. Consequently, Decree 6610, OCT No. O-669, and TCT No. T-18592, in respondents' name, must be upheld as valid issuances and documents of title.20chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

Further, the Court of Appeals said that there are still other reasons in rejecting the arguments of the petitioner that the controversial lot and title in this petition still forms part of the public domain. By its own act and admission in the answer to the written interrogatories, petitioner confessed to have issued several Environmental Compliance Certificates (ECCs) to projects within Land Classification Control Map (LCCM) No. 10, although identification is not feasible as the issuance of ECCs began in 1982, pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 1586 dated June 11, 1978, among others.21 The foregoing admissions militate against petitioner's assertion and cast serious doubts on what the DENR certification contains. The Court of Appeals said that it is inconceivable how petitioner can claim that the subject land is an inalienable forest land when it had been alienating it by the numerous grants and decrees it had issued.22chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The Court of Appeals cited Republic v. Court of Appeals and Cosalan,23 wherein the Court declared that despite the general rule that forest lands cannot be appropriated by private ownership, it had been previously held that while the government has the right to classify portions of public land, the primary right of a private individual who possessed and cultivated the land in good faith much prior to such classification must be recognized and should not be prejudiced by after-events which could not have been anticipated.

Moreover, the Court of Appeals observed that LCCM No. 10 is not dated. Petitioner explained that according to the Land Classification Department of National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), LCCM No. 10 is not dated because it is used as a control map or reference in order to determine which land classification map is to be used. When the lot covered by TCT No. T-18592 was plotted based on the given tie point/line, it is covered by LC Map No. 3013 under the land classification for Batangas. LC Map No. 3013 was certified under Forest Administrative Order No. 4-1656 dated March 15, 1982. The Court of Appeals concluded that long before LC Map No. 3013 was certified, the subject property covered by TCT No. T-18592 had already acquired the character of a private ownership before the reclassification of the area to an unclassified forest.24chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

As for respondents' affirmative defenses of estoppel and laches, the Court of Appeals ruled that estoppel and laches run against the State, citing Republic v. Court of Appeals and Santos,25cralawred as follows:chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The general rule is that the State cannot be put in estoppel by the mistakes or errors of its officials or agents. However, like all general rules, this is also subject to exceptions, viz.:chanRoblesvirtualLawlibrary
Estoppels against the public are little favored. They should not be invoked except in ra[r]e and unusual circumstances, and may not be invoked where they would operate to defeat the effective operation of a policy adopted to protect the public. They must be applied with circumspection and should be applied only in those special cases where the interests of justice clearly require it. Nevertheless, the government must not be allowed to deal dishonorably or capriciously with its citizens, and must not play an ignoble part or do a shabby thing; and subject to limitations x x x, the doctrine of equitable estoppel may be invoked against public authorities as well as against private individuals. (Citations omitted.)

Unconvinced, the OSG filed this petition for review on certiorari before the Court assigning the following as errors:cralawlawlibrary

1) The Court of Appeals' finding that the property covered by TCT No. T- 18592 had become private property prior to the classification of the area to an unclassified forest, and

2) The Court of Appeals' ruling that the instant case is an exception to the general rule that laches and estoppel do not run against the State.[26chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The Court's Ruling

The petition is denied.

First Issue: Whether or not the subject property covered by TCT No. T-18592 is a private property or part of the public domain.

The case of Cariño v. Insular Government of the Philippine Islands27 states that "[prescription is mentioned again in the royal cedula of October 15, 1754, cited in 3 Philippine, 546; '[w]here such possessors shall not be able to produce title deeds, it shall be sufficient if they shall show that ancient possession, as a valid title by prescription.' It may be that this means possession from before 1700; but, at all events, the principle is admitted. As prescription, even against Crown lands, was recognized by the laws of Spain we see no sufficient reason for hesitating to admit that it was recognized in the Philippines in regard to lands over which Spain had only a paper sovereignty."

The United States Supreme Court through Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes pronounced in the Cariño case28 that "every presumption is and ought to be against the government in a case like the present. It might, perhaps, be proper and sufficient to say that when, as far back as testimony or memory goes, the land has been held by individuals under a claim of private ownership, it will be presumed to have been held in the same way from before the Spanish conquest, and never to have been public land."

The records did not categorically state that Rita Vda. de Ilustre had Spanish title over the subject property. But by virtue of her long continued, open, public, adverse possession and cultivation of the property in the concept of owner as against the whole world she is deemed to have acquired ownership over the subject property.

As for respondents, it is undisputed that the property covered by TCT No. T-18592 traces its title to the property originally owned by Rita Vda. de Ilustre since 1890. From her it passed on to several hands until it was transferred to Hammon H. Buck, who successfully registered it in his name on February 18, 1952. From 1890, respondents' predecessors in interest had been in peaceful, open, continuous, exclusive, adverse, and notorious possession in the concept of an owner of the subject property including the portion covered by TCT No. T-18592. Following the Cariño ruling, the subject property had been a private land and excluded from the public domain since 1890 prior to the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. Therefore, it is not part of the public domain that passed on from Spain to the United States of America.

For the same reason, it is also not part of the unclassified public forest as petitioner claims. In Republic v. Court of Appeals and Cosalan,29 the Court held that "[d]espite the general rule that forest lands cannot be appropriated by private ownership, it has been previously held that 'while the Government has the right to classify portions of public land, the primary right of a private individual who possessed and cultivated the land in good faith much prior to such classification must be recognized and should not be prejudiced by after-events which could not have been anticipated...Government in the first instance may, by reservation, decide for itself what portions of public land shall be considered forestry land, unless private interests have intervened before such reservation is made'"

The map (LC Map No. 3013), which is the basis of petitioner's claim, is inexistent at the time Hammon H. Buck was issued an original certificate of title. Therefore, the subject property had been a private property before it was classified. Thus, the Court agrees with the Court of Appeals' findings and upholds the private character of the subject property.

The Court also agrees with the Court of Appeals' observation that petitioner admitted in its answer to the written interrogatories that the DENR issued several ECCs to projects within LCCM No. 10. The admissions go against petitioner's assertion and cast serious doubts on what the DENR certification contains. The Court of Appeals said, to which the Court concurs, that it is inconceivable how petitioner can claim that the subject land is an inalienable forest land when it had been alienating it by the numerous grants and decrees it had issued. Quoted hereunder are excerpts from petitioner's answer to respondents' written interrogatories.

10. Have you issued any Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC) for any property or development project of any project situated within (and/or where any portion of such project is located within) LC Map CM-10 for the Province of Batangas and Cavite mentioned in Annex "D" of your petition?

ANSWER:  Yes.

11. If your answer to the immediately preceding interrogatory is in the affirmative, please identify such ECC and/or the project.

ANSWER: The DENR Region IV had already issued several Environmental Compliance Certificates (ECC) to projects within [the] Land Classification Control Map (LCCM) 10. Identification of such projects is not feasible considering that the issuance of the ECCs began in 1982 pursuant to Presidential Decree No. 1586 dated June 11, 1978 and the said map covers the two (2) Provinces of Batangas and Cavite. The issuance of the ECCs in 1982 up to 1992 was previously done by the defunct National Environmental Protection Council (NEPC), then by the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) and subsequently, upon the implementation of Executive Order No. 192, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Reorganization Law, it was issued by the DENR-EMB, however, there were projects within the jurisdiction of the DENR Regional Office and the issuance of the ECCs was devolved to the latter office.

x x x x

16. Has the government issued any free patents, sales patents, or homestead patents, under the provisions of the Public Land Act (CA No. 141, as amended), over any property located within (or including within its boundary any portion thereof) the area covered by LC Map CM-10 for the Province of Batangas and Cavite?

ANSWER: Yes.

17. If your answer to the immediately preceding interrogatory is in the affirmative, please identify such free patents, sales patents and homestead patents.

ANSWER: It is impossible to identify all the patents issued within the area covered by LCCM-10 considering that thousands were already issued within the Provinces of Cavite and Batangas since the approval of Commonwealth Act No. 141, as amended, otherwise known as the Public Land Act on November 7, 1936.30ChanRoblesVirtualawlibrary

From the foregoing, the Court sustains the Court of Appeals' ruling that the CFI of Batangas has jurisdiction and authority to legally adjudicate the land applied for in Registration Case No. 52 in favor of the applicants. Consequently, Decree 6610, OCT No. 0-669, and TCT No. T-18592, in respondents' name, must be upheld as valid issuances and documents of title.

Second Issue: Whether or not the government is barred by laches and estoppel. 

Laches has been defined as the "failure or neglect for an unreasonable and unexplained length of time to do that which, by observance of due diligence, could or should have been done earlier. It is negligence or omission to assert a right within a reasonable time, warranting the presumption that the party entitled to assert his right either has abandoned or declined to assert it."31chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The following elements must be present in order to constitute laches: (a) conduct on the part of the defendant, or of one under whom he claims, giving rise to the situation complained of; (b) delay in asserting complainant's rights after he had knowledge of defendant's acts and after he has had the opportunity to sue; (c) lack of knowledge or notice by defendant that the complainant will assert the right on which he bases his suit; and (d) injury or prejudice to the defendant in the event the relief is accorded to the complainant.32chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

We find it unnecessary to discuss further this issue in view of our ruling that Decree No. 6610, OCT No. 0-669, and TCT No. T-18592 registered in the name of respondents were validly issued.

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the Court of Appeals Decision dated November 19, 2002 in CA-G.R. SP No. 50023 is AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

Velasco, Jr.,* Del Castillo,*** Perez, and Perlas-Bernabe, JJ., concur.
Leonardo-De Castro,** J. (Acting Chairperson).

Endnotes:


* Per Special Order No. 1870 dated November 4, 2014.

** Per Special Order No. 1861 dated November 4, 2014.

*** Per Special Order No. 1862 dated November 4, 2014.

1Rollo, pp. 28-48; penned by Associate Justice Conrado M. Vasquez, Jr. with Associate Justices Elvi John S. Asuncion and Sergio L. Pestano, concurring.

2 Id. at 28-29.

3 Id. at 10.

4 Id. at 10-11.

5 Id. at 51-54; penned by Judge Juan P. Enriquez.

6 Id. at 11.

7 Id. at 55; signed by CENR Officer Pancrasio M. Alcantara and verified by Forester I Ramon B. Berbano.

8 Id. at 12.

9 CA rollo, pp. 66-67.

10 Id. at 67-69. Id.

11 Id.

12 Id. at 69.

13 Id. at 71.

14 Id. at 102-110, 112-115.

15 Id. at 111, 122, and 154.

16 Id. at 157, 230.

17Rollo, p. 47.

18 41 Phil. 935(1909).

19Rollo, p. 42.

20 Id. at 42-43.

21 Id. at 43.

22 Id. at 43-44.

23 G.R. No. 38810, May 7, 1992, 208 SCRA 428, 433.

24Rollo, pp. 44-45.

25cralawred 361 Phil. 319, 329(1999).

26Rollo, pp. 161-162.


27 Supra note 18 at 942.

28 Id. at 941.

29 Supra note 23, citing Ankron v. Government of the Philippine Islands, 40 Phil. 10, 16 (1919); Republic v. Court of Appeals and Marcelo, 250 Phil. 82, 89-90 (1988); Republic v. Court of Appeals and Arquillo, 261 Phil. 393, 408 (1990).

30 CA rollo, pp. 138-141.

31Fernando, Jr. v. Acuna, G.R. No. 161030, September 14, 2011, 657 SCRA 499, 514-515.

32 Id. at 515.
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