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G.R. No. 212054, March 11, 2015 - ST. LUKE’S MEDICAL CENTER, INC., Petitioner, v. MARIA THERESA V. SANCHEZ, Respondent.

G.R. No. 212054, March 11, 2015 - ST. LUKE’S MEDICAL CENTER, INC., Petitioner, v. MARIA THERESA V. SANCHEZ, Respondent.

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

FIRST DIVISION

G.R. No. 212054, March 11, 2015

ST. LUKE’S MEDICAL CENTER, INC., Petitioner, v. MARIA THERESA V. SANCHEZ, Respondent.

D E C I S I O N

PERLAS-BERNABE, J.:

Assailed in this petition for review on certiorari1 are the Decision2 dated November 21, 2013 and the Resolution3 dated April 4, 2014 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 129108 which affirmed the Decision4 dated November 19, 2012 and the Resolution5 dated January 14, 2013 of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) in NLRC LAC No. 06-001858-12, declaring the dismissal of respondent Maria Theresa V. Sanchez (Sanchez) illegal.chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The Facts

On June 29, 2009, Sanchez was hired by petitioner St. Luke’s Medical Center, Inc. (SLMC) as a Staff Nurse, and was eventually assigned at SLMC, Quezon City’s Pediatric Unit until her termination on July 6, 2011 for her purported violation of SLMC’s Code of Discipline, particularly Section 1, Rule 1 on Acts of Dishonesty, i.e., Robbery, Theft, Pilferage, and Misappropriation of Funds. 6cralawred

Records reveal that at the end of her shift on May 29, 2011, Sanchez passed through the SLMC Centralization Entrance/Exit where she was subjected to the standard inspection procedure by the security personnel.  In the course thereof, the Security Guard on-duty, Jaime Manzanade  (SG Manzanade), noticed a pouch in her bag and asked her to open the same.7 When opened, said pouch contained the following assortment of medical stocks which were subsequently confiscated: (a) Syringe 10cl [4 pieces]; (b) Syringe 5cl [3 pieces]; (c) Syringe 3cl [3 pieces]; (d) Micropore [1 piece]; (e) Cotton Balls [1 pack]; (f) Neoflon g26 [1 piece]; (g) Venofix 25 [2 pieces]; and (h) Gloves [4 pieces] (questioned items).8 Sanchez asked SG Manzanade if she could just return the pouch inside the treatment room; however, she was not allowed to do so.9 Instead, she was brought to the SLMC In-House Security Department (IHSD) where she was directed to write an Incident Report explaining why she had the questioned items in her possession.10 She complied11 with the directive and also submitted an undated handwritten letter of apology12 (handwritten letter) which reads as follows:chanRoblesvirtualLawlibrary

To In-House Security,

I am very sorry for bringing things from [SLMC] inside my bag. Pasensya na po. Taos-puso po akong humihingi ng tawad sa aking pagkakasala, Alam ko po na ako ay nagkamali. Hindi ko po dapat dinala yung mga gamit sa hospital. Hindi ko po alam kung [paano] ako magsisimulang humingi ng patawad. Kahit alam kong bawal ay nagawa kong makapag uwi ng gamit. Marami pang gamit dahil sa naipon po. Paisa-isa nagagawa kong makakuha pag nakakalimutan kong isoli. Hindi ko na po naiwan sa nurse station dahil naisip kong magagamit ko rin po pag minsang nagkakaubusan ng stocks at talagang may kailangan.

Humihingi po ako ng tawad sa aking ginawa. Isinakripisyo ko ang hindi pagiging “toxic” sa pagkuha ng gamit para sa bagay na alam kong mali. Inaamin ko na ako’y naging madamot, pasuway at makasalanan. Inuna ko ang comfort ko keysa gumawa ng tama. Manikluhod po akong humihingi ng tawad.

Sorry po. Sorry po. Sorry po talaga
.13cralawlawlibrary

In a memorandum14 of even date, the IHSD, Customer Affairs Division, through Duty Officer Hernani R. Janayon, apprised SLMC of the incident, highlighting that Sanchez expressly admitted that she intentionally brought out the questioned items.

An initial investigation was also conducted by the SLMC Division of Nursing15 which thereafter served Sanchez a notice to explain.16cralawred

On May 31, 2011, Sanchez submitted an Incident Report Addendum17 (May 31, 2011 letter), explaining that the questioned items came from the medication drawers of patients who had already been discharged, and, as similarly practiced by the other staff members, she started saving these items as excess stocks in her pouch, along with other basic items that she uses during her shift.18 She then put the pouch inside the lowest drawer of the bedside table in the treatment room for use in immediate procedures in case replenishment of stocks gets delayed. However, on the day of the incident, she failed to return the pouch inside the medication drawer upon getting her tri-colored pen and calculator and, instead, placed it inside her bag. Eventually, she forgot about the same as she got caught up in work, until it was noticed by the guard on duty on her way out of SMLC’s premises.

Consequently, Sanchez was placed under preventive suspension effective June 3, 2011 until the conclusion of the investigation by SLMC’s Employee and Labor Relations Department (ELRD)19 which, thereafter, required her to explain why she should not be terminated from service for “acts of dishonesty” due to her possession of the questioned items in violation of Section 1, Rule I of the SLMC Code of Discipline.20 In response, she submitted a letter21 dated June 13, 2011, which merely reiterated her claims in her previous May 31, 2011 letter. She likewise requested for a case conference,22 which SLMC granted.23 After hearing her side, SLMC, on July 4, 2011, informed Sanchez of its decision to terminate her employment effective closing hours of July 6, 2011. 24 This prompted her to file a complaint for illegal dismissal before the NLRC, docketed as NLRC NCR Case No. 07-11042-11.

In her position paper,25 Sanchez maintained her innocence, claiming that she had no intention of bringing outside the SLMC’s premises the questioned items since she merely inadvertently left the pouch containing them in her bag as she got caught up in work that day. She further asserted that she could not be found guilty of pilferage since the questioned items found in her possession were neither SLMC’s nor its employees’ property. She also stressed the fact that SLMC did not file any criminal charges against her. Anent her supposed admission in her handwritten letter, she claimed that she was unassisted by counsel when she executed the same and, thus, was inadmissible for being unconstitutional.26cralawred

For its part,27 SLMC contended that Sanchez was validly dismissed for just cause as she had committed theft in violation of Section 1,28 Rule I of the SLMC Code of Discipline,29 which punishes acts of dishonesty, i.e., robbery, theft, pilferage, and misappropriation of funds, with termination from service.chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The LA Ruling

In a Decision30 dated May 27, 2012, the Labor Arbiter (LA) ruled that Sanchez was validly dismissed31 for intentionally taking the property of SLMC’s clients for her own personal benefit,32 which constitutes an act of dishonesty as provided under SLMC’s Code of Discipline.

According to the LA, Sanchez’s act of theft was evinced by her attempt to bring the questioned items that did not belong to her out of SLMC’s premises; this was found to be analogous to serious misconduct which is a just cause to dismiss her.33 The fact that the items she took were neither SLMC’s nor her co-employees’ property was not found by the LA to be material since the SLMC Code of Discipline clearly provides that acts of dishonesty committed to SLMC, its doctors, its employees, as well as its customers, are punishable by a penalty of termination from service.34 To this, the LA opined that “[i]t is rather illogical to distinguish the persons with whom the [said] acts may be committed as SLMC is also answerable to the properties of its patients.”35 Moreover, the LA observed that Sanchez was aware of SLMC’s strict policy regarding the taking of hospital/medical items as evidenced by her handwritten letter,36 but nonetheless committed the said misconduct. Finally, the LA pointed out that SLMC’s non-filing of a criminal case against Sanchez did not preclude a determination of her serious misconduct, considering that the filing of a criminal case is entirely separate and distinct from the determination of just cause for termination of employment.37cralawred

Aggrieved, Sanchez appealed38 to the NLRC.chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The NLRC Ruling

In a Decision39 dated November 19, 2012, the NLRC reversed and set aside the LA ruling, and held that Sanchez was illegally dismissed.

The NLRC declared that the alleged violation of Sanchez was a unique case, considering that keeping excess hospital stocks or “hoarding” was an admitted practice amongst nurses in the Pediatric Unit which had been tolerated by SLMC management for a long time.40 The NLRC held that while Sanchez expressed remorse for her misconduct in her handwritten letter, she manifested that she only “hoarded” the questioned items for future use in case their medical supplies are depleted, and not for her personal benefit.41 It further held that SLMC failed to establish that Sanchez was motivated by ill-will when she brought out the questioned items, noting: (a) the testimony of SG Manzanade during the conference before the ELRD of Sanchez’s demeanor when she was apprehended, i.e., “[d]i naman siya masyado nataranta,42 and her consequent offer to return the pouch;43 and (b) that the said pouch was not hidden underneath the bag.44 Finally, the NLRC concluded that the punishment of dismissal was too harsh and the one (1) month preventive suspension already imposed on and served by Sanchez was the appropriate penalty.45 Accordingly, the NLRC ordered her reinstatement, and the payment of backwages, other benefits, and attorney’s fees.46cralawred

Unconvinced, SLMC moved for reconsideration47 which was, however, denied in a Resolution48 dated January 14, 2013. Thus, it filed a petition for certiorari49 before the CA.chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The CA Ruling

In a Decision50 dated November 21, 2013, the CA upheld the NLRC, ruling that the latter did not gravely abuse its discretion in finding that Sanchez was illegally dismissed.

It ruled that Sanchez’s offense did not qualify as serious misconduct, given that: (a) the questioned items found in her possession were not SLMC property since said items were paid for by discharged patients, thus discounting any material or economic damage on SLMC’s part; (b) the retention of excess medical supplies was an admitted practice amongst nurses in the Pediatric Unit which was tolerated by SLMC; (c) it was illogical for Sanchez to leave the pouch in her bag since she would be subjected to a routine inspection; (d) Sanchez’s lack of intention to bring out the pouch was manifested by her composed demeanor upon apprehension and offer to return the pouch to the treatment room; and (e) had SLMC honestly believed that Sanchez committed theft or pilferage, it should have filed the appropriate criminal case, but failed to do so.51 Moreover, while the CA recognized that SLMC had the management prerogative to discipline its erring employees, it, however, declared that such right must be exercised humanely. As such, SLMC should only impose penalties commensurate with the degree of infraction. Considering that there was no indication that Sanchez’s actions were perpetrated for self-interest or for an unlawful objective, the penalty of dismissal imposed on her was grossly oppressive and disproportionate to her offense.52cralawred

Dissatisfied, SLMC sought for reconsideration,53 but was denied in a Resolution54  dated April 4, 2014, hence, this petition.chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The Issue Before the Court

The core issue to be resolved is whether or not Sanchez was illegally dismissed by SLMC.chanroblesvirtuallawlibrary

The Court’s Ruling

The petition is meritorious.

The right of an employer to regulate all aspects of employment, aptly called “management prerogative,” gives employers the freedom to regulate, according to their discretion and best judgment, all aspects of employment, including work assignment, working methods, processes to be followed, working regulations, transfer of employees, work supervision, lay-off of workers and the discipline, dismissal and recall of workers.55 In this light, courts often decline to interfere in legitimate business decisions of employers.  In fact, labor laws discourage interference in employers’ judgment concerning the conduct of their business.56cralawred

Among the employer’s management prerogatives is the right to prescribe reasonable rules and regulations necessary or proper for the conduct of its business or concern, to provide certain disciplinary measures to implement said rules and to assure that the same would be complied with. At the same time, the employee has the corollary duty to obey all reasonable rules, orders, and instructions of the employer; and willful or intentional disobedience thereto, as a general rule, justifies termination of the contract of service and the dismissal of the employee.57 Article 296 (formerly Article 282) of the Labor Code provides:58cralawred

Article 296. Termination by Employer. - An employer may terminate an employment for any of the following causes:

(a) Serious misconduct or willful disobedience by the employee of the lawful orders of his employer or his representative in connection with his work;ChanRoblesVirtualawlibrary

x x x xcralawlawlibrary

Note that for an employee to be validly dismissed on this ground, the employer’s orders, regulations, or instructions must be: (1) reasonable and lawful, (2) sufficiently known to the employee, and (3) in connection with the duties which the employee has been engaged to discharge.59cralawred

Tested against the foregoing, the Court finds that Sanchez was validly dismissed by SLMC for her willful disregard and disobedience of Section 1, Rule I of the SLMC Code of Discipline, which reasonably punishes acts of dishonesty, i.e., “theft, pilferage of hospital or co-employee property, x x x or its attempt in any form or manner from the hospital, co-employees, doctors, visitors, [and] customers (external and internal)” with termination from employment.60 Such act is obviously connected with Sanchez’s work, who, as a staff nurse, is tasked with the proper stewardship of medical supplies. Significantly, records show that Sanchez made a categorical admission61 in her handwritten letter62 – i.e., “[k]ahit alam kong bawal ay nagawa kong [makapag-uwi] ng gamit63 – that despite her knowledge of its express prohibition under the SLMC Code of Discipline, she still knowingly brought out the subject medical items with her. It is apt to clarify that SLMC cannot be faulted in construing the taking of the questioned items as an act of dishonesty (particularly, as theft, pilferage, or its attempt in any form or manner) considering that the intent to gain may be reasonably presumed from the furtive taking of useful property appertaining to another.64 Note that Section 1, Rule 1 of the SLMC Code of Discipline is further supplemented by the company policy requiring the turn-over of excess medical supplies/items for proper handling65 and providing a restriction on taking and bringing such items out of the SLMC premises without the proper authorization or “pass” from the official concerned,66 which Sanchez was equally aware thereof.67 Nevertheless, Sanchez failed to turn-over the questioned items and, instead, “hoarded” them, as purportedly practiced by the other staff members in the Pediatric Unit. As it is clear that the company policies subject of this case are reasonable and lawful, sufficiently known to the employee, and evidently connected with the latter’s work, the Court concludes that SLMC dismissed Sanchez for a just cause.

On a related point, the Court observes that there lies no competent basis to support the common observation of the NLRC and the CA that the retention of excess medical supplies was a tolerated practice among the nurses at the Pediatric Unit. While there were previous incidents of “hoarding,” it appears that such acts were – in similar fashion – furtively made and the items secretly kept, as any excess items found in the concerned nurse’s possession would have to be confiscated.68 Hence, the fact that no one was caught and/or sanctioned for transgressing the prohibition therefor does not mean that the so-called “hoarding” practice was tolerated by SLMC. Besides, whatever maybe the justification behind the violation of the company rules regarding excess medical supplies is immaterial since it has been established that an infraction was deliberately committed.69 Doubtless, the deliberate disregard or disobedience of rules by the employee cannot be countenanced as it may encourage him or her to do even worse and will render a mockery of the rules of discipline that employees are required to observe.70cralawred

Finally, the Court finds it inconsequential that SLMC has not suffered any actual damage. While damage aggravates the charge, its absence does not mitigate nor negate the employee’s liability.71 Neither is SLMC’s non-filing of the appropriate criminal charges relevant to this analysis. An employee’s guilt or innocence in a criminal case is not determinative of the existence of a just or authorized cause for his or her dismissal.72 It is well-settled that conviction in a criminal case is not necessary to find just cause for termination of employment,73 as in this case. Criminal and labor cases involving an employee arising from the same infraction are separate and distinct proceedings which should not arrest any judgment from one to the other.

As it stands, the Court thus holds that the dismissal of Sanchez was for a just cause, supported by substantial evidence, and is therefore in order. By declaring otherwise, bereft of any substantial bases, the NLRC issued a patently and grossly erroneous ruling tantamount to grave abuse of discretion, which, in turn, means that the CA erred when it affirmed the same. In consequence, the grant of the present petition is warranted.

WHEREFORE, the petition is GRANTED. The Decision dated November 21, 2013 and the Resolution dated April 4, 2014 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 129108 are REVERSED and SET ASIDE. The Labor Arbiter’s Decision dated May 27, 2012 in NLRC Case No. NCR 07-11042-11 finding respondent Maria Theresa V. Sanchez to have been validly dismissed by petitioner St. Luke’s Medical Center, Inc. is hereby REINSTATED.

SO ORDERED.cralawlawlibrary

Sereno, C.J., (Chairperson), Leonardo-De Castro, Bersamin, and Perez, JJ., concur.

Endnotes:


1Rollo, pp. ­­3-35.

2 Id. at 40-50. Penned by Associate Justice Ramon R. Garcia with Associate Justices Amelita G. Tolentino and Danton Q. Bueser concurring.

3 Id. at 52-53.

4 Id. at 255-265. Penned by Commissioner Angelo Ang Palaña with Presiding Commissioner Herminio V. Suelo and Commissioner Numeriano D. Villena concurring.

5 Id. at 285-286.

6 Id. at 255.

7 Id. at 89 and 200.

8 Id. at 108. The total value of the medical items seized from Sanchez allegedly amounted to P615.00.

9 Id. at 41.

10 Id.

11 See Incident Report dated May 29, 2011; id. at 112.

12 Id. at 110.

13 Id.

14 Id. at 108.

15 Id. at 201.

16 Id. at 111.

17 Id. at 114.

18 Such as black ball pen, tri-colored pen, stamp/trodat, bandage, scissors, and calculator. Id.

19 See memorandum dated June 1, 2011 of Labor Relations Manager, ELRD Benjamin C. Altavas; id. at 168.

20 See memorandum dated June 9, 2011 of Labor Relations Manager Allan “Jeremy” Raymond R. Ignacio; id. at 115.

21 Id. at 116-117.

22 Id. at 117.

23 Hearings were conducted on June 14 and 15, 2011; id. at 118 and 172-181.

24 See memorandum dated July 4, 2011; id. at 118-119.

25 Dated September 14, 2011. Id. at 154-164.

26 See id. at 203-206.

27 Id. at 88-107. Dated September 13, 2011.

28 Id. at 125. Section 1, Rule I of SLMC Code of Discipline reads:
RULE I – ACTS OF DISHONESTY
Section 1 Robbery, Theft, Pilferage, and Misappropriation of Funds


Robbery, theft, pilferage of hospital or co-employee property, and/or misappropriation of funds or its attempt in any form or manner from the hospital, co-employees, doctors, visitors, customers (external and internal).
29Rollo, pp.120-138.

30 Id. at 199-215. Penned by Labor Arbiter Fe S. Cellan.

31 Id. at 208.

32 Id. at 210.

33 Id. at 209.

34 Id. at 211-212.

35 Id.at 212.

36 Id. at 213.

37 Id. at 214.

38 See Notice of Appeal dated June 21, 2012; id. at 216-217.

39 Id. at 255-265.

40 Id. at 261.

41 Id. at 261-262.

42 Id. at 262. See also minutes of the case conference before the ELRD held on June 14, 2011; id. at 174.

43 Id. at 174 and 263.

44 Id. at 262.

45 Id. at 263.

46 Id. at 263-264.

47 See Motion for Reconsideration dated December 7, 2012; id. at 266-283.

48 Id. at 285-286.

49 Dated March 22, 2013. Id. at 287-311.

50 Id. at 40-50.

51 Id. at 47-48.

52 Id. at 48-49.

53 See Motion for Reconsideration dated December 17, 2013; id. at 54-69.

54 Id. at 52-53.

55Deles, Jr. v. NLRC, 384 Phil. 271, 281-282 (2000).

56 See Phil. Industrial Security Agency Corp. v. Aguinaldo, 499 Phil. 215, 225 (2005).

57Malabago v. NLRC, 533 Phil. 292, 300 (2006).

58 As renumbered by Republic Act No. (RA) 10151, entitled “AN ACT ALLOWING THE EMPLOYMENT OF NIGHT WORKERS, THEREBY REPEALING ARTICLES 130 AND 131 OF PRESIDENTIAL DECREE NUMBER FOUR HUNDRED FORTY-TWO, AS AMENDED, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE LABOR CODE OF THE PHILIPPINES,” as further amended by RA 10361, entitled “AN ACT INSTITUTING POLICIES FOR THE PROTECTION AND WELFARE OF DOMESTIC WORKERS,” otherwise known as the “Domestic Workers Act” or “Batas Kasambahay.”

59 Family Planning Organization of the Philippines, Inc. v. NLRC, G.R. No. 75907, March 23, 1992, 207 SCRA 415, 421.

60Rollo, p. 125.

61 Note that Sanchez’s objection on the admissibility of her handwritten letter based on the absence of counsel at the time of its execution (an invocation of paragraphs 1 and 3, Section 12, Article III of the 1987 Constitution) remains untenable considering that the present case does not involve a custodial investigation conducted by government agents, but merely an inspection/investigation conducted by private individuals, i.e., the security of SLMC. In People v. Marti [271 Phil. 51, 61 (1991)], it was held that “the Bill of Rights embodied in the Constitution is not meant to be invoked against acts of private individuals.”

62Rollo, p. 110.

63 Id.

64 See Beltran, Jr. v. CA, G.R. No. 181355, March 30, 2011, 646 SCRA 728, 744-745.

65 In the memorandum dated July 4, 2011,  it was mentioned that excess medical items “bought and paid for by the patients’ parents or relatives x x x  should [be] surrendered for proper handling as specified in the Computerized Nursing Transcription System, specifically the [turn-in] of served, but unused, and unserved items.” See rollo, p. 118.

66 See Section 7.c. of the SLMC Code of Discipline; id. at 126. See also id. at 119.

67 As admitted in her handwritten letter. Id. at 110.

68 During the case conference before the ELRD, Ms. Ruth Elejorde, the Nurse Unit Manager at the SLMC Pediatric Unit, testified in this wise:
“… dati kasi nangyari na yan noon, na parang hoarding na tinatawag. Tapos may box sila noon na pinagtataguan. Ngayon, yung mga ano nila, siguro as a manager tinatago rin nila sa akin kasi alam nila na ico-confiscate ko. So meron silang mga pouch. Kaya lang di ko kasi ugaling magbukas kasi privacy issue naman po yun sa kanila.” (See rollo, p. 261.)
69 See San Miguel Corporation v. Ubaldo, G.R. No. 92859, February 1, 1993, 218 SCRA 293, 300.

70Areno, Jr. v. Skycable PCC-Baguio, 625 Phil. 561, 579 (2010).

71Panuncillo v. CAP Philippines, Inc., 544 Phil. 256, 268 (2007), citing Lopez v. NLRC (2nd Div.), 513 Phil. 731, 738 (2005).

72Pepsi Cola Bottling Co. of the Phils. v. Guanzon, 254 Phil. 578, 584 (1989).

73 Reno Foods, Inc. and/or Khu v. Nagkakaisang Lakas ng Manggagawa (NLM)-Katipunan, 629 Phil. 247, 256 (2010).
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