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A.M. No. 00-4-09-SC - RE: REPORT OF DEPUTY COURT ADMINISTRATOR BERNARDO T. PONFERADA RE: JUDICIAL AUDIT CONDUCTED IN THE RTC, BRANCH 26, ARGAO, CEBU

A.M. No. 00-4-09-SC - RE: REPORT OF DEPUTY COURT ADMINISTRATOR BERNARDO T. PONFERADA RE: JUDICIAL AUDIT CONDUCTED IN THE RTC, BRANCH 26, ARGAO, CEBU

PHILIPPINE SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

THIRD DIVISION

[A.M. NO. 00-4-09-SC : February 23, 2005]

Re: REPORT OF DEPUTY COURT ADMINISTRATOR BERNARDO T. PONFERADA RE JUDICIAL AUDIT CONDUCTED IN THE RTC, BRANCH 26, ARGAO, CEBU.

D E C I S I O N

SANDOVAL-GUTIERREZ, J.:

The instant case stemmed from the Report1 of then Deputy Court Administrator (DCA) Bernardo T. Ponferada, dated March 31, 2000, on the judicial audit and physical inventory of cases conducted by the Judicial Audit Team of the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) in the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 26, Argao, Cebu, then presided by Judge Epifanio C. Llanos who retired compulsorily on April 7, 2002.

The Report2 of the Judicial Audit Team dated March 28, 2000 shows that as of the end of February 2000, there were 583 cases pending in the said court. Of this total, 43 civil cases and 44 criminal cases have been submitted for decision but have remained undecided beyond the reglementary period. Several of these undecided cases have been pending for more than 7 years.

The Judicial Audit Team also found that: (1) in 5 civil cases and 10 criminal cases, there are motions which have not been resolved; (2) there are 55 civil cases and 31 criminal cases pending decision for more than 3 months; and (3) in 7 civil cases, no action at all have been taken from the dates of filing.ςηαñrοblεš  Î½Î¹r†υαl  lαω  lιbrαrÿ

Acting on DCA Ponferada's Recommendation, on April 11, 2000, we issued a Resolution quoted as follows:

"(1) DIRECT Judge Epifanio Llanos, Presiding Judge, Branch 26, Argao, Cebu to:

(a) EXPLAIN within ten (10) days from notice why no administrative sanction should be imposed on him for failure to decide within the mandatory period the following cases submitted to him, to wit: Civil Cases Nos. 308, 402, 497, 501, 507, 564, 58, 591, 595, 657, 691, 716, 726, 738, 756, 758, 763, 774, 778, 784, 793, 799, 800, 851, 877, 895, 896, 900, 929, 931, 947, 951, 958, 979, 984, 985, 1005, 1032, 1040 and Sp. Proc. No. 270; Criminal Cases Nos. 799, 1095, 1319, 1446, 1450, 1469, 1488, 1501, 1515, 1554, 1571, 1578, 1610, 1625, 1632, 1663, 1634, 1784, 1785, 1786, 1803, 1824, 1834, 1931, 1948, 1951, 1968, 1972, 1997, 1998, 2006-2008, 2019, 2031, 2047, 2052, 2098, 2120, 2129, 2151, 2207;

(b) EXPLAIN why no administrative sanction should be imposed upon him for failure to resolve the pending incidents in Civil Cases Nos. 764, 856, 865, 910, 1042, Criminal Cases Nos. 1708, 1841, 1842, 1844, 1932, 1974, 2180, and 2380, which remained unresolved despite the lapse of the reglementary period;

(c) DECIDE/RESOLVE the aforesaid cases mentioned in paragraph (a) and (b) within one hundred eighty (180) days from notice, and to submit immediately to this Court through the Office of the Court Administrator copies of his decisions giving priority to Criminal Cases 1824, 1834, 1931, 1968, 2019, 2031, 2098, 2122, 2207, 2217 which are with detention prisoners; his salary checks be withheld and shall be released only upon showing proof of his full compliance with this directive;

(d) DESIST from trying and hearing cases at RTC, Branch 26, Argao, Cebu and to concentrate mainly on decision making;

(2) DESIGNATE Judge Rafael B. Yrastorza, Jr., Presiding Judge, RTC, Branch 14, Cebu City as Assisting Judge of RTC, Branch 26, Argao, Cebu, to hear cases pending thereat effective immediately and to remain thereat until further orders from this Court;

(3) DIRECT Assisting Judge Rafael Yrastorza, Jr. to take immediate action on the following cases not acted upon/resolved or set in the calendar after the lapse of a considerable length of time, to wit: Civil Cases Nos. 227, 265, 329, 355, 370, 384, 385, 417, 418, 422, 435, 439, 480, 569, 670, 717, 723, 732, 734, 746, 816, 821, 835, 836, 858, 866, 887, 893, 901, 914, 934, 936, 942, 988, 993, 1007, 1012, 1014, 1020, 1036, 1041, 1043, 1045, 1047, 1051, 1054, 1061, 1062, 1064, 1065, 1067, 1077, Sp. Proc. No. 342 and Cad. Case No. 25; Criminal Cases Nos. 820, 844, 952, 1645, 1711, 1875, 1970, 1971, 1986, 2091, 2130-37, 2158-59, 2219-20, 2331, 2355, 2392-93, 2411, 2431, 2415, 2421, 2422, 2433, 2458, 2469, 2470; and on the following Civil Cases where no action at all were taken since filing, to wit: 892, 912, 1048, 1094, 1095, Sp. Proc. 358 and 465; andcralawlibrary

(4) DIRECT Judge Llanos to explain why no administrative sanction should be imposed on him for his failure to act on the cases mentioned in No. 3 above."3

On February 15, 2001, Judge Rafael B. Yrastorza, Jr., requested that he be relieved as assisting judge in the RTC of Argao, Cebu to enable him to attend to the needs of his children as his wife is working abroad.4

On March 27, 2001, DCA Porferada recommended to this Court that Judge Llanos be allowed to resume hearing cases in his sala effective upon notice. DCA Porferada pointed out that as per records of the Statistical Reports Division of the OCA, Judge Llanos has decided 63 of the 82 cases and has resolved the incidents in 11 of the 13 cases he was directed to resolve. DCA Ponferada further recommended that the designation of Judge Yrastorza, Jr. as assisting judge in the RTC of Argao, Branch 26, be revoked.5 ςηαñrοblεš  Î½Î¹r†υαl  lαω  lιbrαrÿ

On June 26, 2001, we issued a Resolution: (1) allowing Judge Llanos to resume hearing cases in his sala effective upon notice; (2) directing him to submit, through the OCA, duly certified copies of his decisions/resolutions in the cases he was directed to decide/resolve; and (3) revoking the designation of Judge Yrastoza as assisting judge of the RTC of Argao, Cebu, Branch 26.6

In a letter7 dated August 15, 2001 addressed to DCA Zenaida N. Elepaño, then Acting Court Administrator, Judge Llanos stated that in partial compliance with our Resolution of April 11, 2000, he rendered decisions in the following cases:

Criminal Cases Nos. AR-799; AR-1095; AR-1319; AR-1446; AR-1450; AR-1649; AR-1488; AR-1501; AR-1515; AR-1554; AR-1571; AR-1578; AR-1610; AR-1625; AR-1632; AR-1663; AR-1634; AR-1784; AR-1785; AR-1786; AR-1803; AR-1824; AR-1931; AR-1251; AR-1948; AR-1951; AR-1968; AR-1972; AR-1997; AR-1998; AR-2006; AR-2008; AR-2019; AR-2129; AR-2031; AR-2047; AR-2052; AR-2098; and AR-2021.

Civil Cases Nos. AV-402; AV-654; AV-58; AV-657; AV-756; AV-784; AV-793; AV-799; AV-800; AV-851; AV-877; AV-896; AV-929; AV-979; AV-984; AV-985; AV-1005; AV-1040; AV-865; AV-856; AV-910; AV-774; Sp. Proc. A-270; and AV-1032.

A follow-up audit and physical inventory of cases in the same court was conducted by the Judicial Audit Team of the OCA. The Team recommended that:

"1. Hon. Epifanio C. Llanos, RTC, Branch 26, Argao, Cebu, be DIRECTED to EXPLAIN within ten (10) days from notice why no administrative sanction should be imposed upon him for his failure to decide the following cases despite the directive to him by the Court in its resolution dated 11 April 2000, to wit: Civil Cases Nos. AV-308, AV-497, AV-716, AV-726, and AV-730; the following cases within the reglementary period, to wit: AV-265, AV-704, AV-764, AV-883, AV-918, AV-1125, AV-1091 and SP-A-285 and to resolve within the reglementary period the motions in the following two (2) Civil Cases, to wit: Civil Cases Nos. AV-507, AV-689, and AV-1143.

2. The Financial Management Office, Office of the Court Administrator be AUTHORIZED to WITHHOLD the amount of Fifty Thousand Pesos (P50,000.00) from the retirement benefits of Judge Epifanio C. Llanos which may serve as a contingent to any sanction that may be imposed on him for his failure to decide the thirteen (13) civil cases and to resolve the motions in two (2) civil cases, within the mandatory/reglementary period.

x x x"

The above recommendation was adopted and indorsed to us by DCA Elepaño in her Memorandum dated September 4, 2002.

Meanwhile, Judge Llanos retired compulsorily on April 7, 2002.

In a letter of compliance dated February 19, 2003, Judge Llanos explained his delay in resolving the following cases: Civil Cases Nos. AV-730; AV-716; AV-308; AV-497; AV-726; AV-704; AV-883; AV-1125; and AV-1051 - He failed to decide these cases by reason of oversight and inadvertence. In Civil Case No. A-285, he did not decide this case on time since he was awaiting the result of Sp. Proc. No. A-270; and Civil Case No. AV-265 was not acted upon as he was very preparing for his compulsory retirement.

Judge Llanos disclosed that he has been suffering from internal bleeding caused by ulcers triggered by stress and overwork. Furthermore, he incurred financial obligations arising from hospital treatment abroad. He then asked that his application for retirement (after rendering thirty-four [34] years of service) be approved.

In her Report and Recommendation dated May 21, 2003, DCA Elepaño stated that Judge Llanos' explanation is unsatisfactory and shows gross inefficiency on his part. That he is not in good health and is burdened with a heavy caseload will not exonerate him. These circumstances will only serve to mitigate the imposable penalty. Furthermore, Judge Llanos failed to explain why he did not decide Civil Case No. AV-918 within the prescribed period. He also failed to explain why he failed to resolve, within the mandatory period, the pending motions in Civil Cases Nos. AV-507, AV-689, and AV-1143. DCA Elepaño then recommended that he be held administratively liable for gross inefficiency and be fined in the amount of P40,000.00 which shall be deducted from his retirement benefits.

On July 2, 2003, we issued a Resolution requiring Judge Llanos to manifest within twenty (20) days from notice whether he is submitting the case on the basis of the pleadings and records already filed.

In a letter dated August 10, 2003, Judge Llanos manifested that he is submitting the matter for resolution on the basis of the pleadings and records already filed, but asked that the imposable penalty be reduced in view of his 34 years of dedicated service as a trial court judge.

Records show that Judge Llanos failed to decide within the reglementary period Civil Cases Nos. AV-308, AV-497, AV-716, AV-726, AV-730, AV-265, AV-704, AV-764, AV-883, AV-918, AV-1125, AV-1091, and APA-285. He also failed to resolve seasonably the pending incidents in Civil Cases Nos. AV-507, AV-689, and AV-1143. In sum, he failed to render decisions in thirteen (13) civil cases and to resolve the motions in three (3) other civil cases on time.

Section 15 (1), Article VIII of the Constitution provides:

(1) All cases or matters filed after the effectivity of this Constitution must be decided or resolved within twenty-four months from date of submission for the Supreme Court, and, unless reduced by the Supreme Court, twelve months for all lower collegiate courts, and three months for all other lower courts.

The office of a judge exacts nothing less than faithful observance of the Constitution and the law in the discharge of official duties. We agree with DCA Elepaño that the explanation proffered by Judge Llanos for his inability to dispose of thirteen (13) civil cases and motions in three (3) other civil cases is not satisfactory.

While we sympathize with Judge Llanos' heavy caseload and his poor health, nonetheless, such factors cannot exonerate him from his administrative liability. They can only serve to mitigate the imposable penalty.

A judge must first seek from this Court an extension of the period within which to decide cases, without such extension, his failure to decide a case within the prescribed period constitutes gross inefficiency that warrants administrative sanction.8

Judge Llanos' failure to render decisions and orders within the mandated period constitutes a violation of Canon 3, Rule 3.05 of the Code of Judicial Conduct.9 Our Administrative Circular No. 1, dated January 28, 1988, requires all magistrates to act promptly on all motions and interlocutory matters pending before theirs courts.10 We cannot overstress this policy on prompt disposition or resolution of cases. Delay in case disposition is a major culprit in the erosion of public faith and confidence in the judiciary and the lowering of its standards.11

Thus, we find Judge Llanos guilty of gross inefficiency.ςηαñrοblεš  Î½Î¹r†υαl  lαω  lιbrαrÿ

But the recommended fine of P40,000.00 is, to our mind, too severe.

Under Section 9, Rule 140 of the Revised Rules of Court, as amended by A.M. No. 01-8-100SC, gross inefficiency is a less serious charge punishable by suspension from office without salary and other benefits for not less than one (1) nor more than three (3) months or a fine of more than P10,000.00 but not exceeding P20,000.00.12 As DCA Elepaño pointed out, Judge Llanos' poor health and heavy workload during his final days on the bench may be considered as mitigating circumstances in imposing the penalty.

WHEREFORE, retired Judge Epifanio C. Llanos is hereby found GUILTY of GROSS INEFFICIENCY and is FINED in the amount of Eleven Thousand Pesos (P11,000.00) to be deducted from the Fifty Thousand Pesos (P50,000.00) we ordered withheld from his retirement benefits as per our Resolution dated October 9, 2002. The Chief of the Fiscal Management Office is DIRECTED to IMMEDIATELY RELEASE to retired Judge Llanos the remaining Thirty Nine Thousand Pesos (P39,000.00).

SO ORDERED.

Panganiban, (Chairman), Corona, Carpio-Morales, and Garcia, JJ., concur.

Endnotes:


1 1 Rollo, pp. 1-4.

2 Id. at 5-12.

3 Id. at 13-14.

4 Id. at 11.

5 Id. at 1-2.

6 Id. at 13.

7 Rollo at 19-20.

8 Petallar v. Pullos, A.M. No. MTJ-03-1484, January 15, 2004, 419 SCRA 434, 438, citing Saceda v. Gestopa, Jr., 372 SCRA 193 (2001).

9 Rule 3.05 - A judge shall dispose of the court's business promptly and decide cases within the required periods; Arap v.Mustafa, A.M. No. SC-01-7, March 12, 2002, 379 SCRA 1.

10 Morta v. Bagagñan, A.M. MTJ-03-1513, November 12, 2003, 415 SCRA 624, 631.

11 Re: Report On The Judicial Audit in RTC-Branch 15, Ozamiz City(Judge PEDRO L. SUAN; Judge RESURRECCION T. INTING of Branch 16, Tangub City), A.M. RTJ-04-1849, September 20, 2004, at 13 citing abarquez v. Reobosurra, 349 Phil. 24 (1998).

12 Report on the Judicial Audit Conducted in the MCTC-Dapa, Surigao del Norte, A.M. No. 03-10-250-MCTC, September 20, 2004 at 13.

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