[G.R. NO. 152928 : June 18, 2009]
METROPOLITAN BANK and TRUST COMPANY, Petitioner, v. NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS COMMISSION, FELIPE A. PATAG and BIENVENIDO C. FLORA, Respondents.
D E C I S I O N
LEONARDO-DE CASTRO, J.:
In this Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure, petitioner seeks to set aside and annul the Decision1 dated December 13, 2001 and the Resolution2 dated April 9, 2002 rendered by the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. No. 63144.
The CA decision affirmed an earlier resolution3 of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) dated March 31, 2000 which ruled in favor of herein respondents.
The factual antecedents are as follows:
Respondents Felipe Patag (Patag) and Bienvenido Flora (Flora) were former employees of petitioner Metropolitan Bank and Trust Company (Metrobank). Both respondents availed of the bank's compulsory retirement plan in accordance with the 1995 Officers' Benefits Memorandum. At the time of his retirement on February 1, 1998, Patag was an Assistant Manager with a monthly salary of
P32,100.00. Flora was a Senior Manager with a monthly salary of P48,500.00 when he retired on April 1, 1998. Both of them received their respective retirement benefits computed at 185% of their gross monthly salary for every year of service as provided under the said 1995 Memorandum. In all, Patag was fully paid the total amount of P1,957,782.71 while Flora was paid the total amount of P3,042,934.29 in retirement benefits.
Early in 1998, Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations were on-going between Metrobank and its rank and file employees for the period 1998-2000. Patag wrote a letter dated February 2, 19984 to the bank requesting that his retirement benefits be computed at the new rate should there be an increase thereof in anticipation of possible changes in officers' benefits after the signing of the new CBA with the rank and file. Flora likewise wrote Metrobank in March 25, 1998,5 requesting the bank to use as basis in the computation of their retirement benefits the increased rate of 200% as embodied in the just concluded CBA between the bank and its rank and file employees. Metrobank did not reply to their requests.
The records show that since the 1986-1988 CBA, and continuing with each CBA concluded thereafter with its rank and file employees, Metrobank would issue a Memorandum granting similar or better benefits to its managerial employees or officers, retroactive to January 1st of the first year of effectivity of the CBA. When the 1998-2000 CBA was approved, Metrobank, in line with its past practice, issued on June 10, 1998, a Memorandum on Officers' Benefits, which provided for improved benefits to its officers (the 1998 Officers' Benefits Memorandum). This Memorandum was signed by then Metrobank President Antonio S. Abacan, Jr. Pertinently, the compulsory retirement benefit for officers was increased from 185% to 200% effective January 1, 1998, but with the condition that the benefits shall only be extended to those who remain in service as of June 15, 1998.6
On June 29, 1998, Flora again wrote a letter,7 asking Metrobank for a reconsideration of its condition that the new officers' benefits shall apply only to those officers still employed as of June 15, 1998. Metrobank denied this request on July 17, 1998.8
Consequently on August 31, 1998, Patag and Flora, through their counsel, wrote a letter to Metrobank demanding the payment of their unpaid retirement benefits amounting to
P284,150.00 and P448,050.00, respectively, representing the increased benefits they should have received under the 1998 Officers' Benefits Memorandum.9
In its letter-reply dated September 17, 1998, Metrobank's First Vice-President Paul Lim, Jr. informed Patag and Flora of their ineligibility to the improved officers' benefits as they had already ceased their employment and were no longer officers of the bank as of June 15, 1998.10
On September 25, 1998, Patag and Flora filed with the Labor Arbiter their consolidated complaint against Metrobank for underpayment of retirement benefits and damages, asserting that pursuant to the 1998 Officers' Benefits Memorandum, they were entitled to additional retirement benefits. Patag, for his part, also claimed he was entitled to payment of his 1997 profit share and 1998 structural adjustment.
On June 8, 1999, Labor Arbiter Geobel A. Bartolabac rendered a decision,11 dismissing the complaint of Patag and Flora. As expected, Patag and Flora filed an appeal with the NLRC. In a resolution12 dated March 31, 2000, the Third Division of the NLRC partially granted the appeal and directed Metrobank to pay Patag and Flora their unpaid beneficial improvements under the 1998 Officers' Benefits Memorandum.
Aggrieved with the ruling of the NLRC, Metrobank elevated the matter to the CA by way of a petition for certiorari, docketed as CA-G.R. No. 63144.
On December 13, 2001, the CA promulgated its assailed decision dismissing Metrobank's petition and affirming the resolution of the NLRC. In so ruling, the CA declared:
Upon the other hand, the private respondents' (Patag and Flora) evidence reveals that from 1986 to 1995, it has been the practice of the petitioner (Metrobank) that whenever it enters and signs a new CBA with its rank and file employees, it likewise issues a memorandum extending benefits to its officers which are higher or at least the same as those provided in the said CBA for the rank and file employees effective every 1st of January of the year, without any condition that the officers-beneficiaries should remain employees of the petitioner as of a certain date of a given year. xxx. Under the circumstances, the same may be deemed to have ripened into company practice or policy which cannot be peremptorily withdrawn.13
Petitioner's subsequent motion for reconsideration was denied by the CA in its Resolution dated April 9, 2002.
Hence, the instant petition where Metrobank raised the following arguments:
I. THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS COMMITTED SERIOUS ERROR IN AFFIRMING THE NLRC'S DECISION AND RESOLUTION BY RULING THAT THE PRIVATE RESPONDENTS ARE ENTITLED TO THEIR BELATED CLAIM FOR ADDITIONAL (RETIREMENT) BENEFITS EVEN AFTER THEY EFFECTIVELY CEASED THEIR EMPLOYMENT WITH PETITIONER AND DESPITE THEIR UNQUALIFIED ACKNOWLEDGMENT AND RECEIPT OF THE PAYMENT IN FULL OF THEIR RETIREMENT BENEFITS, CONTRARY TO LAW AS WELL AS OTHER LAWFUL ORDERS AND SETTLED JURISPRUDENCE ON THE MATTER.14
II. THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS' FAVORABLE APPLICATION OF THE 1998 IMPROVED OFFICERS' (RETIREMENT) BENEFITS TO THE RESPONDENTS DESPITE THEIR NON-COMPLIANCE WITH THE REQUIREMENTS OF ELIGIBILITY THERETO, IS PATENTLY CONTRARY TO LAW AND THE WELL-SETTLED JURISPRUDENCE ON THE MATTER.15
III. THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS GRAVELY ERRED IN NOT FINDING THAT RESPONDENTS ARE BARRED BY ESTOPPEL FROM INSTITUTING THE ACTION AFTER HAVING UNQUALIFIEDLY ACKNOWLEDGED AND RECEIVED THE FULL PAYMENT OF THEIR RETIREMENT BENEFITS.16
Petitioner contends that respondents Patag and Flora, having qualified for compulsory retirement under the 1995 Officers' Benefits Memorandum, cannot now claim to be eligible to higher retirement benefits under the 1998 Improved Benefits Memorandum. In fact, according to petitioner, Patag and Flora had unqualifiedly received the full payment of their retirement benefits. Also, the 1998 Improved Benefits Memorandum was issued after Patag and Flora compulsorily retired on February 1, 1998 and April 1, 1998, respectively, and there was an express condition in the 1998 Officers' Benefits Memorandum that the improved benefits shall apply only to officers who remain in service as of June 15, 1998.
From the facts, it is clear that the core issue hinges on whether respondents can still recover higher benefits under the 1998 Officers' Benefits Memorandum despite the fact that they have compulsorily retired prior to the issuance of said memorandum and did not meet the condition therein requiring them to be employed as of June 15, 1998.
The main issue in this case involves a question of fact. As a rule, the Supreme Court is not a trier of facts and this applies with greater force in labor cases. Hence, factual findings of quasi-judicial bodies like the NLRC, particularly when they coincide with those of the Labor Arbiter and if supported by substantial evidence, are accorded respect and even finality by this Court. However, where the findings of the NLRC and the Labor Arbiter are contradictory, as in this case, the reviewing court may delve into the records and examine for itself the questioned findings.17
It is Metrobank's position that the CA and the NLRC erred when they recognized that there was an established company practice or policy of granting improved benefits to its officers effective January 1 of the year and without any condition that the officers should remain employees of Metrobank as of a certain date. Metrobank claims that although its officers were extended the same as or higher benefits than those contained in its CBA with its rank and file employees from 1986 to 1997, the same cannot be concluded to have ripened into a company practice since the provisions of the retirement plan itself and the law on retirement should be controlling.
We do not agree.
To be considered a company practice, the giving of the benefits should have been done over a long period of time, and must be shown to have been consistent and deliberate. The test or rationale of this rule on long practice requires an indubitable showing that the employer agreed to continue giving the benefits knowing fully well that said employees are not covered by the law requiring payment thereof.18
It was the NLRC's finding, as affirmed by the CA, that there is a company practice of paying improved benefits to petitioner bank's officers effective every January 1 of the same year the improved benefits are granted to rank and file employees in a CBA. We find that the NLRC's and CA's factual conclusions were fully supported by substantial evidence on record. Respondents were able to prove that for the period 1986-1997, Metrobank issued at least four (4) separate memoranda, coinciding with the approval of four (4) different CBAs with the rank and file, wherein bank officers were granted benefits, including retirement benefits, that were commensurate or superior to those provided for in Metrobank's CBA with its rank and file employees. Respondents attached to their position paper filed with the Labor Arbiter copies of the CBAs that petitioner entered into with its rank and file employees for the period 1986-1997 and also the various officers' benefits memoranda issued by the bank after each CBA signing. Respondents had no hand in the preparation of these officers' benefits memoranda for they appeared to be issuances of the bank alone, signed by its President or other proper officer. Thus, petitioner cannot credibly argue that respondents' claim of a company practice was baseless or self-serving.
The record further reveals that these improved officers' benefits were always made to retroact effective every January 1 of the year of issuance of said memoranda and without any condition regarding the term or date of employment. The condition that the managerial employee or bank officer must still be employed by petitioner as of a certain date was imposed for the first time in the 1998 Officers' Benefits Memorandum.
In other words, for over a decade, Metrobank has consistently, deliberately and voluntarily granted improved benefits to its officers, after the signing of each CBA with its rank and file employees, retroactive to January 1st of the same year as the grant of improved benefits and without the condition that the officers should remain employees as of a certain date. This undeniably indicates a unilateral and voluntary act on Metrobank's part, to give said benefits to its officers, knowing that such act was not required by law or the company retirement plan.
With regard to the length of time the company practice should have been exercised to constitute voluntary employer practice which cannot be unilaterally withdrawn by the employer, jurisprudence has not laid down any hard and fast rule. In the case of Davao Fruits Corporation v. Associated Labor Unions,19 the company practice of including in the computation of the 13th-month pay the maternity leave pay and cash equivalent of unused vacation and sick leave lasted for six (6) years. In another case, Tiangco v. Leogardo, Jr.,20 the employer carried on the practice of giving a fixed monthly emergency allowance from November 1976 to February 1980, or three (3) years and four (4) months. While in Sevilla Trading v. Semana,21 the employer kept the practice of including non-basic benefits such as paid leaves for unused sick leave and vacation leave in the computation of their 13th-month pay for at least two (2) years. In all these cases, this Court held that the grant of these benefits has ripened into company practice or policy which cannot be peremptorily withdrawn. The common denominator in these cases appears to be the regularity and deliberateness of the grant of benefits over a significant period of time.
In the case at bar, petitioner Metrobank favorably adjusted its officers' benefits, including retirement benefits, after the approval of each CBA with the rank and file employees, to be effective every January 1st of the same year as the CBA's approval, and without any condition regarding the date of employment of the officer, from 1986 to 1997 or for about eleven (11) years. This constitutes voluntary employer practice which cannot be unilaterally withdrawn or diminished by the employer without violating the spirit and intent of Art. 100 of the Labor Code, to wit:
Art. 100. Prohibition against elimination or diminution of benefits.' Nothing in this Book shall be construed to eliminate or in any way diminish supplements, or other employee benefits being enjoyed at the time of promulgation of this Code.
The condition that an officer must still be in the service of petitioner bank as of June 15, 1998 effectively reduced benefits of employees who retired prior to the issuance of the 1998 Officers' Benefits Memorandum despite the fact in the past no such condition was imposed by the bank and previous retirees presumably enjoyed the higher benefits regardless of their date of retirement as long as they were still employees of petitioner as of the January 1st effectivity date.
If it were true that notwithstanding the existence of the previous officers' benefits memoranda (which all did not contain the same condition as the 1998 memorandum) there was no company practice of granting the improved benefits to officers who retired from the bank prior to the issuance of the officers' benefits memorandum, it would have been simple enough for the bank to prove this. A company as large and prestigious as petitioner would certainly have a comprehensive and efficient system of keeping employee records. All it had to do was show some examples of past retirees over the period 1986 to 1997 who retired prior to the issuance of the relevant officers' benefits memorandum but after the usual January 1st memorandum effectivity date and whose retirement benefits were computed at the old rate and not at the improved rate. Unfathomably, Metrobank presented no such evidence. Contrary to petitioner's insistent view, the CA committed no error when it ruled that petitioner failed to present convincing evidence to substantiate its claims.Ï‚Î·Î±Ã±rÎ¿blÎµÅ¡ Î½Î¹râ€ Ï…Î±l lÎ±Ï‰ lÎ¹brÎ±rÃ¿
Anent petitioner's line of reasoning that it had no obligation under Article 287 of the Labor Code or the express terms of the retirement plan to grant improved benefits to employees who are no longer in the service at the time of the grant, it appears to us that petitioner is deliberately missing the point. Ordinarily, an employee would have no right to demand benefits that the employer was not obligated by law or contract to give. However, it is the jurisprudential rule that where there is an established employer practice of regularly, knowingly and voluntarily granting benefits to employees over a significant period of time, despite the lack of a legal or contractual obligation on the part of the employer to do so, the grant of such benefits ripens into a vested right of the employees and can no longer be unilaterally reduced or withdrawn by the employer.22
With respect to petitioner's argument that respondents should be deemed "estopped" from claiming additional benefits in view of their "unqualified receipt" of their retirement benefits and other benefits, we find the same lacking in merit. There was nothing in the receipts/vouchers signed by respondents to indicate that they acknowledged full receipt of all amounts due them or that they are waiving their right to claim any deficiency in their benefits. Indeed, in this jurisdiction, even written, express quitclaims, releases and waivers in labor cases may be invalidated under certain circumstances. As a rule, quitclaims, waivers or releases are looked upon with disfavor and are commonly frowned upon as contrary to public policy and ineffective to bar claims for the measure of a worker's legal rights.23 In this case, respondents' consistent acts of demanding the improved benefits before and after their actual receipt of their partial benefits belie any intention to waive their legal right to demand the deficiency in their benefits. Thus, we cannot accept petitioner's view that there is estoppel or even implied waiver on the part of respondents.
Finally, petitioner contends that the CA's ruling would result in unfair discrimination since there were at least twelve (12) other retirees in 1998 similarly situated as respondents whose retirement benefits were computed at the old rate but who did not file cases against Metrobank. Petitioner posits the view that the CA ruling would unlawfully grant greater benefits to respondents vis a vis the other retirees who did not demand the improved benefits. This argument similarly deserves no credit. The right to file a labor complaint or assert a cause of action against an employer is a personal right of each employee. It is most certainly not dependent on whether or not other employees similarly situated would also file a case against the employer. If there are other employees in the same boat as respondents who decided, for whatever reason, not to demand payment of the improved benefits, that would be their prerogative and their own look out.Ï‚Î·Î±Ã±rÎ¿blÎµÅ¡ Î½Î¹râ€ Ï…Î±l lÎ±Ï‰ lÎ¹brÎ±rÃ¿
It should not prejudice respondents or ban them from asserting their rights and pursuing their legal remedies against petitioner.
It is worth reiterating that the condition requiring bank officers to be still employed as of June 15, 1998 to be eligible to the adjusted benefits, was included by Metrobank for the first time in the 1998 Officers' Benefits Memorandum dated June 10, 1998.24 Significantly, petitioner took such action only after Patag and Flora wrote letters dated February 2, 199825 and March 25, 1998,26 respectively, requesting the bank to use as basis in the computation of their retirement benefits the increased rate that might be granted with the signing of the 1998-2000 CBA between the bank and its rank and file employees. Thus, when Metrobank opted to impose a new condition in its Officers' Benefits Memorandum dated June 10, 1998, it already had knowledge of respondents' requests. Indeed, the imposition of the said condition shortly after respondents made their requests is suspicious, to say the least. Such conduct on the part of Metrobank deserves no sympathy from this Court.
It is a time-honored rule that in controversies between a laborer and his master, doubts reasonably arising from the evidence or in the interpretation of agreements and writings should be resolved in the former's favor. The policy is to extend the applicability to a greater number of employees who can avail of the benefits under the law, which is in consonance with the avowed policy of the State to give maximum aid and protection to labor.27 This principle gives us even greater reason to affirm the findings of the CA.
WHEREFORE, the Petition for Review is hereby DENIED. The assailed decision and resolution of the CA in CA-G.R. No. 63144 are hereby AFFIRMED.
1 Penned by Associate Justice Delilah Vidallon-Magtolis (ret.), with Associate Justices Candido V. Rivero (ret.) and Juan Q. Enriquez, Jr. concurring; rollo, pp. 60-66.
2 Id. at 68.
3 Id. at 160-169.
4 Id. at 244.
5 Id. at 246.
6 Id. at 250-253.
7 Id. at 255.
8 Id. at 254.
9 Id. at 149.
10 Id. at 150.
11 Id. at 151-158.
12 Id. at 160-169.
13 Id. at 65.
14 Id. at 27.
15 Id. at 40.
16 Id. at 48-49.
17 Tres Reyes v. Maxim's Tea House, G.R. No. 140853, February 27, 2003, 398 SCRA 288, 298.
18 National Sugar Refineries Corporation v. NLRC, G.R. No. 101761, March 24, 1993, 220 SCRA 453, 463.
19 G.R. No. 85073, August 24, 1993, 225 SCRA 562.
20 No. L-57636, May 16, 1983, 122 SCRA 267.
21 G.R. No. 152456, April 28, 2004, 428 SCRA 239.
22 See, for example, Oceanic Pharmacal Employees Union v. Inciong, No. L-50568, November 7, 1979, 94 SCRA 270, 274; Davao Integrated Port Services, Inc. v. Abarquez,, G.R. No. 102132, March 19, 1993, 220 SCRA 197, 207; Republic Planters Bank v. NLRC, G.R. No. 117460, January 6, 1997, 266 SCRA 142, 148 and Manila Electric Company v. Quisumbing, G.R. No. 127598, January 27, 1999, 302 SCRA 173, 200.
23 Phil. Employ Services and Resources, Inc. v. Paramio, G.R. No. 144786, April 15, 2004, 427 SCRA 732, 755.
24 Rollo, pp. 250-253.
25 Supra note 4.
26 Supra note 5.
27 Travelaire & Tours Corp. v. NLRC, G.R. No. 131523, August 20, 1998, 294 SCRA 505, 511.