A.C. No. 5113             October 7, 2004
DOLORES SILVA Vda. DE FAJARDO, complainant,
Atty. REXIE EFREN A. BUGARING, respondent.
D E C I S I O N
Lawyers must be completely truthful, more so when they plead their own causes against former clients. In the present case, the lawyer misrepresented facts in his claim for attorney’s fees; hence, he must be sanctioned.
The administrative case before the Court stems from a Complaint1 filed by Dolores Silva vda. de Fajardo, seeking the disbarment of Atty. Rexie Efren A. Bugaring for untruthful statements in allegedly trying to fleece her of ₱3,532,170 in attorney’s fees. The Complaint and respondent’s Comment2 thereon were referred3 by the Court to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) for investigation, report and recommendation.
IBP Commissioner Rebecca Villanueva-Maala’s Report4 recommending the suspension of respondent from the practice of law for one year was adopted and approved by the IBP Board of Governors in its June 21, 2003 Resolution No. XV-2003-348. On June 30, 2003, the Notice of the IBP Resolution5 and the records of the case -- including the Commissioner’s Report -- were forwarded to this Court by Atty. Julio C. Elamparo, director for bar discipline of the IBP.6
The facts are narrated by the investigating commissioner in her Report as follows:
"Complainant alleged that she had known respondent since 1989 when she, together with her co-heirs, were trying to sell [the] properties which they inherited from their predecessors, Jose and Buenaventura Silva x x x. [They] were encountering disputes with the heirs of Alfredo Silva Cruz (‘Cruz Family’), then represented by one Atty. Ricardo Dantes, and with their tenants, over x x x Lots 2434 and 2454 located in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, [which they were trying to sell] to Golden Bay Realty and Development Corporation.
"Atty. Bugaring was recommended by Atty. Dantes to complainant to assist her and her co-heirs with the legal aspects of the disputes they were encountering. Atty. Bugaring and Atty. Dantes were close associates and they hold and belong to the same law office of Bugaring, Tugonon and Associates Law Offices. Whenever complainant and her companion Maria Luisa Tamondong would go to the office of Atty. Bugaring to see him, they also see Atty. Dantes at the same office. Thinking that Atty. Bugaring was an honest and honorable man, complainant accepted the recommendation. At that time, complainant thought that there was nothing wrong or anomalous in she being represented by Atty. Bugaring, who belong to the same law office as that of Atty. Dantes, counsel of the Cruz family with which complainant and her co-heirs were then having disputes over Lots 2434 and 2454. She did not know that it was improper and unethical for lawyers of the same firm to handle conflicting interests of clients.
"Initially, Atty. Bugaring assisted complainant with their problems with the tenants of Lots 2434 and 2454. The tenants then had the preferential right to purchase the said properties they were occupying x x x. [T]hey [had] verbally expressed their non-interest in purchasing the same but refused to vacate the premises [and] demanded that they be given 1/3 of the total land area of the two lots before they agree to vacate. Atty. Bugaring wrote, on behalf of the complainant and her co-heirs, the said tenants and the Agrarian Reform Office. Meanwhile, the dispute of complainant and her co-heirs with the Cruz family later led to the filing of the case entitled ‘Alicia Cruz, et al., vs. Dolores Fajardo, et al.’ with the Regional Trial Court of Biñan, Laguna, docketed as Civil Case No. B-3472 (hereinafter the ‘Mother Case’). The Cruz family was asserting an alleged right over Lots 2434 and 2454. Atty. Bugaring represented the complainant and her co-heirs for purposes of this case.
"Every time there was a hearing in the ‘Mother Case’ in Laguna, the driver of complainant would fetch Atty. Bugaring at 5:00 o’clock in the morning from his residence/office in Quezon City, and would likewise drive him back after the hearing. Complainant paid Atty. Bugaring every hearing an appearance fee of ₱1,000.00, whether hearings were postponed or not, treated him to lunch and used to send him off with vegetables, candies and other goodies.
"Complainant had always asked Atty. Bugaring how much [he would] charge for his professional fees, but Atty. Bugaring would just answer: ‘Huwag na ninyo alalahanin iyon. Para ko na kayong nanay o lola.’ All along, complainant was swayed to believe that Atty. Bugaring was nice and courteous.
"Later, the dispute of complainant and her co-heirs with the Cruz family got worse. The ‘Mother Case’ soon branched out to more and more cases, about eleven (11) cases in all, which were but the offshoots of the ‘Mother Case,’ (Civil Case No. 3472). Atty. Bugaring continued to represent the complaint and her co-heirs in the foregoing cases and as in the ‘Mother Case,’ whenever there were hearings, Atty. Bugaring was fetched back and forth by complainant’s driver x x x, [was paid] an appearance fee of ₱1,000.00 per hearing, [was] treated to lunch and sent x x x off [with] some goodies. In all these cases, complainant had asked Atty. Bugaring of his professional fees, but the complainant would get the usual reply of: ‘Huwag na ninyo alalahanin iyon. Para ko na kayong nanay o lola.’ With the rate things were going on then, Atty. Bugaring all the more earned the trust and respect of the complainant more than anybody else.
"In November 1992, complainant had a meeting with her co-heirs and the latter expressed their discontent with the way Atty. Bugaring was handling the ‘Mother Case’ and the offshoot cases because the cases were derailing their intended sale of Lots 2434 and 2454 to Golden Bay Realty and Development Corporation. Complainant was hounded by questions regarding her arrangement with Atty. Bugaring to which complainant could not give any answer because there really was no contract or agreement between her and Atty. Bugaring, who refused to discuss any arrangement with complainant. After their meeting, complainant told Atty. Bugaring of the discontent of her co-heirs, and Atty. Bugaring told complainant that he can draw a fictitious ‘Contract’ for his services which complainant can show to her co-heirs. Indeed, Atty. Bugaring drew up two (2) fictitious ‘Contract of Services’ both dated 11 December 1992. One specifically states that it was for the ‘Mother Case’ and the other was for the case of ‘Catalina Roberto, et al. v. Dolores Fajardo, et al.’ Each of said fictitious contracts stipulate[d] x x x an acceptance fee of ₱50,000.00, per appearance fee of ₱1,000.00 and upon the termination of the case, an additional attorney’s fee ‘equivalent to 25% of the value of the subject property in litigation.’ When the fictitious contracts were shown to complainant, she was assured by Atty. Bugaring that the contracts were not valid and binding and told her ‘Ito ho ay para lamang may maipakita kayo sa kanila, pero hindi ito totoo.’ With that assurance, complainant signed the contract and was given a copy of the same.
"Around 1992, complainant and her co-heirs entered into separate compromise agreements with the tenants of Lots 2434 and 2454 and with the Cruz family. The agreement with the Cruz family was later put into writing with the execution of a Compromise Agreement dated 7 June 1992, which was submitted to the court before which the ‘Mother Case’ was pending. [I]t became the basis of the Judgment dated 22 November 1993 x x x [and the dismissal of] all the offshoot cases x x x. [On the other hand,] the Compromise Agreement reached with the tenants of Lots 2434 and  consisted of an agreement totally ceding Lot 2454 to the tenants as [d]isturbance [c]ompensation. Complainant and her co-heirs decided not to reveal these agreements [to Atty. Bugaring] until they were finalized because they knew that [he] did not want such settlement for reasons known [only] to him.
"With the settlement of the disputes over Lots 2434 and 2454, the sale of the remaining property (Lot 2434) to Golden Bay [R]ealty and Development Corporation materialized on 2 March 1994. Complainant was accompanied by Atty. Bugaring and Maria Luisa Tam[o]ndong to the office of Golden Bay Realty when the sale was finalized. When complainant received the proceeds of the sale, they went to see Atty. Bugaring to settle their account with him. They tendered to Atty. Bugaring the amount of ₱100,000.00 which they believed was commensurate for his services considering [that] the cases ended x x x by compromise agreement. However, Atty. Bugaring rejected the amount. On said occasion, Atty. Bugaring requested the companions of complainant to step out of the room first and said he wanted to talk to complainant alone. Atty. Bugaring proposed to complainant a deal to the effect that only ₱85,000.00 will be paid to him by complainant and he will charge the estate or the complainant’s co-heirs the amount of ₱1,200,000.00. [C]omplainant vehemently objected to [this] because the estate or her co-heirs did not have that amount of money. The co-heirs of complainant maintained that they would only pay Atty. Bugaring ₱100,000.00, which [amount] the latter rejected.
"x x x [C]omplainant did not hear x x x from Atty. Bugaring [since April 1994]. [However, almost three years later], she learned that her property in Tandang Sora was already attached by Atty. Bugaring. Unknown to complainant, Atty. Bugaring had filed the case entitled ‘Rexie Efren A. Bugaring vs. Dolores Fajardo’ docketed as Civil Case No. Q-96-29422 in the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City, Branch 78, for Sum of Money and Damages with Prayer for Preliminary Attachment for x x x collection of his legal x x x fees. Atty. Bugaring specifically prayed for the attachment of complainant’s properties and other assets to answer for his claim of ₱3,532,170.00 plus 12% interest per annum for x x x unpaid attorney’s fees, ₱1,000,000.00 as moral damages, ₱500,000.00 as exemplary damages and such amount equivalent to 25% from the total claim as attorney’s fees plus ₱2,000.00 per court attendance as appearance fee plus other proven litigation expenses.
x x x           x x x           x x x
"Atty. Bugaring, by way of comment, avers that from 1991 to May 1994, complainant retained his services as her personal legal consultant and x x x lawyer in nineteen (19) court cases. Considering that Civil Case Nos. B-3472 and 396 before the RTC, Biñan, Laguna, involved various real estate properties, complainant asked Atty. Bugaring to prepare a written contract for his attorney’s fees, which was thereafter signed by the complainant x x x. [The] Contract of Services dated 11 December 1992 x x x provide[d] that complainant will pay Atty. Bugaring an (1) acceptance fee of ₱50,000.00; (2) appearance fee for every court appearance of ₱1,000.00 and (3) attorney’s fee equivalent to 25% of the value of the properties in litigation. [As to] all the other cases [he] handled, [Atty. Bugaring charged] a minimum amount of ₱50,000.00 as attorney’s fees and ₱1,000.00 appearance fee [for] every court attendance. Under these conditions, considering the complexities of the cases, Atty. Bugaring laboriously and painstakingly represented the rights and interest of the complainant, and thereby successfully terminated all cases, except Civil Cases Nos. B-3971 and 396, which were still under litigation.
"Due to the failure and adamant refusal of complainant to settle and pay Atty. Bugaring x x x his accumulated professional fees, he was constrained to make verbal, and finally, written demands on 30 April 1994 and 6 May 1994. Notwithstanding the receipts of the demand letters, which explicitly indicated to her the computation of the amount of professional fees demanded, complainant simply remained silent about the matter, thereby signifying her adamant refusal to settle and pay her legitimately contracted obligations to Atty. Bugaring. With no other extra-judicial recourse, and after Atty. Bugaring was able to save an amount for payment of filing fees, attachment bond and other initial expenses (₱100,000.00 more or less) for a collection case on the matter, x x x Atty. Bugaring instituted an action for sum of money with damages against complainant before RTC Quezon City, Branch 78, docketed as Civil Case No. Q-96-29442 [on 11 November 1996]. After receiving complainant’s Answer to the Complaint, the trial court set the case for [p]re-trial conference on 3 June 1997. However, due to the failure of complainant and her counsel to appear, the court declared complainant in default and Atty. Bugaring was allowed to present evidence ex-parte x x x on 6 June 1997. On 15 October 1997, the court rendered judgment in favor of Atty. Bugaring. As no appeal was undertaken by complainant, Atty. Bugaring on 14 July 1998 filed his Motion for Issuance of Writ of Execution thereto which was granted by the court on 28 September 1998. When the Writ of Execution was issued on 24 December 1998, complainant filed [a] Petition for Certiorari with Temporary Restraining Injunction and/or Temporary Restraining Order with the Court of Appeals, docketed as CA G.R. SP No. 49866, questioning the trial court’s orders dated 3 and 13 February 1998, as well as the resolution dated 28 September 1998. The Court of Appeals, finding no merit in the petition, dismissed the same and affirmed the trial court’s Resolution on 4 February 1999. Complainant, finding the adverse decision of the Court of Appeals, filed a Motion for Reconsideration on 26 April 1999. Complainant also filed a Motion dated 15 July 1999 asking for the issuance of a Cease, Desist and Refrain Order against the [p]ublic [a]uction sale [scheduled] on 30 July 1999 [by] the deputy sheriff of the trial court. Acting on complainant’s motion, the Court of Appeals issued a Temporary Restraining Order dated 29 July 1999. [H]owever, on 30 September 1999, the appellate court finally issued its resolution denying complainant’s Motion for Reconsideration."7
Evaluation and Recommendation of the IBP
Commissioner Maala found respondent guilty of gross misconduct for making untruthful statements and for misleading the trial courts on several occasions in Civil Case No. Q-96-29422 and Civil Case No. B-3896. Respondent allegedly lied to and misled these courts in the following instances:
1. When he included in his claim for attorney’s fees in Civil Case Q-96-29422 25 percent of the value of two lots (at ₱3,670,000 and ₱750,000), which were not among the properties in litigation in the "Mother Case" and had already been sold in 1987 and 1968, respectively
2. When he concealed the fact that Lot 2454 had been given to complainant’s tenants as disturbance compensation
3. When he failed to disclose that the Contract of Service for the "Mother Case" was executed six months after it had already been settled by a Compromise Agreement on June 7, 1992
4. When he led the RTC of San Pedro Laguna (Branch 93), to believe in his Petition for Recording and Enforcement of Attorney’s Lien in Civil Case No. B-3896 that no other action or claim was pending except his case for collection
5. When he made two inconsistent statements regarding the date when his professional services had actually been engaged by complainant
Commissioner Maala also found that respondent had not completely been honest with the Commission. According to his Comment,8 he decided to forego his professional fees amounting to ₱2 million in Civil Case No. B-3896; actually, those fees were included in his collection case. It was also in the said case that he filed a Petition for the Recording and Enforcement of Attorney’s Lien.
Commissioner Maala held that respondent had violated his sworn duty to tell no falsehood in court. Hence, she recommended his suspension from the practice of law for one year.
The Court’s Ruling
We agree with the findings and recommendation of IBP.
Respondent’s Administrative Liability
Canon 10 of the Code of Professional Responsibility provides that a lawyer owes candor, fairness and good faith to the courts. Accordingly, Rule 10.01 requires a member of the bar "not [to tell] any falsehood, nor consent to the doing of any in court, nor shall he mislead, or allow the court to be misled by any artifice."
Moreover, Section 20(d) of Rule 138 of the Rules of Court provides that a lawyer must employ "such means only as are consistent with truth and honor, and never seek to mislead the judge or any judicial officer by any artifice or false statement of fact or law."
In his September 28, 2003 Comment/Opposition9 to the IBP Commissioner’s Report and Recommendation, respondent points out alleged distortions in the findings of fact. Upon a review of the records, however, the Court finds the investigating commissioner’s conclusions to be in order.
Indeed, respondent has not completely been honest when he claimed that the entire estate of Adela Silva was the subject of litigation in the case for partition. First, it is clear that Lots 2434 and 2454 were the only properties mentioned in the Complaint10 for partition, which we quote:
"x x x. The late Adela Silva died intestate, single and without surviving heirs except the herein plaintiffs and defendants. She died x x x leaving as her estate the two (2) parcels of land located at Bgy. Platero, Biñan, Laguna. The first known as Lot 2434 of the Biñan Estate is covered by TCT No. RT-1702 (N.A.) while the second known as Lot 2454 of the same Biñan Estate is embraced by TCT No. Rt-1703 (N.A.) issued by the Register of Deeds (Calamba branch) of Laguna;"11
Second, the Compromise Agreement and the Judgment in the "Mother Case" for partition did not indicate that the subject of partition was the late Adela Silva’s estate, but they did refer to the other properties belonging to her, including the 73,404 square-meter agricultural land in Puting Kahoy, Silang, Cavite; and the 150 square-meter residential lot in Sampaloc, Manila. What appears from the Compromise Agreement and the Judgment is that these properties were enumerated merely to show that Lots 2434 and 2454 were part of the said estate. That only these lots were referred to is plain from the terms and conditions of the Judgment:
"1. That the parties herein hereby agree to refrain from discussing whether their claims and counter claims over Lot 2434 (TCT 12702) and Lot 2454 (TCT 1703) are meritorious or not, and further agree to put an end to all their litigations x x x. Thus to this effect, all their claims are hereby waived and abandoned subject to the following terms and conditions:
a. That the defendant Dolores Silva Fajardo hereby agree[s] to pay the plaintiffs’ representative Alicia Cruz, the sum of four hundred thousand (₱400,000.00) pesos Philippine currency upon signing of this Agreement.
b. That the defendant Dolores Silva Fajardo be authorized to consummate the sale of Lot No. 2434, and Lot 2454, covered by TCT No. 1702 and 1703, respectively of the Registry of Deeds of Laguna, Calamba branch, and to execute all the necessary documents in favor of the Vendee, Golden Bay Realty and Development Corporation."12
Third, it was adequately established that the Cavite and the Sampaloc lots mentioned in the Compromise Agreement and the Judgment had already been sold long before the advent of Civil Case B-3472. There is no reason to doubt that respondent, as complainant’s counsel, knew this fact.
Lastly, we note that the failure of respondent to include all the properties of the estate in his claim for attorney’s fees runs counter to his other claim that complainant’s entire estate was in litigation. If it were so, should he not then have also asked for 25 percent of the value of all such properties enumerated in the Judgment?
As regards his professional fees, we stress that the proper time to deal with this delicate issue is upon the commencement of the lawyer-client relationship. In this case, respondent should have determined and entered into an agreement regarding his fees in 1991 at the latest, when he was first retained by complainant as her counsel in the partition case. Such prudence would have spared the Court this controversy over a lawyer’s compensation, a suit that should be avoided except to prevent imposition, injustice or fraud.13
To be sure, a lawyer is entitled to the protection of the courts against any attempt on the part of a client to escape payment of legitimate attorney’s fees.14 However, such protection must not be sought at the expense of truth. Complete candor or honesty is expected from lawyers, particularly when they appear and plead before the courts for their own causes against former clients, as in this case. With his armada of legal knowledge and skills, respondent clearly enjoyed the upper hand. More important, he had the sole opportunity to present evidence in the collection case after complainant was declared in default, and after he was allowed to present his evidence ex parte.
Respondent is thus reminded that he is first and foremost an officer of the court. His bounden duty is to assist it in rendering justice to all.15 Lest he has forgotten, lawyers must always be disciples of truth.16 It is highly reprehensible when they themselves make a travesty of the truth and mangle the ends of justice. Such behavior runs counter to the standards of honesty and fair dealing expected from court officers.
Equally without merit are respondent’s other arguments that the real issue herein is his claim for attorney’s fees, whose merit has already been adjudicated in court, as well as of his allegation that complainant has engaged in forum shopping to delay the execution of the judgment against her for attorney’s fees.
To start with, this proceeding is not about the merits of respondent’s fees, but about his conduct as an officer of the court. It has been emphasized in a number of cases that disbarment proceedings belong to a class of their own, distinct from that of a civil or a criminal action.17 In Re Almacen18 explained this basic principle:
"x x x [D]isciplinary proceedings x x x are sui generis. Neither purely civil nor purely criminal, this proceeding is not -- and does not involve -- a trial of an action or a suit, but is rather an investigation by the Court into the conduct of its officers. Not being intended to inflict punishment, it is in no sense a criminal prosecution. Accordingly, there is neither a plaintiff nor a prosecutor therein. It may be initiated by the Court motu proprio. Public interest is its primary objective, and the real question for determination is whether or not the attorney is still a fit person to be allowed the privileges as such. Hence, in the exercise of its disciplinary powers, the Court merely calls upon a member of the Bar to account for his actuations as an officer of the Court with the end in view of preserving the purity of the legal profession and the proper and honest administration of justice by purging the profession of members who by their misconduct have proved themselves no longer worthy to be entrusted with the duties and responsibilities pertaining to the office of an attorney. x x x."19 (Italics supplied)
Clearly then, this disbarment case may proceed independently of the civil action for collection, without running afoul of the prohibition against forum shopping. Moreover, the elements of forum shopping20 are conspicuously absent. Between these two cases, there is no identity of parties, as the complainant is in no sense a party to the administrative proceeding. Obviously, there is neither identity of rights asserted nor reliefs prayed for. Lastly, the judgment in the disbarment proceeding would not bar the collection case.
WHEREFORE, Respondent Rexie Efren A. Bugaring is found LIABLE for gross misconduct and is hereby SUSPENDED from the practice of law for a period of ONE (1) YEAR, effective upon the finality of this Decision. He is WARNED that a repetition of the same or of a similar misconduct will be dealt with more severely.
Sandoval-Gutierrez, Corona and Carpio Morales*, JJ., concur.
* On leave.
1 Records, Vol. I, pp. 1-12. The Complaint was dated July 28, 1999.
2 Id., pp. 32-56. The Comment was dated October 28, 1999.
3 See Resolution dated November 25, 1999; records, Vol. I, p. 116.
4 Records, Vol. V, pp. 3-13. The Comment is dated March 10, 2003.
5 Signed by Atty. Jaime M. Vibar, national secretary of the IBP; records, Vol. II, p. 2.
6 See Letter; records, Vol. V, p. 1. The Notice of Resolution and the accompanying documents were noted during the August 27, 2003 session of the Third Division of this Court.
7 IBP Report and Recommendation, pp. 1-9; records, Vol. V, pp. 3-11.
8 Comment dated October 28, 1999, p. 20; records, Vol. I, p. 51.
9 This was favorably admitted by the Court in its Resolution of April 5, 2004. See records, Vol. V, p. 62.
10 Annex "L" of complainant’s Affidavit before the IBP Commission on Bar Discipline; records, Vol. IV, pp. 141-143.
11 The complaint is Civil Case B-3472, pp. 1-2; records, Vol. IV, pp. 141-142.
12 Judgment in Civil Case B-3472, pp. 3-4; records, Vol. I, pp. 74-75.
13 Rule 20.04 of the Code of Professional Responsibility.
14 Albano v. Coloma, 128 Phil. 433, 442, October 11, 1967.
15 Libit v. Oliva, 237 SCRA 375, 378, October 7, 1994.
16 Benguet Electric Cooperative v. Flores, 350 Phil. 889, 904, March 12, 1998.
17 Gatchalian Promotions Talent Pool, Inc. v. Naldoza, 374 Phil. 1, 9, September 29, 1999; In Re Wenceslao Laureta, 148 SCRA 382, 442, March 12, 1987; In Re Almacen, 31 SCRA 562, February 18, 1970.
19 Id., pp. 600-601, per Castro, J.
20 For forum shopping to exist, the following elements must be present: (a) identity of parties, or at least such parties as would represent the same interest in both actions; (b) identity of rights asserted and reliefs prayed for, the reliefs being founded on the same facts; and (c) identity of the two preceding particulars, such that any judgment rendered in the other action will, regardless of which party is successful, amount to res judicata in the action under consideration. Government Service Insurance System v. Bengson Commercial Buildings, Inc., 426 Phil. 111, 125, January 31, 2002.
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