Republic of the Philippines
A.C. No. 6903 April 16, 2012
SUZETTE DEL MUNDO, Complainant,
ATTY. ARNEL C. CAPISTRANO, Respondent.
D E C I S I O N
Before the Court is an administrative complaint1 for disbarment filed by complainant Suzette Del Mundo (Suzette) charging respondent Atty. Arnel C. Capistrano (Atty. Capistrano) of violating the Code of Professional Responsibility.
On January 8, 2005, Suzette and her friend Ricky S. Tuparan (Tuparan) engaged the legal services of Atty. Capistrano to handle the judicial declaration of nullity of their respective marriages allegedly for a fee of PhP140,000.00 each. On the same date, a Special Retainer Agreement2 was entered into by and between Suzette and Atty. Capistrano which required an acceptance fee of PhP30,000.00, appearance fee of PhP2,500.00 per hearing and another PhP2,500.00 per pleading. In addition, Atty. Capistrano allegedly advised her to prepare amounts for the following expenses:
In accordance with their agreement, Suzette gave Atty. Capistrano the total amount of PhP78,500.00, to wit:
|January 8, 2005
|January 15, 2005
|February 3, 2005
|May 4, 2005
|June 8, 2005
For every payment that Suzette made, she would inquire from Atty. Capistrano on the status of her case. In response, the latter made her believe that the two cases were already filed before the Regional Trial Court of Malabon City and awaiting notice of hearing. Sometime in July 2005, when she could hardly reach Atty. Capistrano, she verified her case from the Clerk of Court of Malabon and discovered that while the case of Tuparan had been filed on January 27, 2005, no petition has yet been filed for her.
Hence, Suzette called for a conference, which was set on July 28, 2005, where she demanded the refund of the total amount of PhP78,500.00, but Atty. Capistrano instead offered to return the amount of PhP63,000.00 on staggered basis claiming to have incurred expenses in the filing of Tuparan’s case, to which she agreed. On the same occasion, Atty. Capistrano handed to her copies of her unfiled petition,3 Tuparan’s petition4 and his Withdrawal of Appearance5 in Tuparan’s case with instructions to file them in court, as well as a list6 containing the expenses he incurred and the schedule of payment of the amount of PhP63,000.00, as follows:
||August 15, 2005
||August 29, 2005
||September 15, 2005
However, Atty. Capistrano only returned the amount of PhP5,000.00 on August 15, 2005 and thereafter, refused to communicate with her, prompting the institution of this administrative complaint on September 7, 2005.
In his Comment/Answer7 dated November 14, 2005, Atty. Capistrano acknowledged receipt of the amount of PhP78,500.00 from Suzette and his undertaking to return the agreed sum of PhP63,000.00. He also admitted responsibility for his failure to file Suzette’s petition and cited as justification his heavy workload and busy schedule as then City Legal Officer of Manila and lack of available funds to immediately refund the money received.
In the Resolution8 dated January 18, 2006, the Court resolved to refer the case to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) for investigation, report and recommendation.
The Action and Recommendation of the IBP
For failure of respondent Atty. Capistrano to appear at the mandatory conference set by Commissioner Lolita A. Quisumbing of the IBP Commission on Bar Discipline (IBP-CBD), the conference was terminated without any admissions and stipulations of facts and the parties were ordered to file their respective position papers to which only Atty. Capistrano complied.
In the Report and Recommendation9 dated April 11, 2007, the IBP-CBD, through Commissioner Quisumbing, found that Atty. Capistrano had neglected his client’s interest by his failure to inform Suzette of the status of her case and to file the agreed petition for declaration of nullity of marriage. It also concluded that his inability to refund the amount he had promised Suzette showed deficiency in his moral character, honesty, probity and good demeanor. Hence, he was held guilty of violating Rule 18.03, and Rule 18.04, Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility and recommended the penalty of suspension for two years from the practice of law.
On September 19, 2007, the IBP Board of Governors adopted and approved the report and recommendation of Commissioner Quisumbing through Resolution No. XVIII-2007-9810 with modification ordering the return of the sum of PhP140,000.00 attorney’s fees to Suzette.
However, upon Atty. Capistrano’s timely motion for reconsideration, the IBP Board of Governors passed Resolution No. XIX-2011-26311 on May 14, 2011 reducing the penalty of suspension from two years to one year, to wit:
RESOLVED to PARTIALLY GRANT Respondent’s Motion for Reconsideration, and unanimously MODIFY as it is hereby MODIFIED Resolution No. XVIII-2007-98 dated 19 September 2007 and REDUCED the penalty against Atty. Arnel C. Capistrano to SUSPENSION from the practice of law for one (1) year and Ordered to Return the amount of One Hundred Forty Thousand Pesos (P140,000.00) to complainant with thirty (30) days from receipt of notice.
The sole issue before the Court is whether Atty. Arnel C. Capistrano violated the Code of Professional Responsibility.
The Ruling of the Court
After a careful perusal of the records, the Court concurs with the findings and recommendation of the IBP-CBD but takes exception to the amount of PhP140,000.00 recommended to be returned to Suzette.
Indisputably, Atty. Capistrano committed acts in violation of his sworn duty as a member of the bar. In his Manifestation and Petition for Review,12 he himself admitted liability for his failure to act on Suzette’s case as well as to account and return the funds she entrusted to him. He only pleaded for the mitigation of his penalty citing the lack of intention to breach his lawyer’s oath; that this is his first offense; and that his profession is the only means of his and his family’s livelihood. He also prayed that the adjudged amount of PhP140,000.00 be reduced to PhP73,500.00 representing the amount of PhP78,500.00 he received less his payment of the sum of PhP5,000.00. Consequently, Commissioner Quisumbing and the IBP-CBD Board of Governors correctly recommended the appropriate penalty of one year suspension from the practice of law for violating the pertinent provisions of the Canons of Professional Responsibility, thus:
CANON 16 – A LAWYER SHALL HOLD IN TRUST ALL MONEYS AND PROPERTIES OF HIS CLIENT THAT MAY COME INTO HIS POSSESSION.
RULE 16.01 – A lawyer shall account for all money or property collected or received for or from the client.
RULE 16.02 – A lawyer shall keep the funds of each client separate and apart from his own and those of others kept by him.
CANON 18 – A LAWYER SHALL SERVE HIS CLIENT WITH COMPETENCE AND DILIGENCE.
RULE 18.03 – A lawyer shall not neglect a legal matter entrusted to him, and his negligence in connection therewith shall render him liable.
RULE 18.04 – A lawyer shall keep the client informed of the status of his case and shall respond within a reasonable time to the client’s request for information.
Indeed, when a lawyer takes a client’s cause, he covenants that he will exercise due diligence in protecting the latter’s rights. Failure to exercise that degree of vigilance and attention expected of a good father of a family makes the lawyer unworthy of the trust reposed on him by his client and makes him answerable not just to his client but also to the legal profession, the courts and society.13 His workload does not justify neglect in handling one’s case because it is settled that a lawyer must only accept cases as much as he can efficiently handle.14
Moreover, a lawyer is obliged to hold in trust money of his client that may come to his possession. As trustee of such funds, he is bound to keep them separate and apart from his own. Money entrusted to a lawyer for a specific purpose such as for the filing and processing of a case if not utilized, must be returned immediately upon demand. Failure to return gives rise to a presumption that he has misappropriated it in violation of the trust reposed on him. And the conversion of funds entrusted to him constitutes gross violation of professional ethics and betrayal of public confidence in the legal profession.15
To stress, the practice of law is a privilege given to lawyers who meet the high standards of legal proficiency and morality, including honesty, integrity and fair dealing. They must perform their fourfold duty to society, the legal profession, the courts and their clients, in accordance with the values and norms of the legal profession as embodied in the Code of Professional Responsibility.16 Falling short of this standard, the Court will not hesitate to discipline an erring lawyer by imposing an appropriate penalty based on the exercise of sound judicial discretion in consideration of the surrounding facts.17
With the foregoing disquisition and Atty. Capistrano’s admission of his fault and negligence, the Court finds the penalty of one year suspension from the practice of law, as recommended by the IBP-CBD, sufficient sanction for his violation. However, the Court finds proper to modify the amount to be returned to Suzette from PhP140,000.00 to PhP73,500.00.
WHEREFORE, respondent Atty. Arnel C. Capistrano, having clearly violated Canons 16 and 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, is SUSPENDED from the practice of law for one year with a stern warning that a repetition of the same or similar acts shall be dealt with more severely. He is ORDERED to return to Suzette Del Mundo the full amount of PhP73,500.00 within 30 days from notice hereof and DIRECTED to submit to the Court proof of such payment.
Let copies of this Decision be entered in the personal record of respondent as a member of the Philippine Bar and furnished the Office of the Bar Confidant, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and the Court Administrator for circulation to all courts in the country.
ESTELA M. PERLAS-BERNABE
PRESBITERO J. VELASCO, JR.
|DIOSDADO M. PERALTA
|ROBERTO A. ABAD
JOSE C. MENDOZA
1 Rollo, pp. 1 – 5.
2 Id. at 6.
3 Id. at 20 – 24.
4 Id. at 13 – 19.
5 Id. at 26.
6 Id. at 25.
7 Id. at 28 – 34.
8 Id. at 36.
9 Id. at 117 – 121.
10 Id. at 116.
11 Id. at 115.
12 Id. at 122 – 131.
13 Valeriana Dalisay v. Atty. Melanio Mauricio Jr., A.C. No. 5655, April 22, 2005, 456 SCRA 508, 514.
14 Dolores Pariñas v. Atty. Oscar Paguinto, A.C. No. 6297, July 13, 2004, 434 SCRA 179.
15 Ruby Mae Barnachea v. Atty. Edwin T. Quiocho, A.C. No. 5925, March 11, 2003, 399 SCRA 1, 8.
16 Nemesio Floran and Caridad Floran v. Atty. Roy Prule Ediza, A.C. No. 5325, October 19, 2011.
17 Ruthie Lim-Santiago v. Atty. Carlos B. Sagucio, A.C. No. 6705, March 31, 2006, 486 SCRA 10, 25.
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