January 22, 2020
G.R. No. 230005
SEVENTH FLEET SECURITY SERVICES, INC., PETITIONER, V. RODOLFO B. LOQUE, RESPONDENT.
D E C I S I O N
Before the Court is a Petition for Review on Certiorari1 (Petition) under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court assailing the Decision 2 dated September 22, 2016 and Resolution3 dated February 16, 2017 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA G.R. SP No. 143182 which annulled the Resolutions dated July 30, 20154 and September 29, 20155 of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC).
The facts, as narrated by the CA, are as follows:6
Sometime in May 2006, respondent Rodolfo B. Loque (Loque) was hired as a security guard by petitioner Seventh Fleet Security Services, Inc. (Seventh Fleet) and its President, Medy Lastica (Lastica). Loque alleged that he was treated with hostility after he filed a complaint for underpayment of wages and other money claims against Seventh Fleet and Lastica in September 2013. Loque claimed that on December 25, 2013, he was suddenly relieved from his post upon request of Second Midland Offices Condominium Corp. (Second Midland), Seventh Fleet's client and Loque's place of assignment. The next day, Loque received an order suspending him for 10 days. After the lapse of his 10-day suspension, or on January 7, 2014, Loque allegedly reported for work, but he was informed that he was placed on "floating status" and was advised to wait for a call from Seventh Fleet.
On May 16, 2014, a Friday, Loque received a letter from Seventh Fleet directing him to report to its office within 48 hours from receipt thereof. Loque went to Seventh Fleet's office on May 19, 2014, a Monday, but was not allowed to enter and was made to wait outside the office. Before leaving the premises, Loque handed a letter to security guard Dario Amores, Jr. (Amores), informing Seventh Fleet that he was ready to report for duty on the same day. Seventh Fleet wrote a second letter dated May 28, 2014, allegedly to make it appear that Loque failed to report to work despite Seventh Fleet's return to work order.
In a letter dated July 11, 2014, Loque inquired with Seventh Fleet regarding the status of his employment. Loque stressed that he was refused to return to work by Seventh Fleet even though he obeyed the return to work order.
On July 28, 2014, Loque filed a complaint for constructive dismissal, and payment of separation pay and full backwages. He argued that since he was placed on floating status from January 7, 2014 to July 28, 2014, or a period of more than six months, he is deemed to have been constructively dismissed.
Seventh Fleet, on the other hand, denied Loque's allegation that he was constructively dismissed. Seventh Fleet also refuted the allegation that Loque was treated with hostility after he filed a complaint for underpayment of wages and other money claims against Seventh Fleet and Lastica. Instead, Seventh Fleet asserted that Loque was actually treated with kindness as if there was no ongoing labor dispute between them.
Seventh Fleet also added that it received a report from the security guards assigned at Second Midland regarding an offense committed by Loque. According to the security guards, in the late evening of November 7, 2013, Loque, who was then no longer on duty, went out of Second Midland and rode a motorbike with Ferdinand Manaois (Manaois), a security guard from a different agency. Loque returned to Second Midland at around midnight, used the backdoor to gain entry, and got a key from the drawer of the guard's table. Loque then opened the gate located at the building's basement so Manaois could enter the building without passing through the guards on duty. Loque and Manaois stayed in the building overnight. To avoid any argument, the guards on duty did not confront Loque but decided to write a report informing Seventh Fleet of the incident.
Seventh Fleet required Loque to explain why he returned to Second Midland with his companion and stayed beyond his hours of duty, knowing that neither Seventh Fleet's Code of Disciplinary Rules and Regulations nor Second Midland authorize, the same. In his letter, Loque reasoned that due to inclement weather he was forced to ask Engr. Nicolas Dayalo, Jr. (Engr. Dayalo), the building administrator of Second Midland, if he could stay in the building overnight. Loque also claimed that he offered to help the other guards in case of emergency or flooding in the area.
In order to avoid getting involved in the issue between Seventh Fleet and Loque, Engr. Dayalo requested that Loque be replaced. Subsequently, upon recommendation of Renato Morelos, Seventh Fleet's Operation Manager, Loque was suspended for a period of 10 days, starting December 26, 2013.
Seventh Fleet alleged that on May 14, 2014, they sent Loque a letter directing him to report for posting, but Loque did not comply with the directive. On May 28, 2014, Seventh Fleet sent Loque another letter reiterating the instruction to report for posting. However, Seventh Fleet still received no word from Loque. Seventh Fleet was surprised to learn that Loque had filed a complaint for illegal dismissal, and payment of separation pay and full backwages.
Ruling of the Labor Arbiter
The Labor Arbiter rendered a Decision7 dated February 12, 2015 finding Seventh Fleet and Lastica guilty of illegal constructive dismissal, the dispositive portion of which reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, judgment is hereby rendered finding Respondents guilty of illegal constructive dismissal. Accordingly, Respondents are ordered to pay jointly and severally Complainant his separation pay in the sum of P125,820.00 and full backwages in the amount of P209,076.53, and 10% attorney's fees in the sum of P33,489.65.
All other claims are dismissed for lack of merit.
The Labor Arbiter noted that Loque was not given any work assignment after his 10-day suspension, or from January 7, 2014 until he filed the complaint for constructive dismissal on July 28, 2014. In other words, Loque was on floating status for more than six months. Thus, the Labor Arbiter, citing Sebuguero v. NLRC,9 held that Loque is already deemed constructively dismissed.
The Labor Arbiter also rejected Seventh Fleet's argument that Loque was guilty of abandonment, noting that Loque was repeatedly refused entry to Seventh Fleet's office and was ignored every time he would attempt to report for duty. Moreover, the Labor Arbiter found that there was no clear intention on the part of Loque to sever his employment relationship with Seventh Fleet.
Aggrieved, Seventh Fleet and Lastica appealed the ruling of the Labor Arbiter to the NLRC.
Ruling of the NLRC
The NLRC promulgated a Resolution10 dated July 30, 2015, reversing and setting aside the ruling of the Labor Arbiter, and dismissing the complaint for lack of merit.
The NLRC held that placing Loque on floating status was a valid exercise of Seventh Fleet's management prerogative. The NLRC rejected Loque's allegation that he went to Seventh Fleet's office and was not allowed to enter. Instead, the NLRC gave credence to the sworn statement of Amores, the security guard stationed at the gate of the village where Seventh Fleet's office is located, who narrated that Loque did not proceed to Seventh Fleet's office but only left a copy of his letter with him at the village guardhouse. Moreover, the NLRC held that Loque's inquiry on the status of his employment cannot be construed as evidence to support his allegation that he was not allowed to report for duty for six months.
Loque's motion for reconsideration of the NLRC Resolution was denied in a Resolution11 dated September 29, 2015, prompting him to file a Petition for Certiorari before the CA.
Ruling of the Court of Appeals
On September 22, 2016, the CA promulgated the assailed Decision granting the petition for certiorari, annulling and setting aside the NLRC Resolution, and reinstating the Labor Arbiter's Decision with modification. The dispositive portion of the CA Decision reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, the instant Petition for Certiorari is hereby GRANTED. Accordingly, the assailed Resolutions dated 30 July 2015 and 29 September 2015 issued by the National Labor Relations Commission are ANNULLED and SET ASIDE. Accordingly, the Decision of the Labor Arbiter dated 12 February 2015 finding that petitioner was illegally dismissed is hereby REINSTATED with the MODIFICATION that private respondent Seventh Fleet Security Services, Inc. is ordered to pay petitioner Rodolfo Balat Loque his separation pay in the sum of one hundred twenty-five thousand eight hundred twenty (P125,820.00) pesos, full backwages in the amount of two hundred nine thousand seventy-six pesos and fifty-three centavos (P209,076.53), and attorney's fees in the sum of thirty-three thousand four hundred eighty-nine pesos and sixty-five centavos (P33,489.65).
In consonance with the prevailing jurisprudence, the monetary judgment due to the petitioner shall earn legal interest at the rate of six percent (6%) per annum from finality of the Decision until fully satisfied.
Further, for lack of legal basis, the Complaint against private respondent Medy Lastica is DISMISSED and she is ABSOLVED from liability in the payment of separation pay and full backwages to petitioner Loque.
Concurring with the Labor Arbiter, the CA held that Seventh Fleet's act of putting Loque on floating status for more than six months is tantamount to constructive dismissal. The CA further held that Loque is not guilty of abandonment. The CA also stated that Loque could not have afforded to turn down any job posting while waiting to be recalled to work considering that he had been without a regular job since January 7, 2014, and was only able to work on a reliever basis.
On the other hand, the CA absolved Lastica for want of proof of negligence or bad faith on her part.
Seventh Fleet sought reconsideration of the CA Decision but was denied in a Resolution dated February 16, 2017. Hence, this Petition.
In his Comment dated December 12, 2017, Loque insisted on his version of facts and argued that his placement on floating status for more than six months already amounted to constructive dismissal.
On the other hand, in their Reply dated August 6, 2018, Seventh Fleet and Lastica once again belied Loque's allegation that he was barred from reporting at their office. Instead, Seventh Fleet and Lastica argued that Loque failed to report to work despite the directives from Seventh Fleet.
Whether Loque was constructively dismissed from employment and, thus, entitled to his money claims.
The Court's Ruling
The Petition lacks merit.
The jurisdiction of the Court in a petition for review on certiorari under Rule 45 is limited only to questions of law.13 In labor cases, a Rule 45 petition is limited to reviewing whether the CA correctly determined the presence or absence of grave abuse of discretion and deciding other jurisdictional errors of the NLRC.14
Here, the CA held that the NLRC committed grave abuse of discretion in reversing the Decision of the Labor Arbiter and dismissing the complaint of Loque. The Court agrees with the CA.
The instant controversy centers on the legality of Loque's "floating status." In security services, the "floating status" or temporary "off-detail" of an employee may take place when there are no available posts to which the employee may be assigned — which may be due to the non-renewal of contracts with existing clients of the agency, or from a client's request for replacement of guards assigned to it.15
While there is no specific provision in the Labor Code governing the "floating status" or temporary "off-detail" of employees, the Court, applying Article 301 286 of the Labor Code by analogy, considers this situation as a form of temporary retrenchment or lay-off.16 Article 301 286 of the Labor Code reads:
ART. 301. 286 When Employment not Deemed Terminated. — The bona fide suspension of the operation of a business or undertaking for a period not exceeding six (6) months, or the fulfillment by the employee of a military or civic duty shall not terminate employment. In all such cases, the employer shall reinstate the employee to his former position without loss of seniority rights if he indicates his desire to resume his work not later than one (1) month from the resumption of operations of his employer or from his relief from the military or civic duty.
Conformably with the above provision, the placement of an employee on "floating status" must not exceed six months. Otherwise, the employee may be considered constructively dismissed.17 Furthermore, the burden of proving that there are no posts available to which the security guard can be assigned rests on the employer.18 However, the mere lapse of six months in "floating status" should not automatically result to constructive dismissal. The peculiar circumstances of the employee's failure to assume another post must still be inquired upon.19
In this case, it is undisputed that Loque was placed on floating status beginning on the lapse of his 10-day suspension on January 7, 2014. Thus, at the time he filed the complaint for constructive dismissal and money claims on July 28, 2014, he has been on "floating status" for six months and 21 days.
To avoid liability for constructive dismissal, Seventh Fleet asserted that it had directed Loque "to report to [Seventh Fleet's office] for posting within forty eight (48) hours"20 through the letters dated May 14, 2014 and May 28, 2014. Seventh Fleet faulted Loque for not complying with its directive. On the other hand, Loque claimed that he went to Seventh Fleet's office to report for work on two occasions — on May 19, 2014 and July 11, 2014, as shown by his even dated letters. Loque further alleged that he was barred from entering the premises of Seventh Fleet on those dates and, thus, was constrained to write those letters instead.
As with the CA, the Court is likewise inclined to believe the allegations of Loque. The Court notes that other than bare denials, Seventh Fleet was not able to show that Loque was not barred from entering its premises. Thus, Loque could not be faulted for merely leaving the letter dated May 19, 2014 with security guard Amores, and for sending the letter dated July 11, 2014 through private courier. Also noteworthy, Seventh Fleet did not dispute the July 11, 2014 letter but merely attempted to discredit Loque by saying that the letter was merely "crafted"21 in preparation to the filing of the complaint. Then again, Seventh Fleet did not respond nor refute the contents of said letter. At this point, it bears stressing that the factual findings of the CA are generally binding on the Court,22 and the latter retains full discretion on whether to review the factual findings of the CA.23 In this case, the Court finds no cogent reason to disturb the findings of the CA that Loque went to the office of Seventh Fleet.
At any rate, the letters dated May 14, 2014 and May 28, 2014 sent by Seventh Fleet to Loque are in the nature of general return to work orders. Such general return to work orders will not absolve Seventh Fleet since jurisprudence requires not only that the employee be recalled to the agency's office, but that the employee be deployed to a specific client before the lapse of six months. As held by the Court in Ibon v. Genghis Khan Security Services,24 viz.:
In Tatel v. JLFP Investigation ([JLFP] Investigation), the Court initially found that the security guard was constructively dismissed notwithstanding the employer's letter ordering him to report back to work. It expounded that in spite of the report-to-work order, the security guard was still constructively dismissed because he was not given another detail or assignment. On motion for reconsideration, however, the Court reversed its ruling after it was shown that the security guard was in fact assigned to a specific client, but the latter refused the same and opted to wait for another posting.
A holistic analysis of the Court's disposition in [JLFP] Investigation reveals that: 1 an employer must assign the security guard to another posting within six (6) months from his last deployment, otherwise, he would be considered constructively dismissed; and 2 the security guard must be assigned to a specific or particular client. A general return-to-work order does not suffice.
In Exocet Security and Allied Services Corporation v. Serrano (Exocet Security), the Court absolved the employer even if the security guard was on a floating status for more than six (6) months because the latter refused the reassignment to another client, to wit:
In the controversy now before the Court, there is no question that the security guard, Serrano, was placed on floating stat us after his relief from his post as a VIP security by his security agency's client. Yet, there is no showing that his security agency, petitioner Exocet, acted in bad faith when it placed Serrano on such t1oating status. What is more, the present case is not a situation where Exocet did not recall Serrano to work within the six-month period as required by law and jurisprudence. Exocet did, in fact, make an offer to Serrano to go back to work. x x x
Clearly, Serrano's lack of assignment for more than six months cannot be attributed to petitioner Exocet. On the contrary, records show that, as early as September 2006, or one month after Serrano was relieved as a VIP security, Exocet had already offered Serrano a position in the general security service because there were no available clients requiring positions for VIP security. Notably, even though the new assignment does not involve a demotion in rank or diminution in salary, pay, or benefits, Serrano declined the position because it was not the post that suited his preference, as he insisted on being a VIP Security. x x x
Thus, it is manifestly unfair and unacceptable to immediately declare the mere lapse of the six-month period of "floating status as a case of constructive dismissal, without looking into the peculiar circumstances that resulted in the security guard's failure to assume another post. This is especially true in the present case where the security guard's own refusal to accept a non-VIP detail was the reason that he was not given an assignment within the six-month period. The security agency, Exocet, should not then be held liable. (Emphases in the original omitted)
Applying the foregoing to the present controversy, respondent should have deployed petitioner to a specific client within six (6) months from his last assignment. The correspondences allegedly sent to petitioner merely required him to explain why he did not report to work. He was never assigned to a particular client. Thus, even if petitioner actually received the letters of respondent, he was still constructively dismissed because none of these letters indicated his reassignment to another client. Unlike in Exocet Security and [JLFP] Investigation, respondent is guilty of constructive dismissal because it never attempted to redeploy petitioner to a definite assignment or security detail.25 (Emphasis in the original; citations omitted)
Considering that Loque was placed on floating status for more than six months without being deployed to a specific assignment, and that the letters dated May 14, 2014 and May 28, 2014 are bereft of any reference to any specific client or indication that he would be assigned to a specific client, Loque is therefore deemed constructively dismissed. It follows then that Loque could not have abandoned his employment with Seventh Fleet, for abandonment is incompatible with constructive dismissal.
Abandonment, as a just cause for termination, requires "a deliberate and unjustified refusal of an employee to resume his work, coupled with a clear absence of any intention of returning to his or her work."26 The following elements must therefore concur: (1) the failure to report for work or absence without valid or justifiable reason, and (2) a clear intention to sever the employer-employee relationship, with the second element as the more determinative factor and being manifested by some overt acts.27
There is no showing that Loque intended to sever his employment with Seventh Fleet. On the contrary, there is strong indication that Loque wanted to resume work.
As shown by the records, after serving his 10-day suspension, Loque reported for work but was instead told that he was being placed on floating status and instructed to wait for Seventh Fleet's call.28 Loque also sent Seventh Fleet the letter dated May 19, 2014 to inform the latter that he was ready to report for duty, and a letter dated July 11, 2014 to inquire on the status of his employment.29 He also filed the instant complaint for constructive dismissal shortly after the lapse of his six-month floating status.30 His immediate filing of the complaint is proof enough of his desire to return to work and negates any suggestion of abandonment.31 In addition, Loque has been in the service of Seventh Fleet since 2006, or for eight years already before his dismissal in 201432 and, thus, could not have had such intention to abandon his work.33 The totality of these circumstances negates the existence of a clear intention to sever the employer-employee relationship on the part of Loque.
Having been illegally dismissed from employment, Loque is, therefore, entitled to the twin reliefs of full backwages and reinstatement.34 If reinstatement is not viable, separation pay may be awarded in lieu of reinstatement.35 Considering that Loque no longer asked to be reinstated,36 the Court takes it as an indicia of strained relations between Loque and Seventh Fleet which makes reinstatement no longer appropriate. Thus, the award of backwages and separation pay in lieu of reinstatement is proper in this case. However, a re-computation of the backwages and separation pay is in order considering that backwages and separation pay must be computed until the finality of the decision ordering the payment of separation pay.37
Anent the award of attorney's fees, the Court finds the award of such relief proper. Contrary to Seventh Fleet's proposition, the lack of bad faith does not necessarily negate the award of attorney's fees. In Tangga-an v. Philippine Transmarine Carriers, Inc.,38 the Court, citing Kaisahan ng mga Manggagawa at Kawani sa MWC-East Zone Union v. Manila Water Company, Inc.,39 upheld the award of attorney's fees in favor of an employee who had been illegally dismissed and impelled to litigate to protect his interests.
Finally, conformably with prevailing jurisprudence, legal interest at the rate of six percent (6%) per annum is imposed on the total monetary award from the finality of this Decision until full payment.
WHEREFORE, premises considered, the Petition for Review on Certiorari is hereby DENIED. The Court of Appeals Decision dated September 22, 2016 and Resolution dated February 16, 2017 are hereby AFFIRMED subject to MODIFICATION. Accordingly, petitioner Seventh Fleet Security Services, Inc. is ordered to pay respondent Rodolfo B. Loque:
1. Full backwages computed from the date of his constructive dismissal until the finality of this Decision;
2. Separation pay computed from the date respondent Rodolfo B. Loque commenced employment until the finality of this Decision at the rate of one (1) month's salary for every year of service, with a fraction of a year of at least six (6) months being counted as one (1) whole year; and
3. Attorney's fees equivalent to ten percent (10%) of the total award.
The total monetary award shall be subject to interest at the rate of six percent (6%) per annum from the finality of this Decision until full payment.
Let the records of the case be remanded to the Labor Arbiter for proper computation of the award in accordance with this Decision.
Peralta, C.J., (Chairperson), J. Reyes, Jr., Lazaro-Javier, and Lopez, JJ., concur.
1 Rollo, pp. 32-45.
2 Id. at 16-27. Penned by Associate Justice Rodil V. Zalameda (now a Member of this Court) and concurred in by Associate Justices Florito S. Macalino and Pedro B. Corales.
3 Id. at 29-30.
4 Id. at 95-102.
5 Id. at 105-106.
6 Id. at 17-19.
7 Id. at 161-177.
8 Id. at 176-177.
9 318 Phil. 635 (1995).
10 Rollo, pp. 95-103.
11 Id. at 105-106.
12 Id. at 26.
13 Gatan v. Vinarao, G.R. No. 205912, October 18, 2017, 842 SCRA 602, 610.
14 Fuji Television Network, Inc. v. Espiritu, 749 Phil. 388, 415 (2014).
15 Salvaloza v. NLRC, 650 Phil. 543, 557 (2010).
16 Superior Maintenance Services, Inc. v. Bermeo, G.R. No. 203185, December 5, 2018.
17 Ibon v. Genghis Khan Security Services, 811 Phil. 250, 247 (2017).
18 Nationwide Security and Allied Services, Inc. v. Valderama, 659 Phil. 362, 370 (2011).
19 Exocet Security and Allied Services v. Serrano, 744 Phil. 403, 420 (2014).
20 Rollo, pp. 143, 145.
21 Memorandum of Appeal dated June 2, 2015, id. at 185.
22 Pascual v. Burgos, et al., 776 Phil. 167, 169 (2016).
23 Id. at 169.
24 Supra note 17. See also Padilla v. Airborne Security Service, Inc., G.R. No. 210080, November 22, 2017, 846 SCRA 310.
25 Id. at 258-260.
26 Veterans Security Agency Inc. v. Gonzalvo, Jr., 514 Phil. 488, 496-497 (2005).
27 Icawat v. National Labor Relations Commission, 389 Phil. 441, 445 (2000).
28 CA Decision, rollo, p. 17.
30 Complaint dated July 28, 2014, rollo, p. 108.
31 Tatel v. JLFP Investigation Security Agency, Inc., 755 Phil. 171, 185 (2015).
32 Supra note 30.
34 Peak Ventures Corporation v. Heirs of Villareal, 747 Phil. 320, 323 (2014).
36 Supra note 29.
37 Bani Rural Bank, Inc. v. De Guzman, 721 Phil. 84, 101-102 (2013).
38 706 Phil. 339 (2013).
39 676 Phil. 262 (2011).
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