[ A.M. No. 19-12-293-RTC, June 30, 2020 ]
RE: RESULT OF THE JUDICIAL AUDIT CONDUCTED IN BRANCH 49, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, PALAWAN
DELOS SANTOS, J.:
This administrative case stemmed from the judicial audit conducted in the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Branch 49, then presided by Judge Leopoldo Mario P. Legazpi (Judge Legazpi).
A judicial audit was conducted in March 2014 in the RTC of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Branch 49. The result of the audit, as embodied in a Memorandum dated 20 January 2015 issued by Deputy Court Administrator Raul Bautista Villanueva (Deputy Court Administrator Villanueva), showed that there are: (1) eighty-eight (88) cases submitted for decision, seventy nine (79) of which are beyond the reglementary period to decide; (2) fifty one (51) cases with pending incidents submitted for resolution, forty (40) of which are beyond the reglementary period to resolve; (3) forty-nine (49) cases with no further action or setting for a considerable length of time; (4) three (3) cases with no initial action; and (5) twenty-four (24) cases are due for archiving pursuant to OCA Circular No. 89-2004 dated 12 August 2004. The report further revealed that these cases were not properly reflected in the monthly report of cases and there is no showing on record that Judge Legazpi requested for extension of time to decide the cases. It was likewise noted that there was a delay in deciding appealed cases which is in violation of Section 7, Rule 40 of the Rules of Court.
In view of the judicial audit report, Deputy Court Administrator Villanueva directed Judge Legazpi to:
1. Decide the eighty-eight (88) cases submitted for decision;
2. Resolve the fifty-one (51) incidents submitted for resolution;
3. Take appropriate action on the forty-nine (49) cases with no further action of setting for a considerable length of time;
4. Take appropriate action on the three (3) cases with no initial action;
5. Take appropriate action on the twenty-four (24) cases due for archiving pursuant to OCA Circular No. 89-2004 dated 12 August 2004;
6. Act on the other findings/observations stated in the memorandum;
7. Explain why the aforementioned cases were not decided within the reglementary period in violation of the Rules and why no request for extension was sought prior to the lapse of the period;
8. Explain why the court failed to disclose the cases submitted for decision in the Monthly Report of Cases and in the Semestral Docket Inventory Reports and require Branch Clerk of Court Pedrosa to likewise submit a separate explanation relative thereto;
9. Accomplish the Monthly Report of Cases and Semestral Docket Inventory Report completely and accurately pursuant to the guidelines set by the Court in Administrative Circular No. 4-2004 dated 4 February 2004 and Administrative Circular No. 76-2007 dated 31 August 2007, respectively; and
10. Submit, as proof of compliance to numbers 1 to 5 and 9 above, copies of the pertinent decisions and orders and the December 2014 Monthly Report of Cases and 2nd Semestral 2014 Docket Inventory Report on or before 15 April 2015.
In compliance with the Memorandum dated 20 January 2015, Judge Legazpi submitted a written explanation dated 2 March 2015 relative to his failure to decide the cases within the reglementary period, his failure to request for extension to decide the same and his failure to disclose said cases submitted for decision in the monthly report of cases and in the semestral docket inventory report.
Judge Legazpi stated that when he assumed office in August 2007, there were numerous cases already submitted for decision during the time of his predecessors and cases that have been pending trial for more than five years. He tried to remedy the situation by improving the court's trial calendar system by providing each party with a definite number of trial dates on which to conclude the case presentation, without allowing any postponements or even continuance of a witness' presentation except on meritorious grounds. The unintended consequences, according to Judge Legazpi, were that: (1) the number of cases calendared for hearing on each trial date increased; (2) he had to spend practically the whole day hearing cases; (3) the trial of the cases were expedited, terminated and the cases themselves had to be decided; and (4) the stenographers had to transcribe twice, if not thrice, as many of their notes than they previously did. As a result of the fast termination of the trial of many cases, Judge Legazpi had to decide them in addition to the cases which had already been submitted for decision prior to his assumption in office. To address this situation, Judge Legazpi decided to concentrate exclusively on the judicial aspect of the court's operations and left the administrative aspect to the Branch Clerk of Court and the clerks.
Another factor claimed by Judge Legazpi to have contributed to the piling of cases in his court were the vacancies in Branch 51 for five years and in Branch 52 for almost two years. He further stated that for a long period of time, only three branches were included in the raffle of cases. Moreover, Judge Legazpi's own court rarely had the benefit of a full office personnel. He had no clerk of court when he assumed office. His first two clerks of court stayed only for six months each, and at the time of filing his compliance, he did not have a Branch Clerk of Court since the time the third one resigned in August 2014. In addition, he had no legal researcher since June 2014, and no clerk-in-charge of criminal cases since January 2014. Before the vacancies, he had to contend, for a year and a half, with only two stenographers, after the two others retired from the service in 2013. Before the two retirements, Judge Legazpi wrote to the Court in the third quarter of 2012, requesting the relaxation of the pertinent rule in order to start the search for replacements in advance. However, not only was the request not granted, it also took one and a half years to appoint the replacements. Thus, the two stenographers were more unable to cope with the transcription of their notes and had a huge backlog of unfinished transcription of stenographic notes. He added that in the second quarter of 2014 when he was informed of the resignation of the Branch Clerk of Court and the legal researcher, he requested the Court for the designation of an Assisting Judge but no action was made.
Judge Legazpi stated that not being in the habit of complaining, he plodded through the continuously piling up work and tried his best to perform his duties but the tremendous stress only exacerbated his diabetes and its many complications. Until December 2013, the surgical removal of his neck tumor had to be deferred for several years because his blood sugar and blood pressure would not normalize. Judge Legazpi explicated that he laid down the foregoing facts to present a fuller perspective of the whole circumstances surrounding his work environment. He begged the Court's understanding for his inability to decide the cases on time and for not double-checking the reports to ensure that the cases pending decision were reported properly. He lamented that as much as he wanted to continue in his work in the chance of bringing his performance up to par, his present state of health cannot provide the needed cooperation and thus, he expressed his sincerest apologies.
On 22 January 2015, Judge Legazpi filed a resignation letter effective 15 March 2015, due to health reasons. In the Agenda Report dated 21 April 2015, the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) recommended the acceptance of his resignation, subject to the usual clearance requirements.
The OCA's Recommendation
In a Memorandum dated 13 November 2019, the OCA issued the following recommendations:
x x x
1. The instant matter be re-docketed as a regular administrative matter;
2. Judge Leopolda Mario P. Legazpi, Presiding Judge, Branch 49, Regional Trial Court, Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, be found GUILTY of gross inefficiency and be FINED in the amount of Fifty Thousand Pesos (P50,000.00), to be deducted from his accrued leave credits, if sufficient, otherwise, he be ORDERED to pay the amount of the fine directly to the Court; and
3. The Employees Leave Division, Office of Administrative Services, OCA, be DIRECTED to compute Judge Legazpi's accrued leave credits, if any, and deduct therefrom the amount representing the payment of the fine.
The sole issue for this Court's resolution is whether or not Judge Legazpi should be held administratively liable.
The Ruling of the Court
The recommendations of the OCA are well-taken.
No less than the Constitution, specifically Section 15 (1) of Article VIII, mandates lower court judges to decide a case within the reglementary period of ninety (90) days. The Code of Judicial Conduct under Rule 3.05 of Canon 3 likewise directs judges to administer justice without delay and dispose of the courts' business promptly within the period prescribed by law. Rules prescribing the time within which certain acts must be done are indispensable to prevent needless delays in the orderly and speedy disposition of cases. Thus, the 90-day period is mandatory.1
The Court has consistently impressed upon judges the need to decide cases promptly and expeditiously on the principle that justice delayed is justice denied. Failure to resolve cases submitted for decision within the period fixed by law constitutes a serious violation of the constitutional right of the parties to a speedy disposition of their cases.2 The speedy disposition of cases is the primary aim of the Judiciary, for only thereby may the ends of justice not be compromised and the Judiciary may be true to its commitment of ensuring to all persons the right to a speedy, impartial, and public trial. To pursue this aim, the Court, through the Rules of Court and other issuances, has fixed reglementary periods for acting on cases and matters.3 Failure to decide cases within the reglementary period, without strong and justifiable reason, constitutes gross inefficiency warranting the imposition of administrative sanction on the defaulting judge.4
Without question, Judge Legazpi had been remiss in the performance of his responsibilities for failing to decide cases and resolve pending incidents within the reglementary period, without any extension granted by this Court. As shown in the judicial audit report, Judge Legazpi failed to decide eighty-eight (88) cases submitted for decision within the prescribed period; failed to resolve fifty-one (51) incidents submitted for resolution within the prescribed period; failed to take appropriate action on forty-nine (49) cases with no further action of setting for a considerable length of time; failed to take appropriate action on three (3) cases with no initial action; and failed to take appropriate action on twenty-four (24) cases due for archiving. It is worthy to note that, as disclosed by the audit report, all the transcripts of stenographic notes are complete and that in fact, a number of draft decisions prepared by his staff are ready for his consideration, yet the said decisions were not finalized. Indeed, while the lack of court personnel may have had an adverse effect on the orderly and efficient function of the court, Judge Legazpi cannot use this to justify the delay in the disposition of cases.
Judge Legazpi's plea of heavy workload, lack of court personnel, and failing medical condition cannot excuse him from liability. These circumstances are not justifications for the delay or non-performance, given that he could have requested the Court for a reasonable extension of time to resolve cases. However, as revealed by the OCA, no requests for extension of time to resolve the cases pending before his court was made by Judge Legazpi.
The Court, in its pursuit of speedy dispensation of justice, is not unmindful of circumstances that may delay the disposition of the cases assigned to judges. It remains sympathetic to seasonably filed requests for extensions of time to decide cases.5 If the case load of the judge prevents the disposition of cases within the reglementary period, again, he should ask this Court for a reasonable extension of time to dispose of the cases involved. This is to avoid or dispel any suspicion that something sinister or corrupt is going on. The Court, cognizant of the heavy case load of some judges and mindful of the difficulties encountered by them in the disposition thereof, is almost always disposed to grant such requests on meritorious grounds.6
This Court cannot overstress the 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.7 As a trial judge, Judge Legazpi is a frontline official of the judiciary and should have at all times acted with efficiency and with probity. Regrettably, Judge Legazpi failed to live up to the standards of duty and responsibility that his position required.8
It is settled that failure to decide or resolve cases within the reglementary period constitutes gross inefficiency.1âшphi1 It is a less serious charge and is punishable by either suspension from office without salaries and benefits for not less than one (1) month, but not more than three (3) months, or a fine of more than P10,000.00, but not exceeding P20,000.00. It must be. noted, however, that the fines imposed on each judge may vary, depending on the number of cases undecided or matters unresolved by said judge within the reglementary period, plus the presence of aggravating or mitigating circumstances, such as the damage suffered by the parties as a result of the delay, the health and age of the judge, and other analogous circumstances.9 In this case, in view of the resignation filed by Judge Legazpi effective 15 March 2015, the only penalty that can be imposed against him is a fine.
In the imposition of fine as penalty for gross inefficiency of judges in the performance of duties for their undue delay in rendering decisions or orders, this Court varied the amounts on account of the distinct circumstances in each case. In one case,10 this Court imposed the fine of P20,000.00 for failure of the respondent judge to decide eighteen (18) cases within the reglementary period, taking into account that he has a record of reprimand twice for the same offense. In another case,11 this Court imposed a fine of P50,000.00 for failure of the respondent judge to take appropriate action on sixteen (16) criminal cases from the time of their filing; to take appropriate action on a total of eighty-three (83) cases without further action or setting for considerable length of time; to resolve motions in a total of nine (9) cases; to decide a total of thirty-eight (38) cases submitted for decision; and to promulgate the decisions in five (5) cases, considering that it was not the first time that the respondent judge has been sanctioned for undue delay in resolving cases. This Court also imposed a fine of P50,000.00 in a case12 where the respondent judge failed to decide seventy (70) criminal cases within the period mandated by the Constitution, to take further action on cases pending in his sala for an unreasonable length of time and satisfactorily explain such failure, taking into consideration the mitigating circumstance that it was his first offense. Still in another case,13 this Court imposed a fine of P50,000.00 for failure of the respondent judge to decide a total of One Hundred Forty-Five (145) cases within the reglementary period.
In this case, while the total number of cases which Judge Legazpi failed to timely decide, action, or archive, merits a fine higher than that prescribed by the rules, the Court deems the fine of P50,000.00, as recommended by the OCA, is commensurate taking into account the mitigating circumstances of heavy caseload aggravated by lack of court personnel, his worsening health condition, and his apologetic demeanor in taking responsibility of his infractions.
WHEREFORE, JUDGE LEOPOLDO MARIO P. LEGAZPI is found GUILTY of gross inefficiency in the performance of his duties for his undue delay in rendering decisions or orders and is hereby FINED in the amount of P50,000.00 to be deducted from his accrued leave credits.
Peralta, C.J, Perlas-Bernabe, Leonen, Caguioa, Reyes, J., Jr., Hernando, Carandang, Inting, Zalameda, Lopez, and Gaerlan JJ., concur.
Gesmundo, and Lazaro-Javier, JJ., no part
NOTICE OF JUDGMENT
Please take notice that on June 30, 2020 a Decision, copy attached herewith, was rendered by the Supreme Court in the above-entitled case, the original of which was received by this Office on September 23, 2020 at 11:00 a.m.
Very truly yours,
(Sgd.) EDGAR O. ARICHETA
Clerk of Court
1 See Re: Findings on the Judicial Audit Conducted at the 7th Municipal Circuit Trial Court, Liloan-Compostela Liloan, Cebu, 784 Phil. 334, 340 (2016), citing Re: Cases Submitted for Decision Before Hon. Teresita A. Andoy, former Judge, Municipal Trial Court, Cainta Rizal, 634 Phil. 378, 381 (2010).
2 Re: Judicial Audit Conducted in the Regional Trial Court, Branch 6, Tacloban City, 600 Phil. 632, 639 (2009), citing Re: Judicial Audit of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 14, Zamboanga City Presided Over by Hon. Ernesto R. Gutierrez, 517 Phil. 507 (2006).
3 Tamondong v. Pasal, A.M. No. RTJ-16-2467, 18 October 2017, 842 SCRA 562, 573, citing Sustento v. Lilagan, 782 Phil. 270, 276 (2016).
4 Gonzalez v. Judge Torres, 555 Phil. 456, 470 (2007), citing Celina v. Judge Abrogar, 315 Phil. 305, 312 (1995).
5 Re: Judicial Audit Conducted in the Regional Trial Court, Branch 6, Tacloban City, 600 Phil. 632, 640 (2009), citing Report on the Judicial Audit Conducted in the Regional Trial Court, Branch 8, Cebu City, 496 Phil. 478, 487 (2005).
6 Gonzalez v. Judge Torres, supra note 4, at 468, citing Española v. Panay, A.M. No. RTJ-95-1325, 4 October 1995, 248 SCRA 684, 687.
7 See id. at 470.
8 Cf Re: Findings on the Judicial Audit Conducted in Regional Trial Court, Branch 8, La Trinidad, Benguet, 806 Phil. 786, 817 (2017).
9 Re: Findings on the Judicial Audit Conducted at the 7th Municipal Circuit Trial Court, Liloan-Compostela Liloan, Cebu, 784 Phil. 334, 342 (2016), citing Re: Report on the Judicial Audit Conducted in the Regional Trial Court, Branches 72 and 22, Narvacan, Ilocos Sur, 687 Phil. 19, 23 (2012).
10 See Re: Report on the Judicial Audit Conducted in the RTC-Branch 37, Lingayen, Pangasinan, 391 Phil. 222 (2000).
11 See Re: Judicial Audit Conducted in the Regional Trial Court, Branch 6, Tacloban City, 600 Phil. 632. (2009).
12 See Report on the Judicial Audit Conducted in the RTC, Branch 22, Kabacan North Cotabato, 468 Phil. 338 (2004).
13 See Office of the Court Administrator v. Former Judge Leonardo L. Leonida of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 27, Sta. Cruz, Laguna, 654 Phil. 668 (2011).
The Lawphil Project - Arellano Law Foundation