Monday, May 24, 2010

Technol Eight Philippines Corp. v. NLRC; G.R. No. 187605; April 13, 2010

Republic of the Philippines
Supreme Court
Baguio City




                                        SECOND DIVISION



TECHNOL EIGHT PHILIPPINES CORPORATION,

                                   Petitioner,


-       versus    -



NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS COMMISSION AND DENNIS AMULAR,
                                    Respondents.          --        -      

 G.R. No. 187605


    Present:

        CARPIO, J., Chairperson,
        BRION,
        DEL CASTILLO,
        PEREZ, and
       *MENDOZA, JJ.


    

       Promulgated:
      
       April 13, 2010

x----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------x


D  E  C  I  S  I  O  N

 

BRION, J.:

 


        For resolution is the present Petition for Review on Certiorari[1] addressing the decision[2] and resolution[3] of the Court of Appeals (CA) of November 18, 2008 and April 17, 2009, respectively, in CA-G.R. SP No. 100406.[4]




THE ANTECEDENTS

         The facts are summarized below.

         The petitioner Technol Eight Philippines Corporation (Technol), located at 127 East Main Avenue, Laguna Technopark, Biñan, Laguna, manufactures metal parts and motor vehicle components.  It hired the respondent Dennis Amular (Amular) in March 1998 and assigned him to Technol’s Shearing Line, together with Clarence P. Ducay (Ducay).  Rafael Mendoza (Mendoza) was the line’s team leader.

         On April 16, 2002 at about 5:30 p.m., Mendoza went to the Surf City Internet Café in Balibago, Sta. Rosa, Laguna.  As Mendoza was leaving the establishment, he was confronted by Amular and Ducay who engaged him in a heated argument regarding their work in the shearing line, particularly Mendoza’s report to Avelino S. De Leon, Jr. (De Leon), Technol’s Production Control and Delivery (PCD) assistant supervisor, about Amular’s and Ducay’s questionable behavior at work.  The heated argument resulted in a fistfight that required the intervention of the barangay tanods in the area.

         Upon learning of the incident, Technol’s management sent to Amular and Ducay a notice of preventive suspension/notice of discharge dated May 18, 2002[5]advising them that their fistfight with Mendoza violated Section 1-k of Technol’s Human Resource Department (HRD) Manual.  The two were given forty-eight (48) hours to explain why no disciplinary action should be taken against them for the incident.  They were placed under preventive suspension for thirty (30) days, from May 19, 2002 to June 17, 2002 for Ducay, and May 21, 2002 to June 20, 2002 for Amular.  Amular submitted a written statement on May 20, 2002.[6]

         Thereafter, Amular received a notice dated June 8, 2002[7] informing him that Technol management will conduct an administrative hearing on June 14, 2002.  He was also given two (2) days to respond in writing to the statements attached to and supporting the notice.  A day before the hearing or on June 13, 2002, Amular filed a complaint for illegal suspension/constructive dismissal with a prayer for separation pay, backwages and several money claims, against Technol.  Amular failed to attend the administrative hearing.  On July 4, 2002, Technol sent him a notice of dismissal.[8]  

         Before the Labor Arbiter, Amular alleged that in the afternoon of April 16, 2002, while he and his co-employee Ducay were walking around the shopping mall in Balibago, Sta. Rosa, Laguna, they “incidentally” saw Mendoza with whom they wanted to discuss some personal matters.  When they approached Mendoza, the latter raised his voice and asked what they wanted from him; Amular asked Mendoza what the problem was because Mendoza appeared to be always angry at him (Amular). Mendoza instead challenged Amular and Ducay to a fistfight and then punched Amular who punched Mendoza in return.  Thereafter, a full-blown fistfight ensued until the barangay tanods in the area pacified the three.

         Amular further alleged that he was asked by his immediate supervisor to submit a report on the incident, which he did on April 18, 2002.[9]  Subsequently, Amular, Mendoza and Ducay were called by Technol management to talk to each other and to settle their differences; they agreed and settled their misunderstanding.





THE COMPULSORY ARBITRATION DECISIONS

         On November 18, 2003, Executive Labor Arbiter Salvador V. Reyes rendered a decision[10] finding that Amular’s preventive suspension and subsequent dismissal were illegal.  He ruled that Amular’s preventive suspension was based solely on unsubscribed written statements executed by Mendoza, Rogelio R. Garces and Mary Ann Palma (subscribed only on August 8, 2002) and that Mendoza, Amular and Ducay had settled their differences even before Amular was placed under preventive suspension.  With respect to Amular’s dismissal, the Arbiter held that Technol failed to afford him procedural due process since he was not able to present his side because he had filed a case before the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) at the time he was called to a hearing; Technol also failed to substantiate its allegations against Amular; the fistfight occurred around 200 to 300 meters away from the work area and it happened after office hours.  Arbiter Reyes awarded Amular separation pay (since he did not want to be reinstated), backwages, 13th month pay, service incentive leave pay and attorney’s fees in the total amount ofP158,987.70.

         Technol appealed to the NLRC.  In its decision promulgated on March 30, 2005,[11] the NLRC affirmed the labor arbiter’s ruling.  It found that Amular was unfairly treated and subjected to discrimination because he was the only one served with the notice to explain and placed under preventive suspension; his co-employee Ducay who was also involved in the incident was not.  Technol moved for reconsideration, but the NLRC denied the motion in a resolution rendered on May 30, 2007.[12]  Technol thereafter sought relief from the CA through a petition for certiorari under Rule 65 of the Rules of Court.[13]


THE CA DECISION

         In its decision promulgated on November 18, 2008, the CA found no grave abuse of discretion on the part of the NLRC when it affirmed the labor arbiter’s ruling that Amular was illegally dismissed.  While the appellate court noted that Amular was dismissed on the ground of serious misconduct, a just cause for employee dismissal under the Labor Code,[14] it opined that Technol failed to comply with the jurisprudential guidelines that misconduct warranting a dismissal: (1) must be serious; (2) must relate to the performance of the employees duties; and (3) must show that the employee has become unfit to continue working for the employer.[15] 

         The appellate court pointed out that the mauling incident occurred outside the company premises and after office hours; it did not in any manner disrupt company operations nor pose a threat to the safety or peace of mind of Technol workers; neither did it cause substantial prejudice to the company.  It explained that although it was not condoning Amular’s misconduct, it found that “the penalty of dismissal imposed by Technol on Amular was too harsh and evidently disproportionate to the act committed.”[16]  The CA denied the motion for reconsideration Technol subsequently filed;[17]  hence, the present petition.[18]

THE PETITION

         Technol posits that the CA gravely erred in ruling that Amular was illegally dismissed, contending that Amular was discharged for violation of Section 1-k of its HRD Manual which penalizes the commission of a crime against a co-employee.  It submits that Section 1-k of the HRD Manual is a reasonable company rule issued pursuant to its management prerogative.  It maintains that the case should have been examined from the perspective of whether the company rule is reasonable and not on the basis of where and when the act was committed, or even whether it caused damage to the company.  It adds that the manual does not distinguish whether the crime was committed inside or outside work premises or during or after office hours.  It insists that if the rule were otherwise, any employee who wishes to harm a co-employee can just wait until the co-employee is outside the company premises to inflict harm upon him, and later argue that the crime was committed outside work premises and after office hours.  It submits that the matter assumes special and utmost significance in this case because Amular inflicted physical injuries on a supervisor.  In any event, Technol argues that even if the misconduct was committed outside company premises, the perpetrator can still be disciplined as long as the offense was work-related, citing Oania v. NLRC[19] and Tanala v. NLRC[20] in support of its position.

         Technol bewails the CA’s appreciation of the implication of Amular’s misconduct in the workplace, especially the court’s observation that it did not cause damage to the company because it did not disrupt company operation, that it did not create a hostile environment inside the company, and that the fight was “nipped in the bud by the timely intervention of those who saw the incident.”[21]  Technol insists that it had to order Amular’s dismissal in order to uphold the integrity of the company rules and to avoid the erosion of discipline among its employees.  Also, it disputes the CA’s conclusion that the fact that Amular’s liability should be mitigated because the fight “was nipped in the bud.  It submits that Mendoza had already sustained grave injuries when the mauling was stopped.

         Further, Technol maintains that the CA gravely erred in going beyond the issues submitted to it, since the NLRC decision only declared Amular’s dismissal illegal on the ground that he was the only one subjected to disciplinary action and that the company merely relied on the written statements of Amular’s co-employees.

         On the rejection by the CA of the statements of Amular’s co-employees regarding the incident, Technol contends that the statements of the witnesses, together with Amular’s admission, constitute substantial evidence of guilt.  It points out that the statement of Mendoza on the matter submitted during the company investigation and before the labor arbiter was not a “stand alone” statement; Mendoza’s statement was corroborated by the statements of Rogelio R. Garces and Mary Ann Palma, verified under oath in the reply[22] it submitted to the arbiter.  The statements were all in their handwriting, indicating that they were not pro forma or prepared on command; a medical certificate[23] and a barangay report[24] were likewise submitted.

         Technol likewise disputes the NLRC’s conclusion that Amular was discriminated against and unfairly treated because he was the only one preventively suspended after the mauling incident.  It maintains that from the records of the case and as admitted by Amular himself in his position paper,[25] his co-employee Ducay was also preventively suspended.[26]  That Mendoza was not similarly placed under preventive suspension was considered by Technol as an exercise of its management prerogative, since the circumstances surrounding the incident indicated the existence of a reasonable threat to the safety of Amular’s co-employees and that Mendoza appeared to be the victim of Amular’s and Ducay’s assault.





THE CASE FOR AMULAR

         In his Comment filed on August 12, 2009,[27] Amular asks that the petition be dismissed for “utter lack of merit.”  He admits that the mauling incident happened, but claims however that on April 18, 2002, the Technol’s management called Mendoza, Ducay, and him to a meeting, asked them to explain their sides and thereafter requested them to settle their differences; without hesitation, they agreed to settle and even shook hands afterwards.  He was therefore surprised that on May 18, 2002, he received a memorandum from Technol’s HRD charging him and his co-employee Ducay for the incident.  Without waiting for an explanation, Technol’s management placed him under preventive suspension, but not Ducay.  Adding insult to injury, when Amular followed up his case while on preventive suspension, he was advised by the HRD manager to simply resign and accept management’s offer of P22,000.00, which offer was reiterated during the mandatory conference before the labor arbiter.  

         Amular particularly laments that his employment was terminated while the constructive dismissal case he filed against the company was still pending.  He posits that his employment was terminated first before he was informed of the accusations leveled against him – an indication of bad faith on the part of Technol.

         Amular asks:  if it were true that the mauling incident was a serious offense under company policy, why did it take Technol a month to give him notice to explain the mauling incident?  He submits that the memorandum asking him to explain was a mere afterthought; he was dismissed without giving him the benefit to be informed of the true nature of his offense, thus denying him his right to be heard.

        
        
         Finally, Amular questions the propriety of the present petition contending that it only raises questions of fact, in contravention of the rule that only questions of law may be raised in a petition for review on certiorari.[28]  He points out that the findings of facts of the labor tribunals and the CA are all the same and therefore must be given respect, if not finality.[29]   

THE RULING OF THE COURT

The Procedural Issue

         We find no procedural impediment to the petition.  An objective reading of the petition reveals that Technol largely assails the correctness of the conclusions drawn by the CA from the set of facts it considered.  The question therefore is one of law and not of fact, as we ruled in Cucueco v. Court of Appeals.[30]  Thus, while there is no dispute that a fight occurred between Amular and Ducay, on the one hand, and Mendoza, on the other, the CA concluded that although Amular committed a misconduct, it failed to satisfy jurisprudential standards to qualify as a just cause for dismissal – the conclusion that Technol now challenges.  We see no legal problem, too, in wading into the factual records, as the tribunals below clearly failed to properly consider the evidence on record.  This is grave abuse of discretion on the part of the labor tribunals that the CA failed to appreciate. 

The Merits of the Case

         The CA misappreciated the true nature of Amular’s involvement in the mauling incident.  Although it acknowledged that Amular committed a misconduct, it did not consider the misconduct as work-related and reflective of Amular’s unfitness to continue working for Technol.  The appellate court’s benign treatment of Amular’s offense was based largely on its observation that the incident happened outside the company premises and after working hours; did not cause a disruption of work operations; and did not result in a hostile environment in the company.  Significantly, it did not condone Amular’s infraction, but it considered that Amular’s dismissal was a harsh penalty that is disproportionate with his offense.  It found support for this liberal view from the pronouncement of the Court in Almira v. B.F. Goodrich Philippines, Inc.,[31] that “where a penalty less punitive would suffice, whatever missteps may be committed by labor ought not to be visited with a consequence so severe.”

         The record of the case, however, gives us a different picture.  Contrary to the CA’s perception, we find a work-connection in Amular's and Ducay’s assault on Mendoza.  As the CA itself noted,[32] the underlying reason why Amular and Ducay confronted Mendoza was to question him about his report to De Leon – Technol’s PCD assistant supervisor – regarding the duo’s questionable work behavior.  The motivation behind the confrontation, as we see it, was rooted on workplace dynamics as Mendoza, Amular and Ducay interacted with one another in the performance of their duties.

         The incident revealed a disturbing strain in Amular's and Ducay’s characters – the urge to get even for a perceived wrong done to them and, judging from the circumstances, regardless of the place and time.  The incident could very well have happened inside company premises had the two employees found time to confrontMendoza in the workplace as they intimated in their written statements.[33]  Having been the subject of a negative report regarding his work must have rankled on Amular that he resolved to do something about it; thus, he confronted Mendoza. 

         From the records, Ducay appeared to have cooperated with Amular in the violent confrontation with Mendoza.  Ducay, however, resigned on June 7, 2002 a week before the filing of the complaint.[34]  Hence, Technol did not act against him – a move that is within its prerogative to make.

         In an obvious effort to mitigate his involvement in the mauling incident, Amular claimed in the administrative proceedings that while he and Ducay were walking around the shopping mall in Balibago, Sta. Rosa, Laguna, they “incidentally” saw their co-employee Mendoza “with whom they wanted to clear some personal matters.”[35]  We find this claim a clear distortion of what actually happened.   Again, based on their written statements,[36] Amular and Ducay purposely set out for the Balibago commercial area on April 16, 2002 looking for Mendoza.  It was not an incidental or casual encounter.  They sought Mendoza out and confronted him regarding what they perceived as Mendoza’s negative attitude towards them or “pamamarako” as Mendoza described it.[37]  Considering the subject Amular and Ducay raised with Mendoza, it is not surprising that they had a heated verbal exchange (mostly between Amular and Mendoza) that deteriorated into a fistcuff fight, withMendoza at the losing end as he suffered injuries from the blows he received.

         Amular and Ducay point to Mendoza as the proximate cause of the fight because he challenged them to a one-on-one (isa-isa lang) bout.[38]  Looking back at the reason why Amular and Ducay were at the mall in the first place, this attributed causation hardly makes sense.  To reiterate, they were purposely there to confrontMendoza about their work-related problem.  They waited for him at the place where they expected him to be.  When Mendoza appeared, they accosted him and put into motion the entire sorry incident.

         Under these circumstances, Amular undoubtedly committed a misconduct or exhibited improper behavior that constituted a valid cause for his dismissal under the law[39] and jurisprudential standards.[40]  The circumstances of his misdeed, to our mind, rendered him unfit to continue working for Technol; guilt is not diminished by his claim that Technol’s management called the three of them to a meeting, and asked them to explain their sides and settle their differences, which they did.[41]  Mendoza significantly denied the alleged settlement, maintaining that while they were summoned by De Leon after the incident, he could not shake hands and settle with Amular and Ducay since they did not even apologize or ask forgiveness for what they did.[42] We do not find Mendoza’s denial of Amular’s claim unusual as Mendoza would not have stood his ground in this case if a settlement had previously been reached.  That a meeting had taken place does not appear disputed, but a settlement cannot be inferred simply because a meeting took place. 

         Neither do we believe that Amular was discriminated against because he was not the only one preventively suspended.  As the CA itself acknowledged, Ducay received his notice of preventive suspension/notice of charge[43] on May 19, 2002 while Amular received his on May 21, 2002.  These notices informed them that they were being preventively suspended for 30 days from May 19, 2002 to June 17, 2002 for Ducay, and May 21, 2002 for Amular.[44] 

         Thus, Amular was not illegally dismissed; he was dismissed for cause.

The Due Process Issue

         The labor arbiter ruled that Technol failed to afford Amular procedural due process, since he was not able to present his side regarding the incident; at the time he was called to a hearing, he had already filed the illegal dismissal complaint.[45]  The NLRC, on the other hand, held that the memorandum terminating Amular’s employment was a mere formality, an afterthought designed to evade company liability since Amular had already filed an illegal dismissal case against Technol.[46]          

         We disagree with these conclusions.  The notice of preventive suspension/notice of discharge served on Amular and Ducay required them to explain within forty-eight (48) hours why no disciplinary action should be taken against them for their involvement in the mauling incident.[47]  Amular submitted two written statements:  the first received by the company on May 19, 2002[48] and the other received on May 20, 2002.[49]  On June 8, 2002, Technol management sent Amular a memorandum informing him of an administrative hearing on June 14, 2002 at 10:00 a.m., regarding the charges against him.[50]  At the bottom left hand corner of the memorandum, the following notation appears:  “accept the copy of notice but refused to receive, he will study first.”  A day before the administrative hearing or on June 13, 2002, Amular filed the complaint for illegal suspension/dismissal[51]  and did not appear at the administrative hearing.  On July 4, 2002, the company sent Amular a notice of dismissal.[52]    

         What we see in the records belie Amular’s claim of denial of procedural due process.  He chose not to present his side at the administrative hearing.  In fact, he avoided the investigation into the charges against him by filing his illegal dismissal complaint ahead of the scheduled investigation.  Under these facts, he was given the opportunity to be heard and he cannot now come to us protesting that he was denied this opportunity.  To belabor a point the Court has repeatedly made in employee dismissal cases, the essence of due process is simply an opportunity to be heard; it is the denial of this opportunity that constitutes violation of due process of law.[53] 

         In view of all the foregoing, we find the petition meritorious.
          
         WHEREFORE, premises considered, we hereby GRANT the petition.  The assailed decision and resolution of the Court of Appeals are REVERSED andSET ASIDE.  The complaint for illegal dismissal is DISMISSED for lack of merit. Costs against respondent AMULAR.

         SO ORDERED.


ARTURO D. BRION
Associate Justice

WE CONCUR:
 
 
 
 ANTONIO T. CARPIO
Associate Justice
Chairperson




    MARIANO C. DEL CASTILLO
Associate Justice



   JOSE PORTUGAL PEREZ
Associate Justice
 



 JOSE CATRAL MENDOZA
Associate Justice






ATTESTATION


            I attest that the conclusions in the above Decision had been reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Court’s Division.



                                                     ANTONIO T. CARPIO
                                                           Associate Justice
                                                             Chairperson



CERTIFICATION


         Pursuant to Section 13, Article VIII of the Constitution, and the Division Chairperson’s Attestation, it is hereby certified that the conclusions in the aboveDecision were reached in consultation before the case was assigned to the writer of the opinion of the Court’s Division.





                                                       REYNATO S. PUNO
                                                            Chief Justice                                                          



*  Designated additional Member vice Justice Roberto A. Abad per Special Order No. 832 dated March 30, 2010.
[1]  Rollo, pp. 8-53; filed under Rule 45 of the RULES OF COURT.
[2]  Id. at 58-66; penned by Associate Justice Isaias Dicdican, with Associate Justice Juan Q. Enriquez, Jr. and Associate Justice Marlene Gonzales-Sison, concurring.
[3]  Id. at 68-69.