CASE BRIEF NO. 2019-0047


“The length or the duration of the proceedings is not the only barometer in determining whether there was delay in the dispensation of justice.


CASE:   RE: E-mail complaint of Ma. Rosario Gonzales against Hon. Maria Theresa Mendoza-Arcega, Associate Justice Sandiganbayan Hon. Flerida Z. Banzuela, Presiding Judge, RTC, Br. 51, Sorsogon City, Sorsogon [A.M. No. 18-03-03-SB, January 29, 2019]

PONENTE:   Justice Jose C. Reyes, Jr.

SUBJECT:
          A.       ADMINISTRATIVE LAW:
                   i.        Delay in the conduct of proceedings
                   ii.       Undue delay in rendering a decision
          B.       REMEDIAL LAW:
                   i.        A.M. No. 02-11-10-SC – Finality of judgement

FACTS:        Ma. Rosario Gonzales (Gonzales) filed a complaint against Sandiganbayan Associate Justice Ma. Theresa V. Mendoza-Arcega (Justice Mendoza-Arcega), then Presiding Judge of RTC, Br. 17, Malolos City, Bulacan and Judge Flerida P. Zaballa-Banzuela (Judge Zaballa-Banzuela), then Acting Presiding Judge of the same court.

Gonzales alleged that she filed an annulment case before the RTC. She assailed that Justice Mendoza-Arcega and Judge Zaballa-Banzuela, were incompetent and unprofessional in handling the above-mentioned case. Gonzales highlighted that while her annulment case was uncomplicated and was “extremely simple,” it still took the RTC five years to decide the case. She pointed out that most of the delays in her case, i.e., failure of the judge or the prosecutor to appear on scheduled dates, occurred when Justice Mendoza-Arcega was still the Presiding Judge of the RTC.

The following are examples of tardiness of the judges and personnel of the RTC:

  1. Summons for her husband was ready for service on January 25, 2013, but was served only on March 21, 2013;
  2. The pre-trial hearing was scheduled on August 6, 2013 after more than three months from the order to conduct non-collusion investigation was made on April 26, 2013;
  3. It took 12 months from the first pre-trial hearing date until actual hearing was conducted because several pre-trial hearings were cancelled due to the absence of the judge;
  4. It took six months after her testimony before the next witness testified;
  5. Four months delay in the testimony of the expert witness on account of the absence of the prosecutor during the initial hearing date; and
  6. Three months delay in the testimony of the respondent because the prosecutor failed to appear during the original hearing date.

Further, Gonzales bewailed that Judge Zaballa-Banzuela failed to render the Decision within the 90-day period from the date the case was submitted for decision. She also decried that it took three months after the promulgation of the Decision before an Entry of Final Judgment was made.

When directed by the Court to investigate, the Office of the Court Administrator (OCA) directed Judge Zaballa-Banzuela to comment on Gonzales’ complaint. According to OCA, it did not require Justice Mendoza-Arcega to comment since upon a circumspect consideration, it found that the allegations against her are without merit.

In her comment, Judge Zaballa-Banzuela explained that she rendered the Decision in Gonzales’ annulment case within the 90-day period for decision making. She noted that she initially granted Gonzales’ ex parte motion to extend the period for filing of her memoranda until November 20, 2016; however, on December 2, 2016, Gonzales’ counsel filed a Motion to Withdraw as counsel. Judge Zaballa-Banzuela expounded that she first resolved the Motion to Withdraw as Counsel and eventually ordered the parties to file their respective memoranda within 30 days from receipt of the Order and submitting the case for decision. As such, Judge Zaballa-Banzuela surmised that even assuming that the parties received the Order dated March 13, 2017 on the same day, the 90-day period commenced only on April 13, 2017 and ending on July 13, 2017. She highlighted that the decision was rendered within the 90-day period as it was promulgated on July 10, 2017.

In its Report and Recommendation, the OCA opined that Judge Zaballa-Banzuela incurred delay in rendering the decision in Gonzales’ annulment case. It noted that she violated Section 18 of A.M. No. 02-11-10-SCwhich provides that the court may require the parties to file their memoranda within 15 days from the date the trial is terminated.

ISSUES:
A.       Whether Justice Mendoza-Arcega and Judge Zaballa-Banzuela are guilty of delay in the conduct of proceedings in Gonzales’ annulment case.
B.       Whether Judge Zaballa-Banzuela is guilty of undue delay in rendering a decision in Gonzales’ annulment case.

RULING:
A.       Justice Mendoza-Arcega and Judge Zaballa-Banzuela are not guilty of delay in the conduct of proceedings in Gonzales’ annulment case.

It is observed that the Gonzales’ annulment case flowed through the usual proceedings from the collusion investigation until the rendition of judgment. It is true that justice must be administered with dispatch, but it must be orderly and expeditious — not only concerned at the speed in which justice was delivered [Escobar v. People, G.R. Nos. 228349 and 228353, September 19, 2018]. In other words, the length or the duration of the proceedings is not the only barometer in determining whether there was delay in the dispensation of justice. Interruptions warranted under the circumstances or allowed by the rules of procedure do not equate to the delay resulting to a failure in the administration of justice — the delay must have been unjustified.

Aside from the lack of evidence to suggest that the proceedings in Gonzales’ annulment case were tainted with undue delay, circumstances show that the disturbances were justified or were within the bounds of procedural law.

Gonzales’ perceived delay in the service of the summons to her husband and in the conduct of the collusion investigation and pre-trial conference are flawed. First, it is noteworthy that the summons was served not within the territorial jurisdiction of the RTC, but in Isabela. The summons was served to Gonzales’ husband within three days from the time the trial court of Isabela received the same. Second, Justice Mendoza-Arcega acted within reason in giving at least three months to the prosecutor to conduct the collusion investigation and to prepare a report before the pre-trial conference. The fact that the prosecutor did not exhaust the entire period is immaterial. In addition, Gonzales never requested for an earlier setting of the pre-trial conference in spite of the knowledge that a report had been made earlier than scheduled.

As to the resetting of hearing dates and the gap between hearing dates, the alleged undue delay is more of a perception than reality. The rescheduling of the hearing dates were due to the unavailability of the judge or prosecutor on official business. There were times that it was also due to Gonzales’ unavailability on account of her illness or foreign travel. Thus, the causes of the delay were neither unjustified nor arbitrary. On the other hand, it is of judicial notice that hearing dates are calendared based on the schedule of other cases pending before a particular court. As such, the hearing dates may vary depending on the workload of a particular court. Also, it bears emphasizing that Gonzales was represented by her counsel during the proceedings, and if she had any concerns regarding the scheduling of hearing dates, she could have asked for an earlier setting through her counsel.

Likewise, the Court finds that there was no delay in making the entry of judgment. The following are important dates to consider in determining whether there was delay in the entry of judgment: (1) the Decision was rendered on July 10, 2017; (2) Gonzales’ husband received the Decision on October 23, 2017; (3) the OSG received the same on November 7, 2017; and (4) the entry of judgment was made on November 24, 2017. Entry of judgment is to be issued upon finality of judgment. In turn, a decision or judgment becomes final upon the denial of an appeal or after the lapse of the period to appeal with no appeal being filed.

Decisions in a petition for declaration of absolute nullity or petition for annulment shall become final upon the expiration of the 15 days from notice to the parties. Prior to the receipt of the decision of the RTC by Gonzales’ husband and the OSG, the period before the decision would become final has not yet commenced. The 15-day period before the decision becomes final is not reckoned from the date of promulgation.

B.       Judge Zaballa-Banzuela was guilty of undue delay in rendering a decision in Gonzales’ annulment case. At the onset, it bears emphasizing that she failed to comply with Section 18of A.M. No. 02-11-10-SC which requires the submission of memoranda by the parties within 15 days from the termination of the trial. Here, Judge Zaballa-Banzuela gave the parties 30 days to submit their respective memoranda. Observance of the 15-day period is vital as the rules provide that the case is considered submitted for decision after the lapse of the said period, even if no memoranda were submitted. As applied in the present circumstances, the case should have been deemed submitted for decision on October 5, 2016 because the trial was terminated on September 20, 2016. However, Judge Zaballa-Banzuela even granted Gonzales’ Motion for Extension to file a Memorandum and gave her until November 20, 2016 to file one.

In addition, even assuming that Judge Zaballa-Banzuela’s orders regarding the submission of the memoranda and the extension given to Gonzales were in order, she still failed to render a decision within the prescribed 90-day period. The 90-day period to render a decision is constitutionally mandated and failure to decide cases within the same constitutes a ground for administrative sanction except when there are valid reasons for the delay.

Here, even after the extension Judge Zaballa-Banzuela had granted, no memoranda were submitted. Thus, she should have considered the case submitted for decision and prepared drafting the same in order to comply with the 90-day period. Judge Zaballa-Banzuela erred in deferring the rendering of the decision just because of a Motion to Withdraw as Counsel was filed by Gonzales’ counsel. The said motion pertained to issues tangentially related to those in the main case. Judge Zaballa-Banzuela could have resolved Gonzales’ annulment case notwithstanding the pendency of the motion to withdraw as counsel.

As to the penalty

Undue delay in rendering a decision is a less serious chargewhich may subject the erring judge to suspension from office without salary and other benefits from one to three months, or a fine of P10,000.00 to P20,0000.00.However, the Court may defer from imposing the actual penalties in the presence of mitigating factors. As pointed out by the OCA, this is Judge Zaballa-Banzuela’s first offense in her more than seven years of service. In addition, she was motivated by honest intentions in deferring the resolution of the case by wanting to resolve the issues raised in the motion to withdraw as counsel. Based on the circumstances, it is best to just reprimand Judge Zaballa-Banzuela to be circumspect in complying with the prescribed period for deciding cases.

Related Case Briefs:
a)       Escobar v. People, G.R. Nos. 228349 and 228353, September 19, 2018
————————————————-

THINGS DECIDED:

A.       It is true that justice must be administered with dispatch, but it must be orderly and expeditious — not only concerned at the speed in which justice was delivered [Escobar v. People, G.R. Nos. 228349 and 228353, September 19, 2018].

B.       The length or the duration of the proceedings is not the only barometer in determining whether there was delay in the dispensation of justice. Interruptions warranted under the circumstances or allowed by the rules of procedure do not equate to the delay resulting to a failure in the administration of justice — the delay must have been unjustified.

C.       Decisions in a petition for declaration of absolute nullity or petition for annulment shall become final upon the expiration of the 15 days from notice to the parties. The 15-day period before the decision becomes final is not reckoned from the date of promulgation.

‘Stand by things decided’ ~ Stare Decisis


LET US KNOW. Feel free to suggest edits/changes by commenting below or email us at stare101decisis@gmail.com

FOR MORE CASE BRIEFS visit us at Stare Decisis or like us on Facebook – @staredecisispage – and stay updated on latest Case BrieFs.

KEEP IN TOUCH with us by following us on our official Twitter account – @SDecisis101.

======================