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Fuentes vs. Albarracin Case Digest

Facts: JS Francisco and Sons filed cases for forcible entry against Fuentes, et. al.. The cases were raffled to the sala of Judge Albarracin. After trial, judgments were rendered in favor of plaintiff corporation. Fuentes filed with the RTC a petition for annulment of judgments. Fuentes requested respondent judge to await the result of the annulment of judgments case. Respondent judge, however, still issued writ of demolition. This prompted complainants to file a petition for prohibition to restrain respondent judge from further acting on the subject cases during the pendency of the case for annulment of judgments. Meanwhile, the sheriff failed to fully implement the demolition. Plaintiff corporation thus filed the Urgent Ex-Parte Motion which was eventually granted.

Fuentes thus filed an adminstrative case against Judge Albarracin for Gross Ignorance of the Law and/or Procedure and Grave Abuse of Discretion. It was the contention of Fuentes that they did not receive a copy of the ex-parte motion nor was the motion set for hearing. Albarracin asserts that a hearing is not necessary because the special writ of demolition had already been granted after several hearings and the ex-parte motion was merely for the enforcement or implementation of said writ. He argues that the RTC where the forcible entry cases were elevated did not issue any TRO or any injunctive relief to restrain him from granting the motion to enforce/implement the writ of demolition.

The OCA concluded that the allegation that respondent judge violated Sections 5 and 6 of Rule 15 of the Revised Rules of Court had no leg to stand on. The ex-parte motion was merely to request the branch sheriff to implement the special writ of demolition which had long been issued by the court after several hearings. As such, it could be considered as a non-litigable motion which may be acted upon by the court without prejudicing the rights of Fuentes. Thus, the OCA recommended that the administrative case be dismissed for lack of merit and that complainants be FINED.

Issue: Should Fuentes be fined for filing a baseless administrative case?

Held:  SC sustained the findings of the OCA except as to the imposition of fine on complainants.

As to the recommendation to impose fine on the complainants, we rule that the circumstances of the case fail to warrant such course of action. The OCA cannot just penalize complainants by way of imposing fine on them without the benefit of a thorough determination of the liability based on evidence adduced by the parties. They must be given an opportunity to refute the charges by adducing evidence on specific charges against them, not in a mere administrative case which involves a matter different from the alleged culpability of the complainants. This requirement is fundamentally a part of due process enshrined in the Constitution that a person can only be penalized for a charge of which he was sufficiently informed and only after he was given an opportunity to be heard and present evidence to prove the contrary.

Nonetheless, assuming that the acts of the complainants may be considered as delaying tactics, remedial action may be enforced against them through contempt of court proceedings. A brief review of the rules governing contempt proceedings is useful.

Contempt of court is a defiance of the authority, justice or dignity of the court, such conduct as tends to bring the authority and administration of the law into disrespect or to interfere with or prejudice parties, litigant or their witnesses during litigation.

There are two kinds of contempt punishable by law: direct contempt and indirect contempt. Direct contempt is committed when a person is guilty of misbehavior in the presence of or so near a court as to obstruct or interrupt the proceedings before the same, including disrespect toward the court, offensive personalities toward others, or refusal to be sworn or to answer as a witness, or to subscribe an affidavit or deposition when lawfully required to do so. Indirect contempt or constructive contempt is that which is committed out of the presence of the court. Any improper conduct tending, directly or indirectly, to impede, obstruct, or degrade the administration of justice would constitute indirect contempt. The employment of delaying tactics to obstruct the administration of justice falls under this latter category.

Section 3, Rule 71 of the Revised Rules of Court provides for the following requisites prior to conviction of indirect contempt: (a) a charge in writing to be filed; (b) an opportunity given to the respondent to comment thereon within such period as may be fixed by the court; and (c) to be heard by himself or counsel. With respect to constructive contempts or those which are committed without the actual presence of the court, it is essential that a hearing be allowed and the contemner permitted, if he so desires, to interpose a defense to the charges before punishment is imposed. The proceedings for punishment of indirect contempt are criminal in nature. The modes of procedure and rules of evidence adopted in contempt proceedings are similar in nature to those used in criminal prosecutions.

Section 4 of Rule 71, however, provides that proceedings for indirect contempt may be initiated motu proprio by the court against which the contempt was committed by an order or any other formal charge requiring the respondent to show cause why he should not be punished for contempt. There is no way for this Court to initiate indirect contempt proceedings against complainants for the injury was not committed against this tribunal, but against respondent judge.

There is no basis for this Court to initiate contempt proceedings or condemn the complainants to suffer the penalty for contempt, considering that the contemptuous act was not directed against the Court itself. The penalty as recommended by the OCA cannot be sustained and the question of whether the complainants should be penalized for filing the instant complaint is best litigated in a separate proceeding, if warranted, within the confines of Rule 71 of the Revised Rules of Court. (Fuentes vs. Albarracin, A.M. No. MTJ-05-1587. April 15, 2005)

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