MERALCO v. Beltran (G.R. No. 173774; January 30, 2012)


FACTS: While rendering overtime work on September 28, 1996, a Saturday, Beltran accepted P15,164.48 from Collection Route Supervisor Berlin Marcos (Marcos), which the latter received from customer Andy Chang (Chang). Beltran was at first hesitant as it was not part of her regular duties to accept payments from customers but was later on persuaded by Marcos persistence. Hence, Beltran received the payment and issued Auxiliary Receipt No. 87964.

Beltran, however, was only able to remit Changs payment on January 13, 1997. Thus, in a Memorandum dated January 16, 1997, she was placed under preventive suspension effective January 20, 1997 pending completion of an investigation. MERALCO considered as misappropriation or withholding of company funds her failure to immediately remit said payment in violation of its Code on Employee Discipline. Investigation thereafter ensued.

In a memorandum dated February 25, 1997, the investigator found Beltran guilty of misappropriating and withholding Changs payment of P15,164.48 and recommended her dismissal from service. By virtue thereof, Beltran was terminated effective March 13, 1997.

The Labor Arbiter regarded the penalty of dismissal as not commensurate to the degree of infraction committed as there was no adequate proof of misappropriation on the part of Beltran. If there was delay in Beltrans remittance of Changs payment, it was unintentional and same cannot serve as sufficient basis to conclude that there was misappropriation of company funds. Upon appeal, the NLRC reversed the Labor Arbiters Decision and dismissed Beltrans complaint against MERALCO in its Decision dated May 30, 2001. It found that Beltran withheld company funds by failing to remit it for almost four months. On appeal, the CA reversed the NLRC decision. Hence, this petition.

ISSUE: Did the CA err in reversing the NLRC decision?

For loss of trust and confidence to be a valid ground for dismissal, it must be based on a willful breach of trust and founded on clearly established facts.

A breach is willful if it is done intentionally, knowingly and purposely, without justifiable excuse, as distinguished from an act done carelessly, thoughtlessly, heedlessly or inadvertently. In addition, loss of trust and confidence must rest on substantial grounds and not on the employers arbitrariness, whims, caprices or suspicion.In the case at bench, Beltran attributed her delay in turning over Chang's payment to her difficult family situation as she and her husband were having marital problems and her child was suffering from an illness. Admittedly, she was reminded of Chang's payment by her supervisor on January 7, 1997 but denied having been ordered to remit the money on that day. She then reasoned that her continued delay was caused by an inevitable need to take a leave of absence for her to attend to the needs of her child who was suffering from asthma.

It should be emphasized at this point that the burden of proving the legality of an employees dismissal lies with the employer. "Unsubstantiated suspicions, accusations, and conclusions of employers do not provide legal justification for dismissing employees."

To begin with, MERALCO cannot claim or conclude that Beltran misappropriated the money based on mere suspicion. The NLRC thus erred in concluding that Beltran made use of the money from the mere fact that she took a leave of absence after having been reminded of the unremitted funds. And even if Beltran delayed handing over the funds to the company, MERALCO still has the burden of proof to show clearly that such act of negligence is sufficient to justify termination from employment.

Moreover, we find that Beltrans delay does not clearly and convincingly establish a willful breach on her part, that is, which is done "intentionally, knowingly and purposely, without any justifiable excuse." True, the reasons Beltran proffered for her delay in remitting the cash payment are mere allegations without any concrete proof. Nonetheless, we emphasize that as the employer, the burden still lies on MERALCO to provide clear and convincing facts upon which the alleged loss of confidence is to be made to rest.

Undoubtedly, Beltran was remiss in her duties for her failure to immediately turn over Changs payment to the company. Such negligence, however, is not sufficient to warrant separation from employment. To justify removal from service, the negligence should be gross and habitual. No concrete evidence was presented by MERALCO to show that Beltrans delay in remitting the funds was done intentionally. Neither was it shown that same is willful, unlawful and felonious contrary to MERALCOs finding as stated in the letter of termination it sent to Beltran. Surely, Beltrans single and isolated act of negligence cannot justify her dismissal from service.

Moreover, Beltrans simple negligence did not result in any loss. From the time she received the payment on September 28, 1996 until January 7, 1997 when she was apprised by her supervisor about Changs payment, no harm or damage to the company or to its customers attributable to Beltrans negligence was alleged by MERALCO. Also, from the time she was apprised of the non-remittance by her superior on January 7, 1997, until the turn-over of the amount on January 13, 1997, no such harm or damage was ever claimed by MERALCO.

Under the circumstances, MERALCOs sanction of dismissal will not be commensurate to Beltrans inadvertence not only because there was no clear showing of bad faith and malice but also in consideration of her untainted record of long and dedicated service to MERALCO. DENIED.