Case Digest: Prudential Guarantee Employees v. NLRC, et al.

G.R. No. 185335 : June 13, 2012

PRUDENTIAL GUARANTEE AND ASSURANCE EMPLOYEE LABOR UNION and SANDY T. VALLOTA, Petitioners, vs. NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS COMMISSION, PRUDENTIAL GUARANTEE AND ASSURANCE INC., and/or JOCELYN RETIZOS, Respondents.

MENDOZA, J.:


FACTS:

Vallota was employed by Prudential Guarantee as a Junior Programmer on May 16, 1995. He reported directly to Gerald Dy Victory, then head of the EDP, until his replacement by respondent Jocelyn Retizos sometime in 1997. In August of 2005, Vallota was elected to the Board of Directors of the Union.

On November 11, 2005, HR Manager, Atty. Rillo informed Union President, Mike Apostol that PGAI was going to conduct an on-the-spot security check in the Information and Technology Department.

The inspection team proceeded to the IT Department, and the EDP head, through PGAI network administrator Angelo Gutierrez initiated the spot check of IT Department computers, beginning with the one assigned to Vallota. After exploring the contents of all the folders and subfolders in the "My Documents" folder, a folder named AAwas found, which Vallota claimed to be about a mutual life fund. Retizos, on the other hand, asked Vallota if was working for MAA Mutual Life and sending them confidential documents of PGAI.

Sensing that Vallota was being singled out, Apostol insisted that all the computers in the IT Department, including that of Retizos, be also subjected to a spot security check. Later, at Retizosoffice, and in the presence of Atty. Rillo, Vallota was informed that Retizos and Atty. Rillo would print the files found in his computer under the folder "MAA." Vallota did not object. After the files were printed, Vallota and the Union Secretary were asked to sign each page of the printout. Vallota, however, was not given a copy of the printed file.

On November 14, 2005, Vallota received a memorandum directing him to explain within 72 hours why highly confidential files were stored in his computer, which also informed him that he was being placed under preventive suspension for 30 days effective upon receipt of the said notice. A second memorandum, also dated November 14, 2005, notified Vallota of the extension of his preventive suspension for another 30 days, in view of the fact that the management needed more time to evaluate the administrative case against him.

On November 24, 2005, PGAI sent him another memorandum requesting further details on some of the matters he raised in his response. In a letter dated December 6, 2005, Vallota requested a conference, to be attended by a Union representative and counsel. PGAI sent Vallota another memorandum dated December 7, 2005, which, among others, set a new deadline for Vallota to submit his reply and evidence in his defense. In compliance with the deadline set, Vallota submitted his reply-memorandumdated December 12, 2005, outlining his response to the charges.

Meanwhile, the Union sent a letterto PGAI President Philip K. Rico requesting that a grievance committee be convened and that the contents of the computers of other IT personnel be similarly produced. The request for the convening of a grievance committee was ignored. On December 21, 2005, Vallota was given a notice of termination of his employment effective January 10, 2006 on the ground of loss of trust and confidence.

Thus, the petitioners filed a complaint for illegal dismissal with claims for full backwages, moral and exemplary damages, and attorney fees.

On March 31, 2006, Labor Arbiter Aliman D. Mangandog rendered a decisionin favor of the petitioners. The respondents filed their Memorandum of Appealdated May 19, 2006. On June 30, 2006, the National Labor Relations Commission dismissed the appeal on the ground that the respondents failed to submit a certificate of non-forum shopping in accordance with the Rules of Procedure of the NLRC.

The respondents filed their Motion for Reconsideration dated July 17, 2006, which the Union opposed. On October 31, 2007, the NLRC granted the respondentsmotion for reconsideration and reversed and set aside the decision of the LA.

ISSUE: Whether or not Vallota was validly dismissed on the ground of loss of trust and confidence?

HELD:

The Court discussion in Mabeza v. National Labor Relations Commission is instructive:


Loss of confidence as a just cause for dismissal was never intended to provide employers with a blank check for terminating their employees. Such a vague, all-encompassing pretext as loss of confidence, if unqualifiedly given the seal of approval by this Court, could readily reduce to barren form the words of the constitutional guarantee of security of tenure. Having this in mind, loss of confidence should ideally apply only to cases involving employees occupying positions of trust and confidence or to those situations where the employee is routinely charged with the care and custody of the employer's money or property. To the first class belong managerial employees, i.e., those vested with the powers or prerogatives to lay down management policies and/or to hire, transfer, suspend, lay-off, recall, discharge, assign or discipline employees or effectively recommend such managerial actions; and to the second class belong cashiers, auditors, property custodians, etc., or those who, in the normal and routine exercise of their functions, regularly handle significant amounts of money or property.

In Bristol Myers Squibb (Phils.), Inc. v. Baban,the Court discussed the requisites for a valid dismissal on the ground of loss of trust and confidence:

It is clear that Article 282(c) of the Labor Code allows an employer to terminate the services of an employee for loss of trust and confidence. The right of employers to dismiss employees by reason of loss of trust and confidence is well established in jurisprudence.

The first requisite for dismissal on the ground of loss of trust and confidence is that the employee concerned must be one holding a position of trust and confidence. There are two (2) classes of positions of trust. The first class consists of managerial employees. They are defined as those vested with the powers or prerogatives to lay down management policies and to hire, transfer suspend, lay-off, recall, discharge, assign or discipline employees or effectively recommend such managerial actions. The second class consists of cashiers, auditors, property custodians, etc. They are defined as those who in the normal and routine exercise of their functions, regularly handle significant amounts of money or property. xxx

The second requisite is that there must be an act that would justify the loss of trust and confidence. Loss of trust and confidence to be a valid cause for dismissal must be based on a willful breach of trust and founded on clearly established facts. The basis for the dismissal must be clearly and convincingly established but proof beyond reasonable doubt is not necessary.

Thus, the first question to be addressed is whether Vallota held a position of trust and confidence. Vallota was employed by PGAI as a Junior Programmer assigned to the EDP Department. Based on the standards set by previous jurisprudence, Vallota position as Junior Programmer is analogous to the second class of positions of trust and confidence. Though he did not physically handle money or property, he became privy to confidential data or information by the nature of his functions. At a time when the most sensitive of information is found not printed on paper but stored on hard drives and servers, an employee who handles or has access to data in electronic form naturally becomes the unwilling recipient of confidential information.

Having addressed the nature of his position, the next question is whether the act complained of justified the loss of trust and confidence of Vallota employer so as to constitute a valid cause for dismissal. It must, thus, be determined whether the alleged basis for dismissal was based on clearly established facts.

The act alleged to have caused the loss of trust and confidence of PGAI in Vallota was the presence in his computer hard drive of a folder named "MAA" allegedly containing files with information on MAA Mutual Life Philippines, a domestic corporation selling life insurance policies to the buying public, and files relating to PGAI internal affairs.

While the law and this Court recognize the right of an employer to dismiss an employee based on loss of trust and confidence, the evidence of the employer must clearly and convincingly establish the facts upon which the loss of trust and confidence in the employee is based.

To be a valid ground for dismissal, loss of trust and confidence 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. It must rest on substantial grounds and not on the employer arbitrariness, whims, caprices or suspicion; otherwise, the employee would remain eternally at the mercy of the employer.Further, in order to constitute a just cause for dismissal, the act complained of must be work-related and show that the employee concerned is unfit to continue working for the employer.Such ground for dismissal has never been intended to afford an occasion for abuse because of its subjective nature.

In this case, there was no other evidence presented to prove fraud in the manner of securing or obtaining the files found in Vallota computer. In fact, aside from the presence of these files in Vallota hard drive, there was no other evidence to prove any gross misconduct on his part. There was no proof either that the presence of such files was part of an attempt to defraud his employer or to use the files for a purpose other than that for which they were intended. If anything, the presence of the files reveals some degree of carelessness or neglect in his failure to delete them, but it is an extremely farfetched conclusion bordering on paranoia to state that it is part of a larger conspiracy involving corporate espionage.

Moreover, contrary to the respondentsallegations, the MAA files found in Vallota computer, the prospectus and corporate profile, are not sensitive corporate documents. These are documents routinely made available to the public, and serve as means to inform the public about the company and to disseminate information about the products it sells or the services it provides, in order that potential clients may make a sound and informed decision whether or not to purchase or avail of such goods and services.

If anything, the presence of the files would merely merit the development of some suspicion on the part of the employer, but should not amount to a loss of trust and confidence such as to justify the termination of his employment. Such act is not of the same class, degree or gravity as the acts that have been held to be of such character. While Vallota act or omission may have been done carelessly, it falls short of the standard required for termination of employment. It does not manifest either that the employee concerned is unfit to continue working for his employer.

Procedural due process requirements for termination - In this case, the two-notice requirement was complied with. By the petitionersown admission, PGAI issued to Vallota a written Notice of Charges & Preventive Suspension dated November 14, 2005. After an exchange of memoranda, PGAI then informed Vallota of his dismissal in its decision dated December 21, 2005.

Given, however, that the petitioners expressly requested a conference or a convening of a grievance committee, following the Court ruling in the Perez case, which was later cited in the recent case of Lopez v. Alturas Group of Companies, such formal hearing became mandatory. After PGAI failed to affirmatively respond to such request, it follows that the hearing requirement was not complied with and, therefore, Vallota was denied his right to procedural due process.

Reinstatement and backwages - In light of the above discussion, Vallota is entitled to reinstatement and backwages, reckoned from the date he was illegally dismissed until the finality of this decision in accordance with jurisprudence.

In view of the strained relations between Vallota and PGAI, however, it is not in the best interest of the parties, nor is it advisable or practical to order reinstatement. Where reinstatement is no longer viable as an option, separation pay equivalent to one (1) month salary for every year of service should be awarded as an alternative. It must be stressed, however, that an illegally dismissed employee is entitled to two reliefs: backwages and reinstatement, which are separate and distinct. In Golden Ace Builders v. Tagle, it was written:

Thus, an illegally dismissed employee is entitled to two reliefs: backwages and reinstatement. The two reliefs provided are separate and distinct. In instances where reinstatement is no longer feasible because of strained relations between the employee and the employer, separation pay is granted. In effect, an illegally dismissed employee is entitled to either reinstatement, if viable, or separation pay if reinstatement is no longer viable, and backwages.

The normal consequences of respondentsillegal dismissal, then, are reinstatement without loss of seniority rights, and payment of backwages computed from the time compensation was withheld up to the date of actual reinstatement. Where reinstatement is no longer viable as an option, separation pay equivalent to one (1) month salary for every year of service should be awarded as an alternative. The payment of separation pay is in addition to payment of backwages.

Velasco v. National Labor Relations Commission, emphasizes:

The accepted doctrine is that separation pay may avail in lieu of reinstatement if reinstatement is no longer practical or in the best interest of the parties. Separation pay in lieu of reinstatement may likewise be awarded if the employee decides not to be reinstated.

Under the doctrine of strained relations, the payment of separation pay is considered an acceptable alternative to reinstatement when the latter option is no longer desirable or viable. On one hand, such payment liberates the employee from what could be a highly oppressive work environment. On the other hand, it releases the employer from the grossly unpalatable obligation of maintaining in its employ a worker it could no longer trust.

GRANTED

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