Case Digest: Villanueva v. Palawan Council

G.R. No. 178347 : February 25, 2013




Pursuant to its rule-making authority under RA 7611, the PCSD promulgated the SEP Clearance Guidelines, which require all proposed undertakings in the Palawan province to have an SEP Clearance from PCSD before application for permits, licenses, patents, grants, or concessions with the relevant government agencies. Generally, the PCSD issues the clearance if the ECAN allows the type of proposed activity in the proposed site; it denies the clearance if the ECAN prohibits the type of proposed activity in the proposed site.

The controversy in the instant case arose when PCSD issued an SEP Clearance to Patricia Louise Mining and Development Corporation (PLMDC) for its proposed small-scale nickel mining project to be conducted in a controlled use area in Barangay Calategas in the Municipality of Narra, Province of Palawan.

The petitioners, who are farmers and residents of Barangay Calategas, sought the recall of the said clearance in their letter to PCSD Chairman, Abraham Kahlil Mitra. The PCSD, through its Executive Director, Romeo B. Dorado, denied their request for lack of basis.

On August 7, 2006, petitioners filed a Petition for Certiorari and Mandamus against PCSD and PLMDC with the RTC of Palawan and Puerto Princesa City. They prayed for the nullification of the said SEP Clearance for violating various provisions of RA 7611 and PCSD Resolution No. 05-250. They alleged that these provisions prohibit small-scale nickel mining for profit in the proposed site,which, they maintain, is not even a controlled use zone, but actually a core zone.

PLMDCand PCSD sought the dismissal of the Petition on various grounds, including the impropriety of the remedy of certiorari. PCSD argued that it did not perform a quasi-judicial function.

The trial court denied the said motions in its Orderdated September 20, 2006. It ruled, among others, that certiorari is proper to assail PCSD action. PCSD Administrative Order (AO) No. 6 series of 2000 or the Guidelines in the Implementation of SEP Clearance System states that the PCSD must conduct a public hearing, and study the supporting documents for sufficiency and accuracy, before it decides whether to issue the clearance to the project proponent. The trial court concluded that this procedure is an exercise of a quasi-judicial power.

PLMDC and PCSD again filed Motions to Dismiss but this time on the ground of lack of jurisdiction. They argued that, under Section 4 of Rule 65 of the Rules of Court, only the Court of Appeals [CA] can take cognizance of a Petition for Certiorari and Mandamus filed against a quasi-judicial body.

The trial court agreed and issued the assailed Order. Petitioners appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

In their respective memoranda, all the parties submitted that PCSD is exercising quasi-judicial functions.They only diverge on the issue of which court the CA or the RTC has the jurisdiction to review the actions of this quasi-judicial body.

ISSUE: Whether or not public respondent PCSD in issuing the SEP clearance exercised its quasi-judicial function?

HELD: PCSD has no quasi-judicial function

POLITICAL LAW: quasi-judicial functions

The parties herein submit that the public respondent PCSD is exercising a quasi-judicial function in its issuance of the SEP clearance based on the procedure it follows under its own AO 6 or Guidelines in the Implementation of SEP Clearance System. This procedure includes reviewing the sufficiency and accuracy of the documents submitted by the project proponent and conducting public hearings or consultations with the affected community.

The Court disagrees with the partiesreasoning and holds that PCSD did not perform a quasi-judicial function that is reviewable by petition for certiorari.

There must be an enabling statute or legislative act conferring quasi-judicial power upon the administrative body. RA 7611, which created the PCSD, does not confer quasi-judicial powers on the said body.

Save possibly for the power to impose penalties under Section 19(8) (which is not involved in PCSD issuance of an SEP Clearance), the rest of the conferred powers, and the powers necessarily implied from them, do not include adjudication or a quasi-judicial function.

Instead of reviewing the powers granted by law to PCSD, the trial court found the following procedure outlined in PCSD AO 6, as supposedly descriptive of an adjudicatory process.

The Court disagrees.

First, PCSD AO 6, cited by the trial court and the parties, cannot confer a quasi-judicial power on PCSD that its enabling statute clearly withheld. An agency power to formulate rules for the proper discharge of its functions is always circumscribed by the enabling statute. Otherwise, any agency conferred with rule-making power, may circumvent legislative intent by creating new powers for itself through an administrative order.

More importantly, the procedure outlined in PCSD AO 6 does not involve adjudication. A government agency performs adjudicatory functions when it renders decisions or awards that determine the rights of adversarial parties, which decisions or awards have the same effect as a judgment of the court. These decisions are binding, such that when they attain finality, they have the effect of res judicata that even the courts of justice have to respect. As we have held in one case, "judicial or quasi-judicial function involves the determination of what the law is, and what the legal rights of the contending parties are, with respect to the matter in controversy and, on the basis thereof and the facts obtaining, the adjudication of their respective rights. In other words, the tribunal, board or officer exercising judicial or quasi-judicial function must be clothed with power and authority to pass judgment or render a decision on the controversy construing and applying the laws to that end."

In issuing an SEP Clearance, the PCSD does not decide the rights and obligations of adverse parties with finality. The SEP Clearance is not even a license or permit. All it does is to allow the project proponent to proceed with its application for permits, licenses, patents, grants, or concessions with the relevant government agencies. The SEP Clearance allows the project proponent to prove the viability of their project, their capacity to prevent environmental damage, and other legal requirements, to the other concerned government agencies. The SEP Clearance in favor of PLMDC does not declare that the project proponent has an enforceable mining right within the Municipality of Narra; neither does it adjudicate that the concerned citizens of the said municipality have an obligation to respect PLMDC right to mining. In fact, as seen in Section 5 of AO 6, the PCSD bases its actions, not on the legal rights and obligations of the parties (which is necessary in adjudication), but on policy considerations, such as social acceptability, ecological sustainability, and economic viability of the project.

Further, PCSD receipt of documents and ascertainment of their sufficiency and accuracy are not indicative of a judicial function. It is, at most, an investigatory function to determine the truth behind the claims of the project proponent. This Court has held that the power to investigate is not the same as adjudication, so long as there is no final determination of the parties respective rights and obligations.

Lastly, the fact that the PCSD conducts public consultations or hearings does not mean that it is performing quasi-judicial functions. AO 6 defines public hearing/public consultation simply as an "activity undertaken by PCSD to gather facts and thresh out all issues, concerns and apprehensions and at the same time provide the project proponent with the opportunity to present the project to the affected community." Its purpose is not to adjudicate the rights of contending parties but only to "ascertain the acceptability of the project in the community and to ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are considered," pursuant to RA 7611 policy of "encouraging the involvement of all sectors of society and maximizing people participation x x x in natural resource management, conservation and protection." On the other hand, the purpose of hearings in judicial bodies is to ascertain the truth of the parties' claims through an adversarial process. Clearly, the purpose of PCSD public consultations is not for adversaries to pit their claims against each other. Since the PCSD actions cannot be considered quasi-judicial, the same cannot be reviewed via a special civil action for certiorari. Where an administrative body or officer does not exercise judicial or quasi-judicial power, certiorari does not lie.

REMEDIAL LAW: Petition for Certiorari

The alleged grounds for the nullity of the SEP Clearance are its violations of certain provisions of RA 7611 and PCSD Resolution No. 05-250. Clearly, an ordinary action for the nullification of the SEP Clearance is a plain, speedy, and adequate remedy available to the petitioners, which precludes resort to a special civil action. This ordinary action will allow the parties to litigate factual issues, such as petitioner's contention that PLMDC proposed mining site is in a core zone, it being in a natural forest and a critical watershed, contrary to PCSD claim that it is in a controlled use zone. Certiorari would not have provided the petitioners with such an opportunity because it is limited to questions of jurisdiction and does not resolve factual matters.Certiorari does not involve a full-blown trial but is generally restricted to the filing of pleadings (petition, comment, reply, and memoranda), unless the court opts to hear the case.Since an ordinary action is available and in fact appears to be more appropriate, petitioners were wrong to resort to the extraordinary remedy of certiorari.

The same fate befalls the Petition for Mandamus. Petitioners prayed that the PCSD be compelled to comply with the provisions of RA 7611. Clearly, the success of the Petition for Mandamus depends on a prior finding that the PCSD violated RA 7611 in issuing the SEP Clearance. There can be no such finding with the dismissal of the Petition for Certiorari.

Given the foregoing, it is no longer necessary to resolve the jurisdictional issue presented by the parties.

The order dismissing the Petition for Certiorari and Mandamus is AFFIRMED but for being anIMPROPER REMEDY.