SC: Sheriffs NOT allowed receive money from litigants


[A.M. No. P-18-3910. March 11, 2019]. LINDA V. MORTEZO V. CLEMENTINO V. RUDAS, SHERIFF IV, BRANCH 10, REGIONAL TRIAL COURT, ABUYOG, LEYTE. [Formerly OCA IPI No. 18-4835-P].

Before this Court is a Letter-Complaint dated July 31, 2017 filed by Linda V. Mortezo (complainant) charging Clementino V. Rudas (respondent), Sheriff IV of the Regional Trial Court of Abuyog, Leyte, Branch 10 (RTC), with Conduct Unbecoming a Public Servant.

The Complaint

Complainant alleged that she filed a small claims case against Arvin Sia (Sia) in the Municipal Circuit Trial Court, MacArthur-Mayorga, Leyte (MCTC); that on October 17, 2015, the MCTC rendered a decision ordering Sia to pay complainant the amount of P78,328.40; and that writ of execution was thereafter issued by the MCTC.

Complainant averred that on March 4, 2016, respondent and another employee of the RTC went to her house and asked for Sia's address as they would implement the writ of execution. She gave respondent P1,000.00 even though she already paid the sheriffs fee when she filed the case. The money was supposedly for gas and snacks because respondent said that it would take a long time to liquidate his expenses. Thereafter, respondent and the RTC employee left presumably to serve the writ but they did not come back to inform complainant of the result of the service of the writ.

On March 7, 2016, complainant sent a text message to respondent inquiring about the outcome of his visit to Sia but got no reply. The following day, she went to respondent's office and was told by the latter that Sia was not around when he visited him. Respondent told her that he would visit Sia again. Complainant followed-up on respondent several times but she did not get any response from him.

After a series of follow-ups, respondent informed complainant that Sia called him and offered P15,000.00 as partial payment but he did not accept the offer as the court ordered full payment of the P78,328.40. Complainant stated that Sia's offer of partial payment was not included in respondent's report dated April 5, 2016. Complainant then asked respondent for advice and the latter told her to file a motion to cite Sia in contempt of court. She then sought the assistance of Atty. Lee Agerico B. Avila (Atty. Avila) of the Public Attorney's Office, who prepared and filed the motion to cite Sia in contempt. The motion was, however, denied on May 18, 2016. Hence, the MCTC ordered respondent to levy upon the properties of Sia.

In spite of this order, respondent allegedly discouraged complainant from levying Sia's appliances saying that there were several levied television sets and refrigerators in their office stockroom gathering dust due to lack of interested buyers. Nonetheless, complainant insisted on pushing through with the levy which was scheduled on August 5, 2016. Respondent informed complainant that Sia refused to surrender the appliances because those did not belong to him. So he "withdrew to prevent further heated altercation." Respondent did not insist on acquiring the appliances because "baka daw bweltahan siya at mabaliktad pa ang kanyang kaldero." These statements were, again, not included in his August 26, 2017 report. Respondent also asked complainant to pay his companions P250.00 each. He also informed complainant that it was her discretion on how much she would give him because if he were to estimate the amount, it would be big. Thus, complainant gave respondent P500.00, in addition to the P1,000.00 previously given.

Complainant went back to Atty. Avila for the filing of the second motion to cite Sia in contempt of court but she was advised to avail of the remedy of garnishment first. So she went to respondent and told him about the advice of Atty. Avila. Respondent then asked complainant whether she knew any bank accounts of Sia that they could garnish but since she was only able to give the name of the bank and not the accounts of Sia, respondent told her that no garnishment could be effected. When complainant asked respondent about his decision not to confiscate the appliances of Sia despite his authority to enforce the order of the court, he became angry and started scolding her in front of his staff. He told complainant to stop telling him what to do and reminded her that there were processes to be followed.

Hence, this administrative complaint alleging that respondent did not enforce the writ of execution despite the authority granted to him by the court. Moreover, complainant averred that his behavior in the course of implementing the writ is unbecoming of a public officer.

The Comment

In his Comment[9] dated November 22, 2017, respondent denied the allegations against him and stated that he accommodated complainant's insistence that the writ be enforced immediately. As to the money he allegedly asked from complainant, respondent explained that their office had no petty cash and it would take time to withdraw funds from the office of the Clerk of Court so complainant agreed to pay for the gasoline of their service car and their meals.

Respondent admitted that Sia called him up offering P15,000.00 as partial payment of the judgment obligation but he told him that the court order was for the full payment of the monetary claim. He then informed complainant about the offer but she rejected it.

With respect to the issue of confiscation of Sia's personal property, respondent informed complainant that the seizure would just be futile because nobody buys the second hand items in auction sales and it would just rot at the court.

In relation to the issue of garnishment, respondent alleged that he just told complainant of the need to identify the specific bank accounts of Sia in order for the garnishment to prosper. He claimed that he neither scolded nor humiliated complainant because he knew how to deal with people.

Lastly, respondent claimed that after the denial of complainant's motion to cite Sia in contempt, he waited for the issuance of an alias writ of execution ordering him to proceed with the execution which was only transmitted to his office a week before November 22, 2017.

The Report and Recommendation of the OCA

In its Report and Recommendation dated May 29, 2018, the OCA found respondent guilty of simple neglect of duty. It found that respondent violated Section 9[16] of Rule 141 of the Rules of Court when he did not make an estimate of the expenses to be incurred and failed to obtain the court approval for such estimated expenses. The OCA observed that respondent did not deny receiving money from complainant, contrary to the rule that sheriffs are not allowed to receive voluntary payments from parties in the course of the performance of their duties. Considering, however, that respondent's actions were not tainted with bad faith or malice, the OCA recommended that the penalty of a fine in the amount of P5,000.00 be imposed in lieu of suspension.

HELD: The Supreme Court adopted the findings and recommendation of the OCA.

It is settled that the sheriff's duty in the execution of a writ is purely ministerial. Once the writ is placed in his or her hands, a sheriff is obligated to execute the order of the court strictly to the letter and with reasonable promptness, taking heed of the prescribed period required by the Rules.[18] "As agents of the law, sheriffs are called upon to discharge their duties with due care and utmost diligence because in serving the court's writs and processes and implementing its orders, they cannot afford to err without affecting the integrity of their office and the efficient administration of justice".[19]Section 10, Rule 141 of the Rules of Court provides that expenses for the execution of writs shall be paid by the interested party based on the estimates made by the sheriff and subject to the approval of the court. Upon approval of the estimates, the party must deposit the amount with the clerk of court who shall disburse it to the sheriff. The sheriff must liquidate the amount within the same period of filing the return before the court.[20]

In this case, respondent failed to submit the required estimate of expenses in the execution of the writ to the trial court for its approval, and did not submit a liquidation report to the court as required by the rules. Respondent admitted having received from complainant the amount of P1,000.00 to shoulder the expenses in the execution of the writ. Though respondent explained that complainant agreed to pay first for the gasoline of the service car and for meals, if necessary, so he could immediately implement the writ, the same is not acceptable. The fact that complainant gave the money voluntarily is of no moment.[21] Respondent's act is in contravention of the aforestated procedure.

It must be emphasized that no matter how insistent the winning party is, a sheriff should take no procedural shortcuts so as to avoid any misunderstanding and/or dispel any suspicion against his integrity.[22] The sole act of receiving money from litigants, whatever the reason may be, is antithesis to being a court employee.[23] Neither the fact that the money was given voluntarily nor good intention to help party-litigants is a defense as they are self-serving, and will not absolve the misconduct committed by court employees. There is no defense in receiving money from party-litigants.[24] As a sheriff, respondent cannot receive a fee or remuneration beyond what he is entitled to receive in his official capacity.[25]

Time and again, the Court has held that in the implementation of the writ of execution, only the payment of sheriffs fees may be received by sheriffs. They are not allowed to receive any voluntary payments from parties in the course of the performance of their duties.[26] A sheriffs conduct of unilaterally demanding sums of money from a party-litigant purportedly to defray expenses of execution, without obtaining the approval of the trial court for such supposed expense and without rendering an accounting, constitutes dishonesty and extortion and falls short of the required standards of public service.[27]

Further, respondent's failure to levy on the personal properties of Sia is inconsistent with the ministerial nature of a sheriffs duty in the execution of judgments. He assumed that nobody would be interested in buying second hand properties confiscated from the court and thus, delayed the seizure of Sia's properties. To reiterate, a sheriffs duty to execute a writ is purely ministerial and he has no discretion to delay the execution thereof. Absent any instruction by a court to the contrary, he is mandated to proceed with reasonable celerity and promptness in implementing the writ.[28]

Based on the foregoing, the Court finds respondent guilty of simple neglect of duty. Simple neglect of duty is defined as the failure of an employee to give attention to a task expected of him and signifies a disregard of a duty resulting from carelessness or indifference, a less grave offense punishable by suspension from office for one (1) month and one (1) day to six (6) months for the first offense, and dismissal for the second offense under Sec. 46(D) of the Revised Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service (RRACCS).[29]

Under Sec. 47 of the RRACCS, however, the penalty of fine may be imposed in lieu of suspension in certain cases. In several cases, the Court imposed the penalty of fine as an alternative to suspension to prevent any undue adverse effect on public service which would result if work was left unattended.[30] Here, considering that respondent's actions were not tainted with bad faith or malice, and that this is his first infraction in his eight (8) years of service, the penalty of fine in the amount of Five Thousand Pesos (P5,000.00) is sufficient.[31]

WHEREFORE, respondent Clementino V. Rudas, Sheriff IV of the Regional Trial Court, Abuyog, Leyte, Branch 10 is found administratively GUILTY of Simple Neglect of Duty. Accordingly, he is meted the penalty of FINE in the amount of P5,000.00, with a STERN WARNING that a repetition of the same or similar act will be dealt with more severely.

Let a copy of this Resolution be furnished the Office of the Court Administrator to be attached to respondent's records.

SO ORDERED.

[16] In addition to the fees hereinabove fixed, the party requesting the process of any court, preliminary, incidental, or final, shall pay the sheriffs expenses in serving or executing the process, or safeguarding the property levied upon, attached or seized, including kilometrage for each kilometer of travel, guards' fees, warehousing and similar charges, in an amount estimated by the sheriff, subject to the approval of the court. Upon approval of said estimated expenses, the interested party shall deposit such amount with the clerk of court and ex officio sheriff, who shall disburse the same to the deputy sheriff assigned to effect the process, subject to liquidation within the same period for rendering a return on the process. Any unspent amount shall be refunded to the party making the deposit. A full report shall be submitted by the deputy sheriff assigned with his return, and the sheriffs expenses shall be taxed as costs against the judgment debtor. (Amendments to Rule 141 [Legal Fees] of the Rules of Court, A.M. No. 00-2-01-SC, March 1, 2000).

[18] Olympia-Geronilla, et al. v. Montemayor, Jr., et al., A.M. No. P-17-3676, June 5, 2017, 825 SCRA 315, 327. (citations omitted)

[19] Mahusay v. Gareza, 782 Phil. 1, 8 (2016).

[20] Santos v. Leano, Jr., et al., 781 Phil. 342, 358 (2016).

[21] Bunagan v. Sheriff Ferraren, 566 Phil. 349, 358 (2008).

[22] Ramos v. Ragot, 623 Phil. 673, 686 (2009).

[23] Cabanatan v. Uvero, A.M. No. P-l5-3329, November 6, 2017, 844 SCRA 7, 15.

[25] CODE OF CONDUCT FOR COURT PERSONNEL, Canon 1, Sec. 4.

[26] Roxas v. Sicat, A.M. No. P-17-3639, January 23, 2018; citing Francia v. Esguerra, 746 Phil 423, 429 (2014).

[30] See Foster v. Santos, Jr., A.M. No. P-17-3627, September 5, 2018, citing Olympia-Geronilla, et al. v. Montemayor, Jr. et al., supra note 18 at 330.

[31] See Raut-Raut v. Gaputan, 769 Phil. 590, 598 (2015).

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