Equipoise doctrine in labor law

In Hubilla v. HSY Marketing (G.R. No. 207354. January 10, 2018), the Supreme Court held that, when the evidence of the employer and the employee are in equipoise, doubts are resolved in favor of labor. This is in line with the policy of the State to afford greater protection to labor.

Petitioning workers allege that they were illegally dismissed from service when they were prevented from entering their work premises a day after airing their grievance in a radio show. On the other hand, respondents deny this allegation and state that petitioners were never dismissed from employment.

In illegal dismissal cases, the burden of proof is on the employer to prove that the employee was dismissed for a valid cause and that the employee was afforded due process prior to the dismissal.

Respondents allege that there was no dismissal since they sent petitioners a First Notice of Termination of Employment, asking them to show cause why they should not be dismissed for their continued absence from work. However, petitioners argue that this evidence should not be given weight since there is no proof that they received this Notice.

Indeed, no evidence has been presented proving that each and every petitioner received a copy of the First Notice of Termination of Employment. There are no receiving copies or acknowledgement receipts. What respondents presented were "Sample Letters of Respondents" and not the actual Notices that were allegedly sent out.

While petitioners admitted that the Notices may have been sent, they have never actually admitted to receiving any of them. In their Position Paper before the Labor Arbiter and in their Memorandum of Appeal before the National Labor Relations Commission:
On June 7, 2010, all employees who went to complain against the respondents were not allowed to enter the stores of respondents. The next day, respondents sent letters to the employees purporting to be a show cause letter but the truth of the matter is that all employees who went to the office of Tulfo to complain against the respondents were already terminated.
The lack of evidence of petitioners' receipts suggests that the Notices were an afterthought, designed to free respondents from any liability without having to validly dismiss petitioners.There is likewise no proof that petitioners abandoned their employment. To constitute abandonment, the employer must prove that "first, the employee must have failed to report for work or must have been absent without valid or justifiable reason; and second, [that] there must have been a clear intention on the part of the employee to sever the employer-employee relationship manifested by some overt act."

Abandonment is essentially a matter of intent. It cannot be presumed from the occurrence of certain equivocal acts. There must be a positive and overt act signifying an employee's deliberate intent to sever his or her employment. Thus, mere absence from work, even after a notice to return, is insufficient to prove abandonment. The employer must show that the employee unjustifiably refused to report for work and that the employee deliberately intended to sever the employer-employee relation. Furthermore, there must be a concurrence of these two (2) elements. Absent this concurrence, there can be no abandonment.

Respondents have not presented any proof that petitioners intended to abandon their employment. They merely alleged that petitioners have already voluntarily terminated their employment due to their continued refusal to report for work. However, this is insufficient to prove abandonment.

Where both parties in a labor case have not presented substantial evidence to prove their allegations, the evidence is considered to be in equipoise. In such a case, the scales of justice are tilted in favor of labor. Thus, petitioners are hereby considered to have been illegally dismissed.

The Supreme Court noted that, had petitioners been able to substantially prove their dismissal, it would have been rendered invalid not only for having been made without just cause but also for being in violation of their constitutional rights. A laborer does not lose his or her right to freedom of expression upon employment. This is "[a] political [right] essential to man's enjoyment of his [or her] life, to his [or her] happiness, and to his [or her] full and complete fulfillment." While the Constitution and the courts recognize that employers have property rights that must also be protected, the human rights of laborers are given primacy over these rights. Property rights may prescribe. Human rights do not.

When laborers air out their grievances regarding their employment in a public forum, they do so in the exercise of their right to free expression. They are "fighting for their very survival, utilizing only the weapons afforded them by the Constitution—the untrammelled enjoyment of their basic human rights."[85] Freedom and social justice afford them these rights and it is the courts' duty to uphold and protect their free exercise. Thus, dismissing employees merely on the basis that they complained about their employer in a radio show is not only invalid, it is unconstitutional.

However, there not being sufficient proof that the dismissal was meant to suppress petitioners' constitutional rights, this Court is constrained to limit its conclusions to that of illegal dismissal under the Labor Code.

Petitioners were not dismissed under any of the causes mentioned in Article 279 [282] of the Labor Code. They were not validly informed of the causes of their dismissal. Thus, their dismissal was illegal.

An employee who is found to have been illegally dismissed is entitled to reinstatement without loss of seniority rights and other privileges. If reinstatement proves to be impossible due to the strained relations between the parties, the illegally dismissed employee is entitled instead to separation pay.

ADDITIONAL READINGS:

[1] Mobile Protective & Detective Agency v. Ompad, 494 Phil. 621, 635 (2005) [Per J. Puno, Second Division] citing Asuncion vs. NLRC, 414 Phil. 329 (2001) [Per J. Kapunan, First Division].

[2] See LABOR CODE, sec. 4 and CONST., art. II, sec. 18.

[3] See Ledesma v. National Labor Relations Commission, 562 Phil. 939 (2007) [Per J. Chico-Nazario, Third Division].

[4] MZR Industries v. Colambot, 716 Phil. 617, 627 (2013) [Per J. Peralta, Third Division] citing Samarca v. Arc-Men Industries, Inc., 459 Phil. 506, 515 (2003) [Per J. Sandoval-Gutierrez, Third Division]; MSMG-UWP v. Hon. Ramos, 383 Phil. 329, 371-372 (2000) [Per J. Purisima, Third Division]; Icawat v. NLRC, 389 Phil. 441, 445 (2000) [Per J. Buena, Second Division]; Standard Electric Manufacturing Corporation v. Standard Electric Employees Union-NAFLU-KMU, 418 Phil. 411, 427 (2005) [Per J. Sandoval-Gutierrez, Third Division]; Seven Star Textile Company v. Dy, 541 Phil. 468 (2007) [Per J. Callejo, Sr., Third Division].

[5] See Samarca v. Arc-Men Industries, 459 Phil. 506 (2003) [Per J. Sandoval-Gutierrez, Third Division].

[6] See Insular Life Assurance Co., Ltd. Employees Association-NATU v. The Insular Life Assurance Co., Ltd., 147 Phil. 194 (1971) [Per J. Castro, En Banc].

[7] See Hodieng Concrete Products v. Emilia, 491 Phil. 434 (2005) [Per J. Sandoval-Gutierrez, Third Division].

[8] See LABOR CODE, art. 282 on the acts and omissions constituting just causes for termination.

[9] See CONST., art. III, sec. 4. No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.

[10] Philippine Blooming Mills Employment Organization v. Philippine Blooming Mills Co., 151-A Phil. 656, 675 (1973) [Per J. Makasiar, En Banc].

[11] See Philippine Blooming Mills Employment Organization v. Philippine Blooming Mills Co., 151-A Phil. 656 (1973) [Per J. Makasiar, En Banc].

[12] Philippine Blooming Mills Employment Organization v. Philippine Blooming Mills Co., 151-A Phil. 656, 678 (1973) [Per J. Makasiar, En Banc].

[13] LABOR CODE, art. 297 [282] provides:
Article 297 [282]. Termination by employer. An employer may terminate an employment for any of the following causes:

(a) Serious misconduct or willful disobedience by the employee of the lawful orders of his employer or representative in connection with his work;
(b) Gross and habitual neglect by the employee of his duties;
(c) Fraud or willful breach by the employee of the trust reposed in him by his employer or duly authorized representative;
(d) Commission of a crime or offense by the employee against the person of his employer or any immediate member of his family or his duly authorized representatives; and
(e) Other causes analogous to the foregoing.
[14] See LABOR CODE, art. 294 [279]. See also Pepsi Cola Products v. Molon, 704 Phil. 120 (2013) [Per J. Perlas-Bernabe, Second Division].

[15] See Kingsize Manufacturing Co. v. National Labor Relations Commission, 308 Phil. 367 (1994) (Per J. Mendoza, Second Division).

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