G.R. No. 225310. August 22, 2018


The properties subject of the instant case are five (5) parcels of land with an aggregate area of 67.9339 hectares located in Barangays Malino and Panipuan, San Fernando, Pampanga and covered by five (5) transfer certificates of title registered in the name of respondent corporations PX2 Enterprises Co., Inc. and Vini-Agro Products, Inc. (the Corporations). Prior to the effectivity of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL) on June 15, 1988, the subject lands were reclassified as "residential" by Comprehensive Land Use Plan Zoning Ordinance dated September 24, 1980 of San Fernando, Pampanga and ratified on the same date by the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB)-Sangguniang Panlalawigan through its NCC Plan. Sixteen (16) years later, the Municipal Agrarian Reform Office (MARO) issued a Notice of Coverage dated May 23, 1996, placing the subject lands under the coverage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), despite its earlier reclassification. Consequently, Certificates of Land Ownership Award (CLOAs) were issued and registered in the names of petitioners Virgilio Biqui, Arcadio De Jesus, Felix Juco, Rolando Juco, Felix Mandap, Isidro Mandap, Gregorio Masbang, Alfonso Ramos, Jr., Alfonso Ramos, Sr., Jose Tolosa, Meliton Tolosa, Antonio Torres, Christopher Torres, Angelito Yutuc, Julieta Yutuc, Juliette Patawaran, Adelaido De Jesus, Albert De Jesus, Nicolas Sanchez, Rodrigo Banal, Geronimo Banal, Arnel Ramos, and Manuel Sanchez (the Farmer-Beneficiaries) in the Register of Deeds of San Fernando, Pampanga.

Alarmed by the CLOA issuances, the Corporations filed with the Provincial Agrarian Reform Adjudication (PARAD) a Petition[1] for the cancellation of the CLOAs on September 29, 1997. On May 16, 2000, the PARAD dismissed the petition.[2] It held that since the Emancipation Patents and Certificates of Land Transfer have already been issued thereby terminating the landlord-tenancy relationship, the Farmer-Beneficiaries are already deemed to be the owners of the subject lands, and consequently, the Corporations are no longer the owners of the same. Thus, said Corporations no longer have a cause of action against the Farmer-Beneficiaries. The Department of Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board (DARAB) affirmed the PARAD dismissal but with the qualification that it is without prejudice to the filing of the proper action before the appropriate tribunal. It explained that while the reclassification of the lands would exempt the same from the coverage of the CARP, the determination of whether or not it is exempted is vested with the Secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) such that before the CLOAs can be cancelled, exemption clearances from the DAR Secretary must first be obtained.

Meanwhile, the reclassification was affirmed by the HLURB in a Certificate[3] dated June 30, 1999. Thereafter, on November 18, 2005, the Corporations filed an Application for Exemption Clearance of the subject lands from the CARP coverage. Initially, in an Order[4] dated September 14, 2007, the DAR Secretary denied the application. But in a Resolution[5] dated April 28, 2008, the DAR Secretary granted the Corporations' Motion for Reconsideration finding that since the lands were already reclassified as residential prior to the effectivity of the CARL on June 15, 1988, the same should not have been erroneously covered in the first place since they were no longer agricultural at the time of the issuance of the Notice of Coverage. Moreover, the fact that the CLOAs had already been issued to the Farmer-Beneficiaries does not correct the defect. Neither can said error in the implementation of the CARP defeat the landowners' right to apply for exemption as the same is vested in him by law. In a Resolution[6] dated November 5, 2008, the DAR Secretary denied the Motion for Reconsideration filed by the Farmer-Beneficiaries.On August 27, 2009, the Office of the President (OP) affirmed the rulings of the DAR Secretary.[7] On June 28, 2010, the Farmer-Beneficiaries filed a Motion to Re-Open Motion for Reconsideration on Ground of New Evidence.[8] In support of thereof, they presented their tax declarations for the year 2010 issued by the Office of the City Assessor for the City of San Fernando declaring the actual use of the subject lands as agricultural and classified as sugarland. In a Resolution[9] dated January 21, 2014, the OP granted the motion of the Farmer-Beneficiaries and denied the Corporations' application for exemption clearance.

In a Decision[10] dated January 18, 2016, however, the Court of Appeals (CA) reversed and set aside the ruling of the OP. Agreeing with the findings of the DAR, the appellate court held that the MARO should not have subjected the lands to the coverage of the CARP in the first place as they have already been reclassified as "residential" prior to the passage of the CARL. This was affirmed and evidenced by the June 30, 1999 HLURB Certification, the spuriousness of which, the Farmer-Beneficiaries failed to sufficiently prove. Moreover, the CA rejected the contention of said Farmer- Beneficiaries that the Municipality of San Fernando was never zoned by an ordinance or an NCC Plan dated September 24, 1980 for as explained by the Regional Director of the HLURB in a letter, there has been a clerical error in the 2008 HLURB Certification to the effect that the date of the NCC Plan approval was inadvertently written as September 24, 1980 instead of September 21, 1978, the latter date being the true date the said plan was approved.

The denial by the CA of their Motion for Reconsideration prompted the Farmer-Beneficiaries to file the instant petition invoking the following arguments: (1) the alleged HLURB Certifications presented by the Corporations are spurious; (2) San Fernando, Pampanga was not zoned by the NCC Plan dated September 24, 1980, as evidenced by another Certification issued by the HLURB; (3) the subject June 30, 1999 HLURB Certification presented by the Corporations are absent from the records, as evidenced by another Certification issued by the HLURB; (4) tax declarations covering the subject property classify the same as "sugarland;" (5) the presumption of regularity is not a substitute for proof of an independent and material fact; (6) the application for exemption clearance was filed beyond the period allowed by law; (7) the former landlords of the subject lands do not have vested rights; and (8) there exists sufficient evidence showing that there is no law nor ordinance dated September 24, 1980 that zoned the lands as residential, neither did the NCC Plan dated September 24, 1980 affect the agricultural zoning of the same.[11]

The petition is devoid of merit.

After a cursory review of the findings of the appellate court, the Court finds no cogent reason to reverse the same. At the outset, it must be noted that time and again, the Court has ruled that in petitions for review on certiorari under Rule 45, only questions of law may be raised before this Court as We are not a trier of facts. Our jurisdiction in such a proceeding is limited to reviewing only errors of law that may have been committed by the lower courts.[12] Here, the Farmer- Beneficiaries insist that the appellate court and the DAR erred in relying on the spurious HLURB Certifications as basis for concluding that the subject lands were, indeed, reclassified as "residential." This question assailing the appreciation of evidence presented by the corporations is indubitably one of fact, which is beyond the ambit of the Court's jurisdiction in a petition for review on certiorari. Verily, it is not the function of this Court to reexamine or reevaluate proofs adduced by the parties in the proceedings below to ascertain if they were appreciated or weighed correctly. Moreover, while it is widely held that this rule of limited jurisdiction admits of exceptions, none exists in the instant case for a cursory review of the findings of the DAR and the CA reveals that the same were reasonably based on the files on record.[13]

In affirming the findings of the DAR Secretary, the CA held that the Farmer-Beneficiaries failed to prove their allegations regarding the spuriousness of the 1999 HLURB Certification. This is due to the fact that said certification was confirmed by the HLURB in several other documents, such as another HLURB Certification dated March 26, 2008 which practically contains the same zoning classification and information contained in the 1999 HLURB Certification, attesting to the fact that the subject properties are classified as residential. Apart from that, the 1999 HLURB Certification was likewise confirmed by the HLURB itself in its letters dated April 21, 2006 and August 10, 2006 which states that under the presumption of regularity in the performance of official functions, it is bound by the 1999 HLURB Certification.

On the claim of the Farmer-Beneficiaries that there is no law or ordinance dated September 24, 1980 that zoned the lands as residential, neither did the NCC Plan dated September 24, 1980 affect the agricultural zoning of the same, the Court affirms the findings of the appellate court when it held that said issue was already explained by the HLURB in a letter dated January 22, 2009. In said letter, HLURB Regional Director, Editah U. Barrameda, explained that there has been a clerical error in the 2008 HLURB Certification to the effect that the date of the NCC Plan of approval was inadvertently written as September 24, 1980 instead of September 21, 1978, the latter date being the true date the said plan was approved. The CA added that, besides, it makes no difference whether the classification was approved in 1980 or 1978, the foremost consideration being that the reclassification was made prior to the effectivity of the CARL in 1988.

As for the contention that the application for exemption clearance was filed beyond the period allowed by law, the Court adopts the arguments of the Corporations and stresses that the same was never raised at the earliest opportunity. Even assuming that it was, the requirement of Article VIII of DAR Administrative Order No. 04, Series of 2003 is that the same is filed sixty (60) days "from the date the landowner received a notice of CARP coverage." Here, the said period has not begun as the Corporations have yet to receive the notice of CARP coverage.

In view of the foregoing, We quote with approval the DAR Secretary and the appellate court in emphasizing that the rights granted to the Corporations by the local zoning ordinance should not just be taken away by the mere expedience of erroneously issuing notices of coverage as well as the corresponding CLOAs for as clearly shown here, the subject lands were already classified as residential. Indeed, factual findings of administrative officials and agencies that have acquired expertise in the performance of their official duties and the exercise of their primary jurisdiction are generally accorded not only respect but, at times, even finality if such findings are supported by substantial evidence and affirmed by the appellate court. The Court generally accords great respect, if not finality, to factual findings of administrative agencies, because of their special knowledge and expertise over matters falling under their jurisdiction.[14]

WHEREFORE, premises considered, the petition is DENIED for failure of the Farmer-Beneficiaries to show any reversible error in the assailed CA Decision dated January 18, 2016.

SO ORDERED. Peralta, J., designated as Acting Chairperson of the First Division per Special Order No. 2582 (Revised) dated August 8, 2018; Gesmundo, J., designated as Acting Member per Special Order No. 2560 dated May 11, 2018.

[1] Rollo, Vol. I, pp. 185-189.

[2] Id. at 386-389.

[3] Id. at 91-92.

[4] Id. at 101-109.

[5] Id. at 129-133.

[6] Rollo, Vol. II, pp. 1169-1175.

[7] Id. at 1223-1226.

[8] Id. at 1253-1258.

[9] Id. at 1259-1262.

[10] Rollo, Vol. Ill, pp. 754-762.

[11] Id. at 764-792.

[12] Mangahas v. Court of Appeals, et al., 588 Phil. 61, 77 (2008).

[13] Dumduma v. Civil Service Commission, 674 Phil. 257, 267 (2011).

[14] Land Bank of the Philippines v. Spouses Costo, 700 Phil. 290, 299 (2012).