G.R. No. 231817. January 08, 2018

THIRD DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 231817, January 08, 2018 ]
CHANNEL TECHNOLOGIES, INC., REPRESENTED BY ITS HEAD OF HUMAN RELATIONS DEPARTMENT, FELICITAS S. AGUILAR VS. AILEEN H. LIGAYA.

This Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the Rules of Court instituted by petitioner Channel Technologies, Inc. (CTI) assails the Decision[1] dated September 16, 2016 and the Resolution[2] dated May 22, 2017 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. SP No. 138880, finding respondent Aileen IT. Ligaya (Ligaya) to have been illegally dismissed.

The Facts

The factual antecedents of the case were presented by the CA in the assailed Decision as follows:
On January 10, 2008, [CTI], a firm engaged in the business of providing computer and information technology sales, maintenance, integrated IT solutions and other related services, hired [Ligaya] as an accounting staff with a basic salary of Php8,000.00. Her basic monthly salary and allowance has been increased to Php 10,000.00 and Php3,000.00, respectively.

On December 6, 2013, [Ligaya] reported for work[,] but her immediate supervisor Shiela Aranas (Aranas) advised her to go home upon instruction of Felicitas Aguilar (Aguilar) who is their acting Human Resources (HR) Manager and Accounting Department Head. Aranas also told her to leave the office and never to come back anymore before their President Manuel Bagatsing (Bagatsing) could see her. She was not informed of the reason why her services were not needed anymore although Aguilar asked her if she has any knowledge of Alberto Abad's plan to sabotage the Peach Tree System accounting program used by CTI, which she denied knowledge of the same.

On December 9, 2013, [Ligaya] went back to their office to work but Aranas prevented her and instead told her to wait for the written notice or suspension order from Aguilar. Thus, she filed an application for leave of absence and went home. On December 13, 2013, a former employee of CTI advised her to report for work until she receives a written memorandum from CTI. On December 16, 2013, [Ligaya] reported for work but was again prevented by Aranas and Aguilar, prompting her to go home. On that same day, she also received an electronic mail that her salary covering the period November 25 to December 9, 2013 had been put on hold.

On December 18, 2013, [Ligaya] filed a complaint against [CTI] and Bagatsing for illegal dismissal and illegal suspension with the DOLE-SENA. She claimed that she did not receive from CTI any letter/memorandum or suspension order or notice to explain.On January 13, 2014, company driver Orly Reyes went to her house and handed her a letter of termination. On January 16, 2014, [Ligaya] filed a complaint with the Labor Arbiter against [CTI and Bagatsing] for illegal suspension, non-payment of salary, separation pay, moral and exemplary damages, and attorney's fees. On February 28, 2014, she amended her complaint to include constructive illegal dismissal, underpayment of salary, and non-payment of service incentive leave pay as her causes of action, with prayer for reinstatement with full backwages and benefits in lieu of separation pay.

For their part, [CTI and Bagatsing] alleged that in April 2011, [Ligaya], being in-charge of the preparation of checks and monitoring of payables, failed to fund a check payable to LANDCO. The check bounced and exposed CTI and Bagatsing to a possible criminal lawsuit. According to them, [Ligaya] and her co-employees admitted that due to their gross negligence the check bounced. They gave [Ligaya] and her other co-employees a warning that a repetition of the same shall be dealt with accordingly.

[CTI and Bagatsing] also found [Ligaya] to be engaged in the following dishonest activities, to wit:
  1. [Ligaya] was directly involved together with a purchasing staff in the purchase of materials from a non-existent or non-registered supplier named DEN-BEB STORE (short for Dennis and Bebang). Bebang is the nickname of [Ligaya]. This store does not have a valid address and the receipts it issued were not registered with the BIR, thus CTI could not use them for VAT purposes. Since the purchases were done without bidding and the pricing of the materials were higher[,] it causes great monetary damage to CTI;
  2. [Ligaya] made cash advances in 2012 and 2013 in the amount of Php20,000.00 which she deliberately did not submit to the HR for supposed deduction from her salary; and
  3. [Ligaya] was involved with other employees to disrupt and/or destroy the accounting system (Peach Tree System) of CTI sometime in November and December 2013.
CTI sent [Ligaya] a Notice to Explain (NTE) with Preventive Suspension dated December 6, 2013 via registered mail. She was also personally served a copy of the same on December 16, 2013 but she refused to acknowledge receipt and to sign the receiving copy. On January 6, 2014, [Ligaya's] preventive suspension expired but she never reported back to work. On January 10, 2014, CTI sent a letter to [Ligaya] terminating her employment citing her failure to answer the charges in the December 6, 2013 NTE and her failure to return to work after expiration of her preventive suspension.[3]
After submission of the parties' respective position papers and other pleadings, the case was submitted for resolution.

Ruling of the Labor Arbiter

In a Decision[4] dated April 30, 2014, the Labor Arbiter dismissed the complaint for lack of merit. The dispositive portion of the Decision reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, judgment is hereby rendered, DISMISSING the instant complaint for lack of merit.

However, as above discussed, [CTI and Bagatsing] are hereby ordered to pay [Ligaya] the amount of P5,000.00, by way of financial assistance.

The complaint of Albert S. Santos is hereby DISMISSED on the ground of lack of interest to further prosecute his claims against [CTI and Bagatsing].

SO ORDERED.[5]
The Labor Arbiter found that respondent was terminated on the ground of loss of trust and confidence arising from several instances. First, she was found grossly negligent in the performance of her duties as an accounting staff. Second, she had allegedly participated in anomalous transactions with her co-employees in an illicit purchase and supply of materials from an unregistered store. Third, she had made cash advances and deliberately failed to disclose them to the HR so they will not be deducted from her salary. Finally, she was suspected of conspiring with other disgruntled employees in disrupting or destroying petitioner's accounting system.[6]

As for respondent's claim of illegal suspension, the Labor Arbiter ruled that her preventive suspension was a valid exercise of management prerogative. It was also ruled that respondent's right to due process was not violated since she was given the necessary notices, although she ignored responding to them. Thus, the Labor Arbiter concluded that respondent was dismissed for a just and authorized cause.[7]

Aggrieved, respondent elevated the case to the NLRC.

Ruling of the NLRC

In a Decision[8] dated August 29, 2014, the NLRC denied the appeal, the dispositive portion of which reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, complainant Aileen Hernandez Ligaya's Appeal is DENIED. The Decision of Labor Arbiter Joel L. Lustria dated April 30, 2014 is AFFIRMED WITH MODIFICATION to the effect that complainant Aileen Hernandez Ligaya's dismissal was justified on grounds of abandonment and dishonesty. Respondent Channel Technologies, Inc. is ORDERED to pay complainant the amount of TWENTY THOUSAND PESOS (P20,000.00) as nominal damages. The award of FIVE THOUSAND PESOS (P5,000.00) by way of financial assistance is DELETED.

SO ORDERED.
[9]
The NLRC ruled that respondent was not constructively dismissed since substantial evidence showed that she was merely preventively suspended from work. Respondent cannot feign ignorance as to the existence of the notice to explain by mere denial, since she impliedly admitted knowledge of such when she went to the NLRC to ask for assistance regarding her suspension on December 18, 2013.[10]

Aside from this, the NLRC upheld respondent's dismissal as valid, albeit based on a different ground. It found that the ground of loss of trust and confidence was a mere afterthought which petitioner only raised in its Position Paper. Nevertheless, the NLRC ruled that respondent was validly terminated on the ground of abandonment since she failed to report to work without valid or justifiable ground after the lapse of her 30-day preventive suspension. It further ruled that petitioner failed to observe procedural due process when there was no notice to explain pertaining to the act complained of, which was her abandonment of work. While there was a notice to explain on the charge of serious misconduct, there was no notice of termination on that ground.[11]

The NLRC concluded that while petitioner's failure to observe procedural due process did not invalidate respondent's dismissal, it rendered petitioner liable for nominal damages which was set at Php20,000.00. The award of Php5,000.00 financial assistance, however, was deleted for lack of merit.[12]

Respondent filed a motion for reconsideration, but it was denied by the NLRC in its Resolution[13] dated October 24, 2014.

Ruling of the CA

On appeal, the CA gave due course to the petition and annulled and set aside the NLRC ruling. The dispositive portion of the assailed Decision dated September 16, 2016 reads:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, the petition is GRANTED and the assailed issuances of the National Labor Relations Commission are hereby ANNULLED and SET ASIDE. Accordingly, the Court renders a new judgment as follows:
  1. Petitioner, Aileen H. Ligaya, has been illegally dismissed.
  2. Private respondent Channel Technologies Inc. is ordered to pay petitioner: a) full backwages and all other statutory monetary benefits to which she is entitled; b) separation pay of one month per year of service from the time of her constructive dismissal on December 6, 2013 until the finality of this decision with a fraction of a year of at least six (6) months being counted as one (1) whole year; c) Petitioner's withheld salary from November 25 to December 5, 2013.
  3. Private respondent Channel Technologies Inc., is ordered to pay petitioner moral damages amounting to Php20,000.00, exemplary damages amounting to Php20,000.00, attorney's fees in the amount equivalent to 10% of the total monetary award. All monetary awards shall earn interest at the legal rate of interest from the finality of this decision until fully paid.
Further, this case is ordered remanded to the National Labor Relations Commission without delay for the proper determination and computation of the monetary awards of the petitioner.

SO ORDERED.[14]
The CA reversed the findings of the NLRC. It ruled that petitioner failed to discharge the burden to prove that respondent was guilty of abandonment. Except for petitioner's self-serving allegations, no proof was adduced to show that respondent clearly and unequivocally intended to abandon her job. Moreover, petitioner failed to allege or show any proof that respondent was even advised to report for work or to return to work. As such, the ground of abandonment has no merit.[15]

As for the ground of dishonesty, the CA found the same to be erroneous and unsubstantiated. It observed that the charge of dishonesty was supported by nothing but bare allegations since the notice to explain and the termination letter did not indicate the specific acts which showed when the alleged infraction was committed and why such act amounted to dishonesty or serious misconduct.[16]

Petitioner's Motion for Partial Reconsideration[17] was denied in the assailed Resolution dated May 22, 2017. Hence, this petition.

The Issues

Petitioner raised the following issues for consideration of this Court:

A.
WHETHER OR NOT THE COURT OF APPEALS HAS COMMITTED SERIOUS AND REVERSIBLE ERRORS IN TAKING COGNIZANCE OF THE RESPONDENT'S EXTRA-ORDINARY REMEDY [OF] PETITION FOR CERTIORARI UNDER RULE 65 DESPITE GLARING DEFICIENCIES THAT ATTENDED THE SAME?

B.

WHETHER OR NOT THE COURT OF APPEALS HAS COMMITTED SERIOUS AND REVERSIBLE ERRORS IN REVERSING TFIE DECISION OF THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS COMMISSION AND FAULTING THE SAME WITH GRAVE ABUSE OF DISCRETION BY FINDING THAT PETITIONER CHANNEL TECHNOLOGIES, INC., HAD ILLEGALLY DISMISSED RESPONDENT LIGAYA FROM HER EMPLOYMENT?
B.1 THE CA MANIFESTLY OVERLOOKED THE FACT THAT THE NOTICE TO EXPLAIN WAS RECEIVED BY RESPONDENT.

B.2 THE CA MANIFESTLY OVERLOOKED THE FACT THAT RESPONDENT WAS LEGALLY DISMISSED SINCE THE DISMISSAL [WAS] FOR JUST AND VALID CAUSES.[18]
The core issue in the case is whether respondent was illegally dismissed from employment by petitioner.

Pursuant to this Court's directive to file her comment on the petition, respondent filed a Comment dated August 31, 2017, reiterating her position that she had been constructively dismissed by petitioner and that her right to procedural due process was violated. She further argued that loss of trust and confidence as a ground to support her dismissal may no longer be raised before this Court since petitioner failed to raise the same in its position paper filed with the Labor Arbiter.

The Court's Ruling

The petition has no merit.

We find no reason to disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions by the CA which set aside the rulings of the NLRC and the Labor Arbiter.

On the first issue, petitioner asserts that the petition filed by respondent before the CA was defective for failure to attach duplicate originals or certified true copies of the questioned NLRC decision. Petitioner further argues that the CA petition failed to allege the material dates as required in a petition for certiorari. Thus, petitioner insists that the petition should have been dismissed outright.

The CA, however, had squarely and correctly addressed this issue in its Resolution dated May 22, 2017, to wit:
Finally, on the claim that [Ligaya's] petition should have been dismissed for alleged violation of the the (sic) material data rule and the mandatory attachments to the petition, such a stance equally deserves scant consideration. Note that in pages 3 to 4 of the petition, [Ligaya] clearly stated that:
  1. Duplicate original copies of the Decisions of the Honorable Labor Arbiter and the Honorable Commission and the latter's Resolution, including the receiving envelopes thereof, as received by [Ligaya], are thereto attached and made integral part hereof as Annexes "A", "A-1", "B", "B-1"[,] "C"and "C-1."
  2. The Resolution denying [Ligaya's] motion for reconsideration was received on 28 October 2014. Pursuant to Section 4, Rule 65 of the Revised Rules of Court, it has sixty (60) days from 28 October 2014 or until 29 December 2014 to file this instant Petition for Certiorari. (underlining supplied)
Since the above allegations of [Ligaya] were not refuted by [CTI and Bagatsing], then the latter's claim of alleged procedural rules have no leg to stand on. At any rate, even assuming for the sake of argument that [Ligaya] may have transgressed the procedural rules, since the present case is impressed with substantial merit and that [CTI and Bagatsing] were not unjustly prejudiced by the alleged violation of the rules, then the relaxation of the rules may be allowed in order to serve the higher interest of substantial justice.[19]
On the substantive issues, petitioner argues that the CA erred in finding that respondent was denied procedural due process, pointing out that respondent had already known about her suspension beforehand and had actually refused to receive the notice to explain being given to her. Petitioner claims that respondent deliberately chose not to present her side during the administrative hearing and instead filed the illegal dismissal complaint ahead of the scheduled investigation.

We find no merit in petitioner's arguments. A review of the records shows that aside from petitioner's self-serving allegation that it had served the notice to explain dated December 6, 2013 on respondent and the latter had refused to receive it, no other evidence was presented to support the same. It is a basic rule in evidence that each party must prove his affirmative allegation. While technical rules are not strictly followed in the NLRC, this does not mean that the rules on proving allegations are entirely dispensed with. Bare allegations are not enough; these must be supported by substantial evidence at the very least.[20]

Aside from this, petitioner never refuted the factual assertions made by respondent in her position paper, particularly the circumstances which occurred on December 6, 2013 wherein she was sent home and forced to go on leave by her immediate supervisor, Shiela Aranas, and the confrontation she had with petitioner's Acting Human Resources Head, Felicitas Aguilar. Petitioner had every opportunity to deny these allegations made by respondent, but nowhere in its pleadings did it do so. Thus, this Court is led to believe that petitioner's silence on these matters is an implied admission that these incidents did occur.

Anent petitioner's argument that respondent's dismissal was based on just and valid causes, it claims that respondent's acts constituted serious and dishonest misconducts violating its Code of Conduct of Employees. These acts were: (1) the bounced check payable to LANDCO due to respondent's gross negligence; (2) the illicit practice of supplying materials for the company from 2010 to 2013 in direct conflict with her duties as preparing checks; and (3) the deliberate concealing of her cash advances in order not to be deducted from her salary.

We agree with the CA's discussion on this matter, to wit:
The NLRC's finding of dishonesty is also erroneous and unsubstantiated. [CTI and Bagatsing's] charge of dishonesty against [Ligaya] is nothing more than bare allegation as neither the NTE nor the termination letter specify in clear and unmistakable manner, the specific acts as to how and when the alleged infraction was committed by [Ligaya] and why it would amount to dishonesty or serious misconduct. The records also reveal that the dishonesty charge amounting to serious misconduct is anchored only on [Ligaya's] letter of apology dated October 23, 2012, which is hereby reproduced verbatim as follows:

Sir/Mam,

I Aileen H. Ligaya with cash advance of Twenty Thousand Pesos Only (P20,000.00) I promise to pay P500, every pay day starting November 1-15, 2013 payroll until fully paid on June 2015.

My sincere apology for the incident happened as we were not able to forward the check voucher to Mr. Jason Bendana for payroll deduction purposes. I promise it will never happened (sic) again.

Thank you. Sincerely yours, Aileen H. Ligaya

An examination of the above letter shows that [Ligaya] only admitted to her failure to forward the "check voucher," to a certain Mr. Bendana for payroll deduction purposes. In the absence of any other evidence, [Ligaya's] omission can only be characterized as mere neglect or negligence. The above letter alone is insufficient to justify the NLRC's conclusion that [Ligaya] deliberately and intentionally concealed her cash advances from CTI and neither would it amount to dishonesty as a species of serious misconduct. In the face of such serious doubts and scarcity of evidence on the part of the employer, the equipoise rule dictates that the scales of justice be tilted in favor of the employee.

Dishonesty is defined as "intentionally making a false statement in any material fact, or practicing or attempting to practice any deception or fraud in securing his examination, registration, appointment or promotion." Thus, dishonesty, like bad faith, is not simply bad judgment or negligence but a question of intention. In ascertaining the intention of a person accused of dishonesty, consideration must be taken not only of the facts and circumstances which gave rise to the act committed by the respondent, but also of his state of mind at the time the offense was committed, the time he might have had at his disposal for the purpose of meditating on the consequences of his act, and the degree of reasoning he could have had at that moment.

Under Article 295 of the Labor Code, an employee's dishonesty may qualify as a just cause for termination under serious misconduct. It has been held that misconduct "involves the transgression of some established and definite rule of action, a forbidden act, a dereliction of duty, willful in character and implies wrongful intent and not a mere error and judgment," and to be a valid ground for dismissal, it must be serious or of a grave or aggravated character and not merely trivial or unimportant and connected with the work of the employee.

In the present case, [CTI and Bagatsing] failed to discharge their burden to prove that [Ligaya's] failure to forward the check voucher, is tantamount to the NLRC's finding of deliberate concealment of the cash advances. There is neither allegation nor proof, that the company was unaware or had no other way of knowing that [Ligaya], a mere rank and file employee, had made such cash advances singlehandedly as to build a case for deliberate concealment or fraud. Neither did [CTI and Bagatsing] make any allegation of fraud on the manner by which [Ligaya] has secured such cash advances nor have they attributed against [Ligaya] any false statement or deception in procuring such cash advances as to qualify such omission as dishonesty of a grave character to warrant such severe penalty as dismissal. As discussed above, the company is expected to call the attention of an employee to any undesirable act or omission within a reasonable time, and failure on its part to do so undermines its claim of serious dishonesty against the employee. Except for [Ligaya's] letter of apology, there is no iota of evidence, testimonial or documentary, presented by [CTI and Bagatsing], to show how [Ligaya's] neglect was impelled by a dishonest intention or whether it was willful as to amount to deliberate concealment or dishonesty amounting to serious misconduct justifying her dismissal. What is more, apart from CTI's failure to call [Ligaya's] attention to such omission within a reasonable time, CTI has made deductions thrice from [Ligaya's] salary to pay for the disputed cash advances after [CTI and Bagatsing's] receipt of [Ligaya's] apology. [CTI and Bagatsing's] silence or inaction on [Ligaya's] letter of apology, coupled with their deduction of the amounts from [Ligaya's] salary indicate that they have either condoned such offense or have treated the matter closed.

It is erroneous for the NLRC to contend that [Ligaya's] payment of the cash advances did not foreclose CTI's right to issue the NTE as a management prerogative despite the lapse of more than two months because management prerogative cannot be exercised arbitrarily, capriciously and whimsically as to pervade like a Damocles' sword hanging indefinitely over unsuspecting employees, whom management might coerce into indeterminate submission. It must be borne in mind that the exercise of management prerogative is not absolute. While it may be conceded that management is in the best position to know its operational needs, the exercise of management prerogative can neither be utilized to circumvent the law and public policy on labor and social justice nor defeat the very purpose for which our labor laws exist: to balance the conflicting interests of labor and management, not to tilt the scale in favor of one over the other, but to guaranty that labor and management stand on equal footing when bargaining in good faith with each other. By its very nature, encompassing as it could be, management prerogative must be exercised always with the principles of fair play at heart and justice in mind.[21] (citations omitted; emphasis in the original)
It also bears stressing that for her failure to fund the check payable to LANDCO, respondent had already been previously disciplined and was given a stern warning by petitioner through its Memo dated May 6, 2011.[22]

As for the two remaining grounds relied upon by petitioner, We agree with the CA's observation that the notice to explain dated December 6, 2013 was neither given within a reasonable time from the discovery of these acts nor did it specify with particularity the acts which may consist as violations of company policies.

Finally, We find no basis for the NLRC's declaration that respondent was guilty of abandonment since, as pointed out by the CA, petitioner failed to establish that she had clearly and unequivocally intended to abandon her job. Respondent's act of returning to work after she was unceremoniously asked to go home on December 6, 2013 and her filing the instant case against petitioner are strong indicators of her intention to return to her work. Petitioner's statement in the notice of termination that respondent had abandoned her work due to her failure to return after the expiry of her preventive suspension holds no water and appears to be a mere afterthought since there was no return to work order given to respondent.

Instead, what We see here is a case of constructive dismissal where the employee was forced to take a leave of absence and subjected to harsh, hostile, and unfavorable conditions by the employer by compounding her alleged wrongdoings in one notice to explain months after they had occurred.

Time and again, We have ruled that the test of constructive dismissal is whether a reasonable person in the employee's position would have felt compelled to give up his position under the circumstances. It is an act amounting to dismissal but is made to appear as if it were not. It is a dismissal in disguise. The law recognizes and resolves this situation in favor of employees in order to protect their rights and interests from the coercive acts of the employer.[23]

Accordingly, this Court sees no reason to overturn the factual findings of the CA which We find were based on substantial evidence presented by the parties. Petitioner merely reiterated the arguments it had raised before the CA but failed to show that such factual findings were arbitrarily made or that evidence on record was disregarded. These issues and arguments were already exhaustively discussed by the CA in the assailed rulings, which upon review of this Court, were found to be correct.

IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, the petition is DENIED for lack of merit. The Decision dated September 16, 2016 and the Resolution dated May 22, 2017 of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. SP No. 138880 are hereby AFFIRMED.

SO ORDERED.

[1] Rollo, pp. 222-236. Penned by Associate Justice Edwin D. Sorongon and concurred in by Associate Justices Ricardo R. Rosario and Marie Christine Azcarraga-Jacob.

[2] Id. at 247-250.

[3] Id. at 223-225.

[4] Id. at 107-128. Rendered by Labor Arbiter Joel L. Lustria.

[5] Id. at 128.

[6] Id. at 119-125.

[7] Id. at 125-127.

[8] Id. at .130-144. Penned by Commissioner Dolores M. Peralta-Beley and concurred in by Presiding Commissioner Grace E. Maniquiz-Tan and Commissioner Mercedes R. Posada-Lacap.

[9] Id. at 143-144.

[10] Id. at 136-139.

[11] id. at 139-142.

[12] Id. at 142-143.

[13] Id. at 146-148.

[14] Id. at 235-236.

[15] Id. at 228-229.

[16] Id. at 229-234.

[17] Id. at 237-245.

[18] Id. at 20.

[19] Id. at 249-250.

[20] Protective Maximum Security Agency, Inc. v. Celso E. Fuentes, G.R. No. 169303, February 1 1, 2015, citing Stolt-Nielsen Marine Seivices, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Commission, Labor Arbiter Manuel R. Caday and Renato Siojo, G.R. No. 128395, December 29, 1998.

[21] Rollo, pp. 229-232.

[22] Id. at 14.

[23] Raul C. Cosare v. Broadcom Asia, Inc. and Dante Arevalo, G.R. No. 201298, February 5, 2014, citing Mario B. Dimagan v. Dacworks United, Incorporated and/or Dean A. Cancino, G.R. No. 191053, November 28, 2011.

Popular Posts