Monday, August 9, 2010

Gross negligence and grave misconduct

In the case of CESAR TALENTO and MODESTA HERRERA TALENTO vs. ATTY. AGUSTIN F. PANEDA, A.C. No. 7433 [Formerly CBD Case No. 05-1554], December 23, 2009, where the Supreme Court found respondent Atty. Agustin F. Paneda GUILTY of violating Canons 17 and 18 as well as Rules 18.02 and 18.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility and accordingly SUSPENDED respondent from the practice of law for ONE (1) YEAR effective upon finality of the Decision, the following doctrines were held:


x x x,

The only issue to be resolved in this case is whether or not respondent committed gross negligence or misconduct in handling petitioners’ case both on trial in the RTC and on appeal in the CA which led to its dismissal without affording petitioners the opportunity to present their evidence.

After a careful consideration of the records of the instant case, this Court agrees with the IBP in its findings and conclusion that respondent’s documented acts fall extremely short of the standard of professional duty that all lawyers are required to faithfully adhere to.

The pertinent Canons of the Code of Professional Responsibility provide:

CANON 17 – A LAWYER OWES FIDELITY TO THE CAUSE OF HIS CLIENT AND HE SHALL BE MINDFUL OF THE TRUST AND CONFIDENCE REPOSED IN HIM.

CANON 18 – A LAWYER SHALL SERVE HIS CLIENT WITH COMPETENCE AND DILIGENCE.

x x x x x

Rule 18.02 – A lawyer shall not handle any legal matter without adequate preparation.

Rule 18.03 – A lawyer shall not neglect a legal matter entrusted to him and his negligence in connection therewith shall render him liable.

There is no doubt that respondent was woefully remiss in his duty to display utmost diligence and competence in protecting the interests of his clients. The records of this case clearly detailed dire instances of professional neglect which undoubtedly showed respondent’s failure to live up to his duties and responsibilities as a member of the legal profession. Petitioners lost Civil Case No. A-2043 in the RTC mainly because they were barred from presenting their evidence in court. This was a result of their being declared in default in the said case as a consequence of respondent’s failure to appear at the pre-trial conference. Respondent defended his non-appearance by stating that he had informed petitioners beforehand of a conflict of schedule and that he had instructed them on what to do in his absence, but petitioners vehemently denied this claim.

Even if we are to give credence to respondent’s justification, this does not excuse him from the fact that he was unable to file a Pre-trial Brief at least three (3) days prior to the scheduled pre-trial conference, as required by the Rules. Respondent alleges that he already prepared the Pre-trial Brief but did not push through with filing it because he was allegedly furnished by petitioner Modesta Herrera Talento with an Amicable Settlement that was forged between the parties before the Barangay Lupon of San Pedro, Agoo, La Union. He claims that he instructed his clients to present said document during the pre-trial conference as he had another hearing to attend. However, respondent’s excuse is untenable as any lawyer worth his salt would readily know that once a case has been filed in court, any amicable settlement between the parties must be approved by the court in order for it to be legally binding in accordance with Section 416 of the Local Government Code of 1991 in relation to the last paragraph of Section 408 of the same Code. Thus, he cannot assume that the case will be deemed closed by virtue of the supposed amicable settlement so as to excuse him from filing the Pre-trial Brief and from appearing at the pre-trial set by the court.

With regard to his subsequent error of failing to file the required Appeal Brief which led to the dismissal of his clients’ appeal before the CA, respondent did not give any plausible explanation other than merely placing the blame on the incompetence of his secretary in not promptly informing him about her receipt of the Notice of Submission of Appellants’ Brief. This mistake by respondent is exacerbated by the fact that he did not care to inform his clients of the dismissal of their appeal in 2002 and it was only in 2005 that his clients learned about this unfortunate turn of events.

It is beyond dispute that respondent is duty-bound by his oath as a lawyer to diligently prosecute the case of his clients to the best of his ability within the bounds of law. Regrettably, the facts of this case illustrate respondent’s dismal performance of that responsibility, which in its totality could amount to a reprehensible abandonment of his clients’ cause.

A lawyer, when he undertakes his client’s cause, makes a covenant that he will exert all efforts for its prosecution until its final conclusion. He should undertake the task with dedication and care, and he should do no less, otherwise, he is not true to his lawyer’s oath.

As held in the case of Vda. De Enriquez v. San Jose:

The Code of Professional Responsibility in Rule 18.03 enjoins a lawyer not to neglect a legal matter entrusted to him and his negligence in connection therewith shall render him liable. A lawyer engaged to represent a client in a case bears the responsibility of protecting the latter’s interest with utmost diligence. It is the duty of a lawyer to serve his client with competence and diligence and he should exert his best efforts to protect, within the bounds of the law, the interest of his client. It is not enough that a practitioner is qualified to handle a legal matter; he is also required to prepare adequately and give the appropriate attention to his legal work.

In Balatbat v. Arias, the Court also held that:

It must be stressed that public interest requires that an attorney exert his best efforts in the prosecution or defense of a client’s cause. A lawyer who performs that duty with diligence and candor not only protects the interests of his client, he also serves the ends of justice, does honor to the bar and helps maintain the respect of the community to the legal profession. Lawyers are indispensable part of the whole system of administering justice in this jurisdiction. At a time when strong and disturbing criticisms are being hurled at the legal profession, strict compliance with one’s oath of office and the canons of professional ethics is an imperative.

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