Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fiduciary duty of lawyer

In the case of ATTY. ELMER C. SOLIDON vs.  ATTY. RAMIL E. MACALALAD, A.C. No. 8158, February 24, 2010, the Supreme Court imposed on Atty. Ramil E. Macalalad the penalty of SIX (6) MONTHS SUSPENSION from the practice of law for violations of Rule 16.03 and Rule 18.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, effective upon finality of this Decision.  Atty. Macalalad was STERNLY WARNED that a repetition of the same or similar acts will be dealt with more severely. Atty. Macalalad was also ORDERED to RETURN to Atty. Elmer C. Solidon the amount of Fifty Thousand Pesos (P50,000.00) with interest of twelve percent (12%) per annum from the date of promulgation of this Decision until the full amount is returned. Thus:

X x x.

The Court’s Ruling

We agree with the IBP’s factual findings and legal conclusions.

In administrative cases against lawyers, the quantum of proof required is preponderance of evidence which the complainant has the burden to discharge.[1]  We fully considered the evidence presented and we are fully satisfied that the complainant’s evidence, as outlined above, fully satisfies the required quantum of proof in proving Atty. Macalalad’s negligence. 

Rule 18.03, Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility provides for the rule on negligence and states:

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

This Court has consistently held, in construing this Rule, that the mere failure of the lawyer to perform the obligations due to the client is considered per se a violation. 
Thus, in Villafuerte v. Cortez,[2] we held that a lawyer is negligent if he failed to do anything to protect his client’s interest after receiving his acceptance fee. In In Re: Atty. Briones,[3] we ruled that the failure of the counsel to submit the required brief within the reglementary period (to the prejudice of his client who languished in jail for more than a year) is an offense that warrants disciplinary action. In Garcia v. Atty. Manuel, we penalized a lawyer for failing to inform the client of the status of the case, among other matters.[4]  

Subsequently, in Reyes v. Vitan,[5] we reiterated that the act of receiving money as acceptance fee for legal services in handling the complainant’s case and, subsequently, in failing to render the services, is a clear violation of Canon 18 of the Code of Professional Responsibility.  We made the same conclusion in Canoy v. Ortiz[6] where we emphatically stated that the lawyer’s failure to file the position paper was per se a violation of Rule 18.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility.  

The circumstance that the client was also at fault does not exonerate a lawyer from liability for his negligence in handling a case.  In Canoy, we accordingly declared that the lawyer cannot shift the blame to his client for failing to follow up on his case because it was the lawyer’s duty to inform his client of the status of the case.[7]  Our rulings in Macarilay v. Seriña,[8] in Heirs of Ballesteros v. Apiag,[9] and in Villaflores v. Limos[10] were of the same tenor.  In Villaflores, we opined that even if the client has been equally at fault for the lack of communication, the main responsibility remains with the lawyer to inquire and know the best means to acquire the required information.  We held that as between the client and his lawyer, the latter has more control in handling the case. 

All these rulings drive home the fiduciary nature of a lawyer’s duty to his client once an engagement for legal services is accepted. A lawyer so engaged to represent a client bears the responsibility of protecting the latter’s interest with utmost diligence.[11]  The lawyer bears the duty to serve his client with competence and diligence, and to exert his best efforts to protect, within the bounds of the law, the interest of his or her client.[12]  Accordingly, competence, not only in the knowledge of law, but also in the management of the cases by giving these cases appropriate attention and due preparation, is expected from a lawyer.[13]

The records in this case tell us that Atty. Macalalad failed to act as he committed when he failed to file the required petition.  He cannot now shift the blame to his clients since it was his duty as a lawyer to communicate with them.  At any rate, we reject Atty. Macalalad’s defense that it was his clients who failed to contact him. Although no previous communication transpired between Atty. Macalalad and his clients, the records nevertheless show that Atty. Solidon, who contracted Atty. Macalalad’s services in behalf of his relatives, tried his best to reach him prior to the filing of the present disbarment case. Atty. Solidon even enlisted the aid of Ms. Cabo-Borata to follow-up on the status of the registration application with Atty. Macalalad. 

As narrated by Ms. Cabo-Borata in her affidavit,[14] she succeeded several times in getting in touch with Atty. Macalalad and on those occasions asked him about the progress of the case.  To use Ms. Cabo-Borata’s own words, she received “no clear-cut answers from him”; he just informed her that everything was “on process.”  We give credence to these narrations considering Atty. Macalalad’s failure to contradict them or deny their veracity, in marked contrast with his vigorous denial of Atty. Solidon’s allegations.

We consider, too, that other motivating factors – specifically, the monetary consideration and the fixed period of performance – should have made it more imperative for Atty. Macalalad to promptly take action and initiate communication with his clients.  He had been given initial payment and should have at least undertaken initial delivery of his part of the engagement.

We further find that Atty. Macalalad’s conduct refutes his claim of willingness to perform his obligations.  If Atty. Macalalad truly wanted to file the petition, he could have acquired the necessary information from Atty. Solidon to enable him to file the petition even pending the IBP Commission on Bar Discipline investigation.  As matters now stand, he did not take any action to initiate communication.  These omissions unequivocally point to Atty. Macalalad’s lack of due care that now warrants disciplinary action.

In addition to the above finding of negligence, we also find           Atty. Macalalad guilty of violating Rule 16.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility which requires a lawyer to account for all the money received from the client.  In this case, Atty. Macalalad did not immediately account for and promptly return the money he received from Atty. Solidon even after he failed to render any legal service within the contracted time of the engagement.[15]

X x x.

[1] Asa v. Castillo, A.C. No. 6501, August 31, 2006, 500 SCRA 309, 322.
[2] A.C. No. 3455, April 14, 1998, 288 SCRA 687, 690; cited in Pineda, LEGAL AND JUDICIAL ETHICS, p. 235 (1999 edition).
[3] A.C. No. 5486, August 15, 2001, 363 SCRA 1, 5.
[4] 443 Phil. 479, 486 (2003).
[5] 496 Phil. 1, 4 (2005).
[6] A.C. No. 5485, March 16, 2005, 453 SCRA 410, 418.
[7] Id. at  421.
[8] 497 Phil 348, 360 (2005), cited in Heirs of Ballesteros v. Apiag, A.C. No. 5760, September 30, 2005, 471 SCRA 111, 123.
[9]  A.C. No. 5760, September 30, 2005, 471 SCRA 111, 123.
[10] A.C. No. 7504, November 23, 2007, 538 SCRA 140,149.
[11] Enriquez v. San Jose, A.C. No. 3569, February 23, 2007, 516 SCRA 486, 489-490.
[12] Id. at 490.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Rollo, pp. 82-83.
[15] Villanueva v. Atty. Gonzales, A.C. No. 7657, February 12, 2008, 544 SCRA 410, 415.