Monday, November 14, 2011

Liability of corporate directors and officers - G.R. No. 145817

G.R. No. 145817

"x x x.


The corporate officers and directors of Urban Bank are not solidarily or personally liable with their properties for the corporate liability of Urban Bank to Atty. Peña.

The obligation to pay Peña’s compensation, however, falls solely on Urban Bank. Absent any proof that individual petitioners as bank officers acted in bad faith or with gross negligence or assented to a patently unlawful act, they cannot be held solidarily liable together with the corporation for services performed by the latter’s agent to secure possession of the Pasay property. Thus, the trial court had indeed committed grave abuse of discretion when it issued a ruling against the eight individual defendant bank directors and officers and its Decision should be absolutely reversed and set aside.

A corporation, as a juridical entity, may act only through its directors, officers and employees.[286] Obligations incurred as a result of the acts of the directors and officers as corporate agents are not their personal liabilities but those of the corporation they represent.[287] To hold a director or an officer personally liable for corporate obligations, two requisites must concur: (1) the complainant must allege in the complaint that the director or officer assented to patently unlawful acts of the corporation, or that the officer was guilty of gross negligence or bad faith; and (2) the complainant must clearly and convincingly prove such unlawful acts, negligence or bad faith.[288] “To hold a director, a trustee or an officer personally liable for the debts of the corporation and, thus, pierce the veil of corporate fiction, bad faith or gross negligence by the director, trustee or officer in directing the corporate affairs must be established clearly and convincingly.”[289]

Peña failed to allege and convincingly show that individual defendant bank directors and officers assented to patently unlawful acts of the bank, or that they were guilty of gross negligence or bad faith. Contrary to his claim, the Complaint[290] in the lower court never alleged that individual defendants acquiesced to an unlawful act or were grossly negligent or acted in bad faith.[291] Neither is there any specific allegation of gross negligence or action in bad faith that is attributable to the individual defendants in performance of their official duties.

In any event, Peña did not adduce any proof that the eight individual defendants performed unlawful acts or were grossly negligent or in bad faith. Aside from the general allegation that they were corporate officers or members of the board of directors of Urban Bank, no specific acts were alleged and proved to warrant a finding of solidary liability. At most, petitioners Borlongan, Bejasa and Manuel were identified as those who had processed the agency agreement with Peña through their telephone conversations with him and/or written authorization letter.

Aside from Borlongan, Bejasa and Manuel, Atty. Peña in the complaint pointed to no specific act or circumstance to justify the inclusion of Delfin C. Gonzalez, Jr., Benjamin L. de Leon, P. Siervo H. Dizon, Eric L. Lee, and Ben T. Lim, Jr., except for the fact that they were members of the Board of Directors of Urban Bank at that time. That the five other members of the Board of Directors were excluded from Peña’s complaint highlights the peculiarity of their inclusion. What is more, the complaint mistakenly included Ben Y. Lim, Jr., who had not even been a member of the Board of Directors of Urban Bank. In any case, his father and namesake, Ben T. Lim, Sr., who had been a director of the bank at that time, had already passed away in 1997.

In ruling for the solidary liability of the other bank directors, the decision of the trial court hinged solely on the purported admission of Arturo Manuel, Jr., that the transactions with Atty. Peña were approved by the Board of Directors:

In this case, plaintiff testified as to the personal participation of defendants Ted Borlongan and Corazon Bejasa in the subject transaction. On the other hand, with respect to the other defendants, it was the defendants themselves, through witness Arturo Manuel, Jr., who admitted that all the transactions involved in this case were approved by the board of directors. Thus, the court has sufficient basis to hold the directors jointly and severally liable with defendant Urban Bank, Inc.[292] (Emphasis supplied)

The Decision of the RTC-Bago City must be utterly rejected on this point because its conclusion of any cause of action, much less actual legal liability on the part of Urban Bank’s corporate officers and directors are shorn of any factual finding. That they assented to the transactions of the bank with respect to Atty. Peña’s services without any showing that these corporate actions were patently unlawful or that the officers were guilty of gross negligence or bad faith is insufficient to hold them solidarily liable with Urban Bank. It seems absurd that the trial court will hold the impleaded selected members of the Board of Directors only, but not the others who also purportedly approved the transactions. Neither is the reason behind the finding of “solidariness” with Urban Bank in such liability explained at all. It is void for completely being devoid of facts and the law on which the finding of liability is based.

The Court of Appeals correctly rejected the claim of personal liability against the individual petitioners when it held as follows:

The plaintiff-appellee’s complaint before the court a quo does not point to any particular act of either one or all of the defendants-appellants that will subject them to personal liability. His complaint merely asserts that defendant Borlongan and Atty. Bejasa acted for and in behalf of Urban Bank in securing his services in protecting the bank’s newly acquired property. Hence, We cannot allow the same.[293]

Peña had argued that individual defendant bank directors and officers should be held personally and solidarily liable with petitioner-respondent bank, since they failed to argue for limited corporate liability.[294] The trial court subscribed to his reasoning and held that the failure to resort to the said defense constituted a waiver on the part of individual defendants.[295] The Court is not persuaded.

As the complainant on the trial court level, Peña carried the burden of proving that the eight individual defendants performed specific acts that would make them personally liable for the obligations of the corporation. This he failed to do. He cannot capitalize on their alleged failure to offer a defense, when he had not discharged his responsibility of establishing their personal liabilities in the first place. This Court cannot sustain the individual liabilities of the bank officers when Peña, at the onset, has not persuasively demonstrated their assent to patently unlawful acts of the bank, or that they were guilty of gross negligence or bad faith, regardless of the weaknesses of the defenses raised. This is too basic a requirement that this Court must demand sufficient proof before we can disregard the separate legal personality of the corporation from its offices.

Hence, only Urban Bank, not individual defendants, is liable to pay Peña’s compensation for services he rendered in securing possession of the Pasay property. Its liability in this case is, however, without prejudice to its possible claim against ISCI for reimbursement under their separate agreements.

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