Friday, March 9, 2012

Illegal dismissal; prescriptive period for injury to one' rights is 4 years, Art. 1146, Civil Code . - G.R. No. 185463

G.R. No. 185463

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          The dispute is the period of prescription of action for illegal dismissal. It will be noticed that in their Motion to Dismiss before the NLRC, petitioners allege that the prescriptive period to be applied should be three (3) years from the time the cause of action accrued in accordance with the Labor Code.  However, in their petition before this Court, they changed their stand and alleged that the applicable provision should be that which is stated in the POEA Standard Employment Contract for Filipino Seamen because seafarers are not regular employees and as such, are not covered by the Labor Code.

          In Callanta v. Carnation Philippines, Inc.,[13] this Court ruled that actions based on injury to rights prescribe in four (4) years under Article 1146 of the Civil Code rather than three (3) years as provided for the Labor Code. An action for damages involving a plaintiff separated from his employment for alleged unjustifiable causes is one for “injury to the rights of the plaintiff, and must be brought within four (4) years.”[14]  Private respondent had gone to the Labor Arbiter on a charge, fundamentally, of illegal dismissal, of which his money claims form but an incidental part.  Essentially, his complaint is one for “injury to rights” arising from his forced disembarkation.[15]   Thus, Article 1146 is the applicable provision.  It provides:

Art. 1146. The following actions must be instituted within four years:

          (1) Upon an injury to the rights of the plaintiff;
          (2) Upon a quasi-delict;
         
          It is a principle in American jurisprudence which, undoubtedly, is well-recognized in this jurisdiction that one’s employment, profession, trade or calling is a “property right,” and the wrongful interference therewith is an actionable wrong.[16]  The right is considered to be property within the protection of a constitutional guaranty of due process of law.[17]  Clearly then, when one is arbitrarily and unjustly deprived of his job or means of livelihood, the action instituted to contest the legality of one’s dismissal from employment constitutes, in essence, an action predicated “upon an injury to the rights of the plaintiff,” as contemplated under Art. 1146 of the New Civil Code, which must be brought within four (4) years.[18]

          As in other causes of action, the prescriptive period for money claims is subject to interruption, and in view of the absence of an equivalent Labor Code provision for determining when said period may be interrupted, Article 1155 of the Civil Code is applicable.  It states that:

Article 1155.  The prescription of actions is interrupted when they are filed before the Court, when    there is written extra-judicial demand by the creditors, and when there is any written acknowledgment of the debt by the debtor.

          Records reveal that after his disembarkation from the vessel “MV Kyushu Spirit” on 6 December 2000, private respondent filed on 28 May 2001 a complaint for illegal dismissal before the Arbitration Branch of the NLRC.  His complaint was dismissed by the Labor Arbiter on the same date. In accordance with Section 16, Rule V of the NLRC Rules of Procedure[19], private respondent can re-file a case in the Arbitration Branch of origin. Since the filing of his first complaint on 28 May 2001 tolled the running of the period of prescription, both the NLRC and the CA were correct in ruling that the filing of respondent’s second complaint with money claims on 13 December 2004 was clearly filed on time. 

          The determination of the amount of claims or benefits to which private respondent may be entitled requires factual inquiry that devolves upon the Labor Arbiter.  Considering that the case was dismissed through a minute resolution, the case, as correctly ruled by the NLRC and affirmed by the CA, should be referred back to the Arbitration Branch of NLRC for the reception of evidence.
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