Friday, July 20, 2012

Unlawful detainer; how to count 1-year demand G.R. No. 194880

G.R. No. 194880

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Whether or not petitioners’ action for unlawful detainer was brought within one year after the unlawful withholding of possession will determine whether it was properly filed with the MeTC. If, as petitioners argue, the one-year period should be counted from respondent Sunvar’s receipt on 03 February 2009 of the Final Notice to Vacate, then their Complaint was timely filed within the one-year period and appropriately taken cognizance of by the MeTC. However, if the reckoning period is pegged from the expiration of the main lease contract and/or sublease agreement, then petitioners’ proper remedy should have been an accion publiciana to be filed with the RTC.
The Court finds that petitioners correctly availed themselves of an action for unlawful detainer and, hence, reverses the ruling of the RTC.
Under the Rules of Court, lessors against whom possession of any land is unlawfully withheld after the expiration of the right to hold possession may – by virtue of any express or implied contract, and within one year after the unlawful deprivation – bring an action in the municipal trial court against the person unlawfully withholding possession, for restitution of possession with damages and costs.[60]Unless otherwise stipulated, the action of the lessor shall commence only after a demand to pay or to comply with the conditions of the lease and to vacate is made upon the lessee; or after a written notice of that demand is served upon the person found on the premises, and the lessee fails to comply therewith within 15 days in the case of land or 5 days in the case of buildings.[61]
In Delos Reyes v. Spouses Odenes,[62] the Court recently defined the nature and scope of an unlawful detainer suit, as follows:
Unlawful detainer is an action to recover possession of real property from one who illegally withholds possession after the expiration or termination of his right to hold possession under any contract, express or implied. The possession by the defendant in unlawful detainer is originally legal but became illegal due to the expiration or termination of the right to possess. The proceeding is summary in nature, jurisdiction over which lies with the proper MTC or metropolitan trial court. The action must be brought up within one year from the date of last demand, and the issue in the case must be the right to physical possession. (Emphasis supplied.)
Hence, a complaint sufficiently alleges a cause of action for unlawful detainer if it states the following elements:
1.       Initially, the possession of the property by the defendant was by contract with or by tolerance of the plaintiff.

2.       Eventually, the possession became illegal upon the plaintiff’s notice to the defendant of the termination of the latter’s right of possession.

3.       Thereafter, the defendant remained in possession of the property and deprived the plaintiff of the latter’s enjoyment.

4.       Within one year from the making of the last demand on the defendant to vacate the property, the plaintiff instituted the Complaint for ejectment.[63]
“On the other hand, accion publiciana is the plenary action to recover the right of possession which should be brought in the proper regional trial court when dispossession has lasted for more than one year. It is an ordinary civil proceeding to determine the better right of possession of realty independently of title. In other words, if at the time of the filing of the complaint, more than one year had elapsed since defendant had turned plaintiff out of possession or defendant’s possession had become illegal, the action will be, not one of forcible entry or illegal detainer, but an accion publiciana.[64]
There are no substantial disagreements with respect to the first three requisites for an action for unlawful detainer. Respondent Sunvar initially derived its right to possess the subject property from its sublease agreements with TRCFI and later on with PDAF. However, with the expiration of the lease agreements on 31 December 2002, respondent lost possessory rights over the subject property. Nevertheless, it continued occupying the property for almost seven years thereafter. It was only on 03 February 2009 that petitioners made a final demand upon respondent Sunvar to turn over the property. What is disputed, however, is the fourth requisite of an unlawful detainer suit.
The Court rules that the final requisite is likewise availing in this case, and that the one-year period should be counted from the final demand made on 03 February 2009.
Contrary to the reasoning of the RTC,[65] the one-year period to file an unlawful detainer case is not counted from the expiration of the lease contract on 31 December 2002. Indeed, the last demand for petitioners to vacate is the reckoning period for determining the one-year period in an action for unlawful detainer. “Such one year period should be counted from the date of plaintiff’s last demand on defendant to vacate the real property, because only upon the lapse of that period does the possession become unlawful.”[66]
In case several demands to vacate are made, the period is          reckoned from the date of the last demand.[67] In Leonin v. Court of                  Appeals,[68] the Court, speaking through Justice Conchita Carpio Morales, reckoned the one-year period to file the unlawful detainer Complaint – filed on 25 February 1997 – from the latest demand letter dated 24 October 1996, and not from the earlier demand letter dated 03 July 1995:
Prospero Leonin (Prospero) and five others were co-owners of a 400-square meter property located at K-J Street, East Kamias, Quezon City whereon was constructed a two-storey house and a three-door apartment identified as No. 1-A, B, and C.  

Prospero and his co-owners allowed his siblings, herein petitioners, to occupy Apartment C without paying any rentals.

x x x                            x x x                            x x x

Petitioners further contend that respondent’s remedy is accion publiciana because their possession is not de facto, they having been authorized by the true and lawful owners of the property; and that one year had elapsed from respondent’s demand given on “July 3, 1995” when the unlawful detainer complaint was filed.

The petition fails.

Contrary to petitioners’ contention, the allegations in the complaint make out a case for unlawful detainer. Thus, respondent alleged, inter alia, that she is the registered owner of the property and that petitioners, who are tenants by tolerance, refused to vacate the premises despite the notice to vacate sent to them.  

Likewise, contrary to petitioners’ contention, the one-year period for filing a complaint for unlawful detainer is reckoned from the date of the last demand, in this case October 24, 1996, the reason being that the lessor has the right to waive his right of action based on previous demands and let the lessee remain meanwhile in the premises. Thus, the filing of the complaint on February 25, 1997 was well within the one year reglementary period.[69] (Emphasis supplied.)
From the time that the main lease contract and sublease agreements expired (01 January 2003), respondent Sunvar no longer had any possessory right over the subject property. Absent any express contractual renewal of the sublease agreement or any separate lease contract, it illegally occupied the land or, at best, was allowed to do so by mere tolerance of the registered owners – petitioners herein. Thus, respondent Sunvar’s possession became unlawful upon service of the final notice on 03 February 2009. Hence, as an unlawful occupant of the land of petitioners, and without any contract between them, respondent is “necessarily bound by an implied promise” that it “will vacate upon demand, failing which a summary action for ejectment is the proper remedy against them.”[70] Upon service of the final notice of demand, respondent Sunvar should have vacated the property and, consequently, petitioners had one year or until 02 February 2010 in which to resort to the summary action for unlawful detainer. In the instant case, their Complaint was filed with the MeTC on 23 July 2009, which was well within the one-year period.
The Court is aware that petitioners had earlier served a Notice to Vacate on 22 February 2008, which could have possibly tolled the one-year period for filing an unlawful detainer suit. Nevertheless, they can be deemed to have waived their right of action against respondent Sunvar and continued to tolerate its occupation of the subject property. That they sent a final Notice to Vacate almost a year later gave respondent another opportunity to comply with their implied promise as occupants by mere tolerance. Consequently, the one-year period for filing a summary action for unlawful detainer with the MeTC must be reckoned from the latest demand to vacate.
In the past, the Court ruled that subsequent demands that are merely in the nature of reminders of the original demand do not operate to renew the one-year period within which to commence an ejectment suit, considering that the period will still be reckoned from the date of the original demand.[71] If the subsequent demands were merely in the nature of reminders of the original demand, the one-year period to commence an ejectment suit would be counted from the first demand.[72] However, respondent failed to raise in any of the proceedings below this question of fact as to the nature of the second demand issued by the OSG. It is now too late in the proceedings for them to argue that the 2009 Notice to Vacate was a mere reiteration or reminder of the 2008 Notice to Vacate. In any event, this factual determination is beyond the scope of the present Rule 45 Petition, which is limited to resolving questions of law.
The Court notes that respondent Sunvar has continued to occupy the subject property since the expiration of its sublease on 31 December 2002. The factual issue of whether respondent has paid rentals to petitioners from the expiration of the sublease to the present was never raised or sufficiently argued before this Court. Nevertheless, it has not escaped the Court’s attention that almost a decade has passed without any resolution of this controversy regarding respondent’s possession of the subject property, contrary to the aim of expeditious proceedings under the Revised Rules on Summary Procedure. With the grant of the instant Petition and the remand of the case to the MeTC for continued hearing, the Court emphasizes the duty of the lower court to speedily resolve this matter once and for all, especially since this case involves a prime property of the government located in the country’s business district and the various opportunities for petitioners to gain public revenues from the property.
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