ON JAN. 3, 2002, Legacy Plans Philippines Inc., hired petitioner Eric V. Chuanico as assistant vice-president for legal services under the supervision of Atty. Christine A. Cruz, senior vice-president. In the same year, Legacy Plans merged with Consolidated Plans Philippines, Inc. to become Legacy Consolidated Plans, Inc., the respondent in this case.

On Oct. 17, 2002, Atty. Cruz wrote petitioner a memorandum requiring him to explain why no administrative action should be taken against him for mishandling two cases. In the first case, he was supposed to draft an answer to a complaint for Bank of East Asia but he belatedly drafted a haphazard one that he gave to the handling lawyers without coursing it through his superiors. In the second case, he was required to prepare a complaint-affidavit for the Rural Bank of Parañaque against a certain De Rama but he failed to do so.

On Dec. 5, 2002, the respondent dismissed the petitioner effective Dec. 20, 2002 for serious misconduct, willful disobedience to lawful orders, gross and habitual neglect of duties and willful breach of trust. Is the dismissal justified?

Supreme Court (Third Division) Ruling: No.

TO BE a valid cause for dismissal, the loss of trust must be based on a willful breach of such trust and founded on clearly established facts. The company charged Atty. Chuanico with having mishandled two things that were assigned to him, the drafting of an answer in one and the preparation of a complaint affidavit in the other. It failed to present proof, however, of such mishandling.

In the first case, the charge is that the draft-answer Atty. Chuanico prepared for Bank of East Asia was so haphazardly done that the lawyers assigned to handle them had to prepare another answer that was eventually filed in court. Yet, as the labor arbiter (LA) found, Legacy Consolidated did not bother to present the draft-answer Atty. Chuanico prepared and demonstrate why it regarded the same as haphazardly done.

Besides, as Atty. Chuanico said, he was given only one day within which to finish the draft-answer and Legacy Consolidated did not contest this fact. Consequently, he could not be expected to do more than an adequate pleading.

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In the second case, Legacy Consolidated accused Atty. Chuanico of failing to prepare a complaint-affidavit against a certain De Rama. Atty. Chuanico denied that the matter had been assigned to him. Yet, as the LA and the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) noted, Legacy Consolidated did not bother to present some note or logbook to refute this denial. It only presented the sworn statement of the office secretary, supposedly competent, who relied merely on her memory for ascertaining individual work assignments in a law practice that served a number of affiliated companies.

Besides, Atty. Amparo, the former handling lawyer of the Rural Bank case, said in his sworn statement that he had been unable to prepare the required complaint-affidavit because the bank could not produce a witness against De Rama. Atty. Amparo further added that it was to Atty. Cruz, not to Atty. Chuanico, that he turned over the Rural Bank’s case.

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Lastly, Atty. Chuanico was dismissed due to willful breach of trust. Settled is the rule, however, that under Article 282 (c) of the Labor Code, the breach of trust must be willful. Ordinary breach will not be enough. A breach is willful if it is done intentionally and knowingly without any justifiable excuse, as distinguished from an act done carelessly, thoughtlessly or inadvertently. Willful breach was not proved in this case (Eric V. Chuanico vs. Legacy Consolidated Plans, Inc., G.R. No. 181852, Oct. 9, 2013).