Seares: Supreme Court suspends for 2 years Cebu lawyer who's been in practice for 44 years. Reverses IBP finding of Board of Governors, which found he 'committed no unethical conduct.' He did, the high court says.

Seares: Supreme Court suspends for 2 years Cebu lawyer who's been in practice for 44 years. Reverses IBP finding of Board of Governors, which found he 'committed no unethical conduct.' He did, the high court says.

PREVIOUSLY, ON THE CASE. On July 18, 2011, Maricel Algabre filed before the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) a complaint against Cebu lawyer Atty. Federico C. Cabilao Jr. for violation of the lawyer's oath and the Code of Professional Responsibility (CPR).

Algabre hired Atty. Cabilao to defend her in an estafa case filed against her in 2007 by Emmanuel P. Roden. As she was working abroad, she didn't receive the subpoena and notices during preliminary investigation and thus was issued a warrant for her arrest.

The lawyer-client relations between Cabilao and Algabre "soured" over the handling of cash Algabre paid for the case and other tasks such as securing her professional driver's license, registration of her corporation for a business she planned to set up in Cebu, and the purchase of his car. They bickered over payments made to the Roden in the estafa case and the price of Cabilao's car which, she alleged, the lawyer overpriced.

The feud reached the point where Algabre terminated Cabilao on June 9, 2011 as her lawyer and three days later demanded the return of P140,000 cash she said she had over-paid the lawyer, broken down thus: P100,000 for the car, P35,000 for the estafa case, and P5,000 for her driver's license.

On June 11, 2011, Atty. Cabilao sent Algabre a liquidation report and a May 19, 2011 billing statement, stating she owed him P220,000. Two days later, Algabre repeated her demand for the return of P140,000.

On July 13, Algabre received a subpoena from the Cebu City prosecutor in a separate case of estafa the lawyer filed against her own client, Algabre, for not returning his car, supported by a case of replevin with damages and attorney's fees. And the writ of replevin was issued to Atty. Cabilao for his car.

The relationship was messy: with lawyer and client embroiled in a fight other than the case for which the attorney was hired.

WHAT JUST HAPPENED. This week, the SC first division released its decision -- though it was promulgated on April 26, 2023 yet -- in Algabre vs. Atty. Cabilao. The ruling reversed the acquittal by the IBP board of governors and adopted the finding of "unethical conduct" by the IBP investigator but raised the penalty of Cabilao's suspension as a lawyer from one year to two years.

LAWYER VS. CLIENT. Client Algabre hired Atty. Cabilao who later sued his client Algrabe over money she paid for the lawyer's services. Expectedly, the two protagonists -- though they were supposed to be on the same side -- tangled, each with a version of the facts and the law.

IBP INVESTIGATOR'S, GOVERNORS' FINDINGS. The investigating officer of IBP said some issues could've been avoided had Atty. Cabilao prepared written agreements signed by Algabre and hadn't relied on acknowledgment receipts. The investigator found violations and concluded that Cabilao was "negligent as a lawyer," prompting the recommendation for Cabilao's suspension for one year.

The IBP Board of Governors on February 28, 2020 adopted the investigator's recommendation of December 4, 2020.

Atty. Cabilao filed a motion for reconsideration dated December 14, 2020, disputing the finding of negligence on the lawyer's part, denying he encouraged his client to evade arrest by warrant, declaring his estafa case had basis as the prosecutor and Department of Justice found probable cause to indict, and denying he told his client Algabre they could secure a driver's license without her appearance before the Land Transportation Office.

The IBP Board of Governors granted Cabilao's motion for reconsideration and declared he "committed no unethical conduct" in its June 5, 2021 resolution and June 22, 2021 extended resolution.

The SC, as it turned out, did not agree with the IBP board.

CANONS, RULES VIOLATED. The SC, basing on "facts presented," said there's "reason to believe," Atty. Cabilao violated provisions of Code of Professional Responsibility, namely:

-- Canon 1, on lawyer's responsibility "to obey the Constitution, obey the laws of the land, and promote respect for law and legal processes";

-- Canon 15, on lawyer's duty to "observe, candor, fairness and loyalty" in his dealings with his clients;

-- Canon 16, to "hold in trust all moneys and properties of his client that my come into his possession";

-- Canon 19, on representing the client "with zeal within the bounds of law";

-- and these four rules, (1) not to counsel or abet activities aimed to defy the law or lessen confidence in the legal system; (2) not, for any corrupt motive, to encourage any suit or delay any man's cause; (3) to impress upon his client compliance with the laws and principles and fairness; and (4) not to neglect a legal matter entrusted to him and being liable for his negligence in handling it.

WHAT THE CASE TELLS PUBLIC: It's all about caring, and being responsible, for the client's case entrusted to the lawyer; obeying the laws of the land and encouraging his client and others to do the same; and discharging faithfully the duties of a trustee with respect to monies and properties the client entrusts to the lawyer.

Looking at "the facts" brought before it, the SC:

* Believed the version of the IBP investigator, which said Atty. Cabilao was guilty of "unethical conduct";

* Rejected the version of the IBP Board of Governors, which cleared Atty. Cabilao of any liability.

SC SAYS NO TO DISBARMENT. The high court said Algabre prayed for the lawyer's disbarment but the SC said "no," citing Anacay vs. Alberto (2021), which ruled that "disbarment, jurisprudence teaches, should not be decreed where any punishment less severe, such as reprimand, suspension, or fine, would accomplish the end desired." The ruling noted "the consequence of disbarment on the economic life and honor of the erring person."

The SC acknowledged that Atty. Cabilao has been practicing law "for around 44 years already" and was in half-retirement when Covid-19 struck. He got a "stern warning" though that "a repetition of any of the infractions... or any similar act" may be penalized more heavily or more severely.


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