MAKING SENSE OUT OF CONFLICTING (CONFUSING?) COURT DECISIONS

MAKING SENSE OUT OF CONFLICTING (CONFUSING?) COURT DECISIONS

By Atty. Manuel A. Quiambao

 

The law is what the Supreme Court says it is.

This legal adage springs from the nature of our
government.  While it is congress that
enacts or passes a law, it is the court that interprets it. Sometimes, the
interpretation represents the true intent or spirit of the law as originally
contemplated by the lawmakers. Sometimes, it does not.

But regardless of application,
the important thing is to have consistency in the court’s rulings. This is
because the ability of people to ascertain what the law is rests on the
uniformity by which this law is applied. 
You don’t need rocket science to explain this. People want to be certain
that when the facts arising from a particular case are identical with past
issues already ruled upon by the court, they expect that a similar ruling will
be carried out. You call that legal precedent.

When that doesn’t happen, people are perplexed. When there is
apparent contradiction in the way the court resolves controversies, they lose
faith in the competency of the court to perform its bounden duty. Worse, they
see that as a failing of the entire justice system.

This problem about lack of consistency in court rulings is
perhaps most pronounced in cases involving labor disputes.

Consider this:

 In 2009, the Supreme
Court ruled that one solitary act of gross negligence justifies the termination
of an employee. Such was the pronouncement in the case of LBC Express v. Mateo.
It was important because it gave a logical application to what appeared to be
an absurd rule under Art 282 of the Labor Code that requires that negligence
must be both gross and habitual before it can be invoked in the termination of
an employee. This was in June.

A month later, in July, 2009,   the same court did a complete turnaround and
said that to justify termination in cases of negligence, it must be both gross
and habitual (Abelardo Abel v. Philex Mining). Here’s what the court actually
stated in the case: “The single or
isolated act of negligence does not constitute a just cause for the dismissal
of the employee”,
stressing the need for habituality as a principal
requisite in dismissing the employee.

Here is another one.

Under the old rules, workers who strike or engage in any kind
of concerted activity even without complying with the requisites of the law are
not liable provided it can be shown that they were motivated by good faith
(Ferrer v. CIR ; Phil Metal Foundries v. CIR, and continued even well after the
adoption of the Labor Code in the case of Pepsi-Cola Labor Union v. NLRC).

But this good faith doctrine in strike cases was abandoned in
First City Interlink Transportation v. Nieves Roldan-Confesor, when the court
rightly said that even if the Union acted in good faith, the procedural
requirements like notice, cooling off, and strike vote, must be complied with
otherwise the strike is illegal. A subsequent case (Lapanday Workers Union v.
NLRC) stated the obvious, that is, that procedural requirements for a valid
strike under the Labor Code are mandatory and therefore, good faith as a
defense against a charge of unlawful strike is no longer available to strikers.

Well, guess what. In A. Soriano Aviation Corporation v. A.
Soriano Aviation Employees Association, decided only recently, the court
adverted to this good faith doctrine as
if it continues to remain as a valid ground to evade liability for an unlawful
strike
.

Worse, the principal pronouncement in the said case is a lot
more troubling. In it, the court said that any illegal act committed during a
strike immediately attaches illegality to the activity. In the process, it
discarded the rule that liability for the commission of an illegal act in a
strike situation is not collective but individual, as well as that other rule
that illegal acts, to constitute as a basis for declaring a strike illegal,
must be widespread, rampant or pervasive, that is, deliberately employed by the
union as a matter of policy or strategy.

Other cases are just as inexplicable.  Take project employment for instance. A
long line of decisions on this subject has already cemented the rule that while
project employment does not entitle the employee to become a regular employee,
the repeated rehiring of the employee on a succession of similar projects will
extend to the employee the status of a regular employee (Maraguinot v. NLRC;
etc.) But in the 2010 case of William Uy Construction Corporation v. Jorge,
citing the case of Caseres v. Universal Robina Sugar Milling Corporation,  the Court said exactly the opposite,
saying that “…the repeated and successive
rehiring of project employees do not qualify them as regular employees, as
length of service is not the controlling determinant of the employment tenure
of a project employee.”

But the classic in inconsistency, or judicial legislation if
you may, is the case of the rule in probationary employment. In article 281 of
the labor code, the law is explicit is saying that probationary employment
shall not exceed six months. The Court struck down that codal rule in many
decisions, among them the case of Boiser v. NLRC where it inexplicably
considered 18 months of probation as valid in the work of those whose key job
objective was to solicit advertisement for the yellow pages.

In a recent decision involving Rustan Supermarkets, the court
laid down the rule that there must be proportionality between offense committed
and penalty imposed as it overturned the action of the company, stating that
termination for an employee who had rendered over 30 years of service was in
effect, unconscionable.

This is well and good except that in the case of Reno Foods, Inc. vs. Nagkakaisang Lakas ng Manggagawa (NLM),
decided just a year ago,
it paid no heed to the seniority of the
employee on the job and ruled for termination even if the factual antecedents
of the case was somewhat similar to that of Romales. In fact, it derided length
of service as a basis for any consideration saying that “…Length of service is not a bargaining chip that can simply be stacked
against the employer. After all, an employer-employee relationship is symbiotic
where both parties benefit from mutual loyalty and dedicated service.”

It used to be that when there is a close shop provision in
the CBA, the bargaining representative/winner of certification election can
demand that even old employees who are not affiliated with any union at the
time of the signing of the CBA must sign up with it as member otherwise it can
rightfully demand their termination from the company under a union security
clause (Juat v. CIR; Freemen shirt v. NLRC). This old ruling, unfair to begin
with, was supposed to have been abandoned in subsequent decisions of the court
involving the same subject matter.

But it doesn’t seem to be the case now. In BPI v. BPI
Employees Assn of Davao, the court appeared to have back slided to the old
rule, side stepping a dissenting opinion of Justice Antonio Carpio that
reiterated the prevailing jurisprudence regarding the issue.

There are other confusing if not actually conflicting
decisions but the point is clear; we cannot have many deviations in court
rulings and  expect the people to be
guided appropriately in determining what the law is in a given situation.

This is not to demean the court in any way.  But labor cases are a different matter. Everyday,
hundreds of cases are filed before the NLRC. They arise from disputes that mark
the often contentious relationship between management and labor.  We need to approach such conflicts in a
manner that will convince adversarial parties of the majesty of the law, not
the checkered type of judgments that leave everyone breathless with
anticipation as to how the court is going to decide a particular question of
law.

 When doctrinal rulings
do not hold and are reversed every so often by the court, it emboldens losing
litigants to continue fighting for even the silliest of cases in the hope that
the court may just decide to sustain them. Thus, the court is clogged with
labor cases, because it has become clear that pursuing cases has ceased to be a
matter of evidence or merit. It has become a game of chance.

(The author is the
Corporate Secretary and Associate Dean of the Law School
of Jose Rizal University. A Bar Reviewer in Labor Law, he is legal counsel to
several companies, including a number of multi-national corporations.)

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