Thursday, October 03, 2013

Can an employee file a case of constructive dismissal and yet continue reporting for work?

Plain Language summary:

Case title:The Orchard Golf and Country Club vs. Amelia R Francisco,” G.R. No. 178125, March 2013

Issue: How can an employee file a labor case for constructive dismissal and at the same time continue reporting for work?

Ruling: Constructive dismissal does not occur when the employee stops reporting for work, but when the employer commits acts that make continued employment intolerable.

In difficult times, an employee may have no choice but to continue working despite the employer’s abuses and even while a labor case is pending between them. This should not be taken against the employee.

Definition: “Constructive dismissal” is quitting or cessation of work
  • because continued employment is rendered impossible, unreasonable or unlikely;

  • when there is a demotion in rank or a diminution of pay and other benefits;

  • if an act of clear discrimination, insensibility, or disdain by an employer becomes so unbearable on the part of the employee that it could foreclose any choice by him except to forego his continued employment;

  • when the employee involuntary resigns due to the harsh, hostile, and unfavorable conditions set by the employer.
The test of constructive dismissal is whether a reasonable person in the employee's position would have felt compelled to give up his employment/position under the circumstances. (Gan vs. Galderma Philippines, G.R. No. 177167, January 17, 2013)

Background facts

[1] The Orchard Golf and Country Club (Orchard), operates two golf courses in Dasmariñas, Cavite for its members and their guests. Orchard also has a swimming pool, bowling alley, cinema, fitness center, courts for tennis, badminton and basketball, restaurants, and function rooms.

Amelia R. Francisco (Francisco) was employed as Club Accountant to head Orchard’s General Accounting Division and the four divisions under it. Each of these four divisions has its own Supervisor and Assistant Supervisor. As General Accounting Division head, Francisco reported directly to Orchard’s Financial Comptroller, Jose Ernilo P. Famy (Famy).

Tomas B. Clemente III (Clemente) is Orchard’s General Manager while Ma. Irma Corazon A. Nuevo (Nuevo) is the General and Administrative Manager.

[2] Famy’s actions against Francisco:

(a) suspended Francisco without pay for a period of 15 days for her alleged failure to prepare a letter to SGV, Orchard’s internal auditor, despite repeated verbal and written reminders;

(b) temporarily transferred Francisco to the Cost Accounting Section, without diminution in salary and benefits, while Francisco’s charges against him for fraudulent and negligent acts were being investigated;

(c) asked for investigation into Francisco’s insubordination, for her alleged unauthorized change of day-off from July 30 to August 4, 2000, and for being absent on that date despite disapproval of her leave/offset application;

(d) asked Francisco in a memorandum dated August 5, 2000 to explain the charges of insubordination, negligence, inefficiency and violation of work standards relative to the unauthorized change of day-off and disapproved offset/ leave.

[3] Francisco’s reactions:

(a) She accused Famy of waging a personal vendetta against her because she sought Orchard’s inquiry into Famy’s fraudulent and negligent acts. She also said that her transfer to the Cost Accounting Section was humiliating and demeaning, and that it constituted constructive dismissal.

Francisco also threatened to take legal action or seek assistance from Orchard members to insure that Famy’s impropriety was investigated.

(c) On August 11, 2000, Francisco filed a Complaint for illegal dismissal against Orchard, impleading Famy, Clemente and Nuevo as additional respondents. The case was docketed as NLRC Case No. RAB-IV-812780-00-C. She asked, among others, for damages and attorney’s fees.

[4] Events after Francisco filed her illegal dismissal case with the NLRC:

(a) On August 16, 2000, Francisco received another memorandum requiring her to explain why she should not be charged with betrayal of company trust. The memorandum alleged that a club member was seen distributing copies of Francisco’s letter to Orchard’s Chairman of the Board of Directors.

(b) On August 18, 2000, Francisco submitted her written explanation to the charges.

(c) On August 19, 2000, Clemente handed Francisco a Notice of Disciplinary Action dated August 16, 2000 relative to her July 30, 2000 unauthorized change of day-off and her August 4, 2000 unauthorized leave/absence. Francisco was suspended for another fifteen days, or from August 21 to September 6, 2000.

[5] Events after Francisco’s suspension:

(a) Francisco amended her illegal dismissal Complaint to one for illegal suspension. Meanwhile, she continued to report for work.

(b) On September 7, 2000, or a day after serving her suspension, Francisco received a September 6, 2000 memorandum from Nuevo and approved by Clemente. She was placed on forced leave with pay for 30 days, or from September 7, 2000 up to October 11, 2000, allegedly because the case filed against her has strained her relationship with her superiors.

(c) Francisco wrote a letter to Nuevo seeking clarification as to what case was filed against her. Nuevo immediately sent a reply memorandum stating that the case referred to her alleged “betrayal of company trust.”

(d) After the expiration of her forced leave, or on October 12, 2000, Francisco reported back to work.

This time Francisco was handed an October 11, 2000 memorandum from Clemente informing her that she has been permanently transferred, without diminution of benefits, to Orchard’s Cost Accounting Section effective October 12, 2000. The transfer was due to strained relations between her and Famy and the pending evaluation of her betrayal of company trust charge. Francisco’s position at the Cost Accounting Section was to remain under Famy’s direct supervision.

(e) In an October 13, 2000 memorandum to Clemente, Francisco protested her permanent transfer, claiming that it was made in bad faith. She also bewailed Clemente’s inaction on her July 5, 2000 letter charging Famy with irregularities relative to BIR tax payments.

Because of her transfer, Francisco once more amended her Complaint to include illegal/constructive dismissal. In her prayer, she sought to be reinstated to her former position as Club Accountant.

[6] Labor Arbiter rules against Francisco

Labor Arbiter Enrico Angelo C. Portillo issued a Decision dated August 23, 2001 dismissing Francisco’s Complaint for lack of merit. The Arbiter noted the “belligerence and animosity” between Francisco and Famy. He dismissed Francisco’s charges as nothing more than attempts to get back at Famy for his reproach at her failure to draft the SGV letter.

The Arbiter further upheld Francisco’s two suspensions as valid exercises of Orchard’s management prerogative. He also found Francisco’s claim of constructive dismissal to be baseless. On the contrary, he found Francisco’s transfer as necessary and in furtherance of Orchard’s interests. He also noted that the transfer was lateral, or to a position of the same rank and pay scale based on Orchard’s Organizational Chart.

[7] NLRC overrules the Labor Arbiter

While Francisco’s suspensions were valid, her subsequent permanent transfer on the ground of strained relations to the Cost Accounting Section on October 12, 2000 had no just cause. It resulted in Francisco’s demotion, since the position of Cost Controller was merely of a supervisory character while the position of Club Accountant was of managerial rank. Francisco held the rank of “Manager 3” as Club Accountant, while the Cost Controller is only a Supervisor position and is precisely under the direct supervision and control of the Club Accountant. This unwarranted demotion is equivalent to constructive dismissal.

The NLRC added that “strained relationship” is not a valid ground for termination of employment under the Labor Code. It ordered Francisco’s reinstatement to her former position as Club Accountant and awarded her attorney’s fees in the amount of P50,000.00. But the NLRC absolved Famy, Nuevo and Clemente of wrongdoing.

Francisco moved for partial reconsideration of the NLRC’s Resolution with respect to its ruling declaring her suspensions as valid and the denial of her claim for damages. The NLRC denied her motion.

[8] The Court of Appeals affirms NLRC ruling

Orchard went up to the CA through a Petition for Certiorari while Francisco no longer took issue with the denial of her motion.

In its January 25, 2007 Decision, the CA sustained the NLRC ruling. It held that while Orchard had the right to transfer Francisco from one office to another within the club, there should be no demotion in rank, salary, benefits, and other privileges. The CA added that the right may not be used arbitrarily to rid the employer of an undesirable worker. Proper notification and an opportunity to be heard or contest the transfer must be given to the employee whose transfer is sought.

Francisco was notified only of Orchard’s decision to permanently transfer her, without giving her the opportunity to contest the transfer. The CA characterized Francisco’s permanent transfer as a demotion in the guise of a lateral transfer.

Orchard filed a Petition for Review with the Supreme Court questioning the CA’s decision.

Supreme Court ruling: Francisco was constructively dismissed

Francisco’s transfer to the position of Cost Controller was without valid basis and that it amounted to a demotion in rank. Hence, there was constructive dismissal.

The cause of Francisco’s temporary transfer on July 20, 2000 was her pending complaint against Famy.

When Francisco was placed on forced leave and transferred to the Cost Accounting Section, not once was Francisco given the opportunity to contest these company actions taken against her.

Just when one penalty has been served by Francisco, another would instantaneously take its place. And all these happened even while the supposed case against her, the alleged charge of “betrayal of company trust”, was still pending and remained unresolved.

Not even the claim that her relations with her superiors have been strained could justify Francisco’s transfer to Cost Accounting Section. Indeed, it appears that her charge was never resolved. And if Famy, Nuevo and Clemente truly believed that their relations with Francisco have been strained, then it puzzles the Court why, despite her transfer, she continues to remain under Famy’s direct supervision.

For this reason, Francisco’s July 20, 2000 temporary transfer and her October 12, 2000 permanent transfer to Cost Accounting Section must be invalidated. For one, there was no valid reason to temporarily transfer Francisco to Cost Accounting Section on July 20, 2000. She had already served her penalty for her failure to draft the SGV letter, through the 15-day suspension period which she just completed on July 20, 2000. Secondly, the transfer was not even rooted in any new infraction she is accused of committing. There was thus an absolute lack of basis for her July 20, 2000 temporary transfer.

As for her October 12, 2000 permanent transfer, the same is null and void for lack of just cause. Also, the transfer is a penalty imposed on a charge that has not yet been resolved. Definitely, to punish one for an offense that has not been proved is truly unfair; this is deprivation without due process. Finally, the Court sees no necessity for Francisco’s transfer; on the contrary, such transfer is outweighed by the need to secure her office and documents from Famy’s possible intervention on account of the complaint she filed against him.

The fact that Francisco continued to report for work does not necessarily suggest that constructive dismissal has not occurred, nor does it operate as a waiver. Constructive dismissal occurs not when the employee ceases to report for work, but when the unwarranted acts of the employer are committed to the end that the employee’s continued employment shall become so intolerable. In these difficult times, an employee may be left with no choice but to continue with his employment despite abuses committed against him by the employer, and even during the pendency of a labor dispute between them. This should not be taken against the employee. Instead, we must share the burden of his plight, ever aware of the precept that necessitous men are not free men.