Conflict of interest; lawyer suspended for 1 year - A.C. No. 6174

A.C. No. 6174

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Respondent argued that no lawyer-client relationship existed between him and complainant because there was no professional fee paid for the services he rendered. Moreover, he argued that he drafted the demand letter only as a personal favor to complainant who is a close friend.

We are not persuaded. A lawyer-client relationship can exist notwithstanding the close friendship between complainant and respondent. The relationship was established the moment complainant sought legal advice from respondent regarding the dishonored checks. By drafting the demand letter respondent further affirmed such relationship. The fact that the demand letter was not utilized in the criminal complaint filed and that respondent was not eventually engaged by complainant to represent her in the criminal cases is of no moment. As observed by the Investigating Commissioner, by referring to complainant Justo as “my client” in the demand letter sent to the defaulting debtor[10], respondent admitted the existence of the lawyer-client relationship. Such admission effectively estopped him from claiming otherwise.

Likewise, the non-payment of professional fee will not exculpate respondent from liability. Absence of monetary consideration does not exempt lawyers from complying with the prohibition against pursuing cases with conflicting interests. The prohibition attaches from the moment the attorney-client relationship is established and extends beyond the duration of the professional relationship.[11] We held in Burbe v. Atty. Magulta[12] that it is not necessary that any retainer be paid, promised or charged; neither is it material that the attorney consulted did not afterward handle the case for which his service had been sought.[13]

Under Rule 15.03, Canon 15 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, “[a] lawyer shall not represent conflicting interests except by written consent of all concerned given after a full disclosure of the facts.” Respondent was therefore bound to refrain from representing parties with conflicting interests in a controversy. By doing so, without showing any proof that he had obtained the written consent of the conflicting parties, respondent should be sanctioned.

The prohibition against representing conflicting interest is founded on principles of public policy and good taste.[14] In the course of the lawyer-client relationship, the lawyer learns of the facts connected with the client’s case, including the weak and strong points of the case. The nature of the relationship is, therefore, one of trust and confidence of the highest degree.[15]

It behooves lawyers not only to keep inviolate the client’s confidence, but also to avoid the appearance of treachery and double-dealing for only then can litigants be encouraged to entrust their secrets to their lawyers, which is of paramount importance in the administration of justice.[16]

The case of Hornilla v. Atty. Salunat[17] is instructive on this concept, thus:

There is conflict of interest when a lawyer represents inconsistent interests of two or more opposing parties. The test is ‘whether or not in behalf of one client, it is the lawyer’s duty to fight for an issue or claim, but it is his duty to oppose it for the other client. In brief, if he argues for one client, this argument will be opposed by him when he argues for the other client.’[18] This rule covers not only cases in which confidential communications have been confided, but also those in which no confidence has been bestowed or will be used.[19] Also, there is conflict of interests if the acceptance of the new retainer will require the attorney to perform an act which will injuriously affect his first client in any matter in which he represents him and also whether he will be called upon in his new relation to use against his first client any knowledge acquired through their connection.[20] Another test of the inconsistency of interests is whether the acceptance of a new relation will prevent an attorney from the full discharge of his duty of undivided fidelity and loyalty to his client or invite suspicion of unfaithfulness or double dealing in the performance thereof.[21]

The excuse proffered by respondent that it was not him but Atty. Año who was eventually engaged by complainant will not exonerate him from the clear violation of Rule 15.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. The take- over of a client’s cause of action by another lawyer does not give the former lawyer the right to represent the opposing party. It is not only malpractice but also constitutes a violation of the confidence resulting from the attorney-client relationship.

Considering that this is respondent’s first infraction, the disbarment sought in the complaint is deemed to be too severe. As recommended by the Board of Governors of the IBP, the suspension from the practice of law for one (1) year is warranted.

Accordingly, the Court resolved to SUSPEND Atty. Rodolfo T. Galing from the practice of law for one (1) year, with a WARNING that a repetition of the same or similar offense will warrant a more severe penalty. Let copies of this Decision be furnished all courts, the Office of the Bar Confidant and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for their information and guidance. The Office of the Bar Confidant is directed to append a copy of this Decision to respondent’s record as member of the Bar.

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