Lady lawyer disbarred; dishonesty - A.C. No. 6246

A.C. No. 6246

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In the absence of a formal contract, complainant engaged the legal services of respondent to assist her in securing visa applications and claiming the insurance proceeds of her deceased husband. There are conflicting allegations as to the scope of authority of respondent to represent the complainant. A perusal of the [first] SPA,[35] dated November 6, 1998, which was not notarized, showed that complainant merely authorized respondent to represent her and her son, in order to protect their rights and interests, in the extrajudicial and/or judicial proceeding and the possibility of any amicable settlement, relating to the estate of her deceased husband, both in the Philippines and United Kingdom. The [second] SPA,[36] dated April 6, 1999 and notarized on April 30, 1999, allegedly bearing the forged signature of complainant, in addition to the foregoing representations, authorized respondent to appear and represent the complainant, in connection with her insurance claims, and to receive monies and/or encash treasury warrants, checks arising from said claims, deposit the same, and dispose of such funds as may be necessary for the successful pursuit of the claims. The [third] SPA,[37] also dated April 6, 1999 and notarized on April 30, 1999, allegedly bearing the forged signature of complainant, but additionally bearing the signatures of two witnesses, was a faithful reproduction of the second SPA, with exactly the same stipulations. The three SPAs, attached to the pleadings of the parties and made integral parts of the records of the case, were not certified true copies and no proof was adduced to verify their genuineness and authenticity. Complainant repudiates the representation of respondent in her behalf with regard to the insurance claims; however, the admission of respondent herself, as lawyer, that she received payment from complainant, her client, constitutes sufficient evidence to establish a lawyer-client relationship.[38]

Be that as it may, assuming that respondent acted within the scope of her authority to represent the complainant in pursuing the insurance claims, she should never deviate from the benchmarks set by Canon 16 of the Code of Professional Responsibility which mandates that a lawyer shall hold in trust all moneys and properties of his client that may come into his possession. Specifically, Rule 16.01 states that a lawyer shall account for all money or property collected or received for or from the client, and Rule 16.03 thereof requires that a lawyer shall deliver the funds and property of a client when due or upon demand.

When a lawyer receives money from the client for a particular purpose, the lawyer is bound to render an accounting to the client showing that the money was spent for a particular purpose. And if he does not use the money for the intended purpose, the lawyer must immediately return the money to his client.[39] In the present case, the cash/check voucher and the temporary receipts issued by respondent, with the letterhead of her law firm, Z.P. Reyes Law Office, indubitably showed that she received the total amount of P167,000.00[40] from the complainant, in connection with the handling of the latter's case. Respondent admitted having received money from the complainant, but claimed that the total amount of P120,000.00[41] she received was in accordance with their agreement. Nowhere was it shown that respondent rendered an accounting or, at least, apprised the complainant of the actual expenses incurred. This leaves a quandary as to the discrepancy in the actual amount that respondent should receive, supposedly pursuant to an agreement of engaging respondent to be her counsel, as there was absence of a formal contract of legal services.

Further, on December 4, 1998, complainant gave P50,000.00 to the respondent for the purpose of assisting her in claiming the insurance proceeds; however, per Application for United Kingdom Entry Clearance,[42] dated December 8, 1998, it showed that respondent's primary purpose in traveling to London was to attend the International Law Conference in Russell Square, London. It is appalling that respondent had the gall to take advantage of the benevolence of the complainant, then grieving for the loss of her husband, and mislead her into believing that she needed to go to London to assist in recovering the proceeds of the insurance policies. Worse, respondent even inculcated in the mind of the complainant that she had to adhere to the nefarious culture of giving “grease money” or lagay, in the total amount of P43,000.00,[43] to the British Embassy personnel, as if it was an ordinary occurrence in the normal course of conducting official business transactions, as a means to expedite the visa applications. This runs afoul the dictum in Rule 1.01 of Canon 1 of the Code of Professional Responsibility which states that a lawyer shall not engage in unlawful, dishonest, immoral or deceitful conduct.

More importantly, apart from her bare denials that no remittance was made to her personal bank account, as shown by the monthly transaction report (covering January to December for the years 2000-2001),[44] respondent never attempted to reconcile the discrepancy, or give a satisfactory explanation, as to why she failed to render an accounting, on the proceeds of the insurance policies that should rightfully belong to the complainant vis-รก-vis the correspondence by the insurance companies based in London, pertaining to the remittance of the following amounts to the respondent's personal bank account, to wit: Per letter[45] dated November 23, 2000, from one Rupesh Majithia, Administrator, Customer Services Department of Lincoln Financial Group, addressed to complainant, stating, among others, that “An amount of £10,489.57 was paid out under the Power of Attorney on 27th September 2000),” and per letter,[46] dated April 28, 2000, from one Jeff Hawkes, Customer Services Claims (CLD), of the Eagle Star Life Assurance Company Limited, addressed to one Andrea Ransom of the Lincoln Financial Group, The Quays, stating, among others, that “I can confirm that a death claim was made on the policy on 13 October 1999 when an amount of £471.06 was sent by International Moneymover to the client's legal representative, ZP Reyes Law Office of Quezon City, Philippines.” Clearly, there is no doubt that the amounts of £10,489.57 and £471.06 were remitted to respondent through other means of international transactions, such as the International Moneymover, which explains why no direct remittance from the insurance companies in London could be traced to the personal bank account of respondent, per monthly transaction report, covering January to December for the years 2000-2001.

A criminal case is different from an administrative case, and each must be disposed of according to the facts and the law applicable to each case.[47] Section 5, in relation to Sections 1[48] and 2,[49] Rule 133, Rules of Court states that in administrative cases, only substantial evidence is required, not proof beyond reasonable doubt as in criminal cases, or preponderance of evidence as in civil cases. Substantial evidence is that amount of relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to justify a conclusion. Applying the rule to the present case, the dismissal of a criminal case does not preclude the continuance of a separate and independent action for administrative liability, as the weight of evidence necessary to establish the culpability is merely substantial evidence. Respondent's defense that the criminal complaint for estafa against her was already dismissed is of no consequence. An administrative case can proceed independently, even if there was a full-blown trial wherein, based on both prosecution and defense evidence, the trial court eventually rendered a judgment of acquittal, on the ground either that the prosecution failed to prove the respondent's guilt beyond reasonable doubt, or that no crime was committed. More so, in the present administrative case, wherein the ground for the dismissal of the criminal case was because the trial court granted the prosecution's motion to withdraw the information and, a fortiori, dismissed the case for insufficiency of evidence.

In Velez v. De Vera,[50] the Court ruled that the relation between attorney and client is highly fiduciary in nature. Being such, it requires utmost good faith, loyalty, fidelity, and disinterestedness on the part of the attorney. Its fiduciary nature is intended for the protection of the client. The Canon of Professional Ethics provides that the lawyer should refrain from any action whereby for his personal benefit or gain, he abuses or takes advantage of the confidence reposed in him by his client. Money of the client or collected for the client, or other trust property coming into the possession of the lawyer, should be reported and accounted for promptly and should not, under any circumstances, be commingled with his own or be used by him. Consequently, a lawyer's failure to return upon demand the funds or property held by him on behalf of his client gives rise to the presumption that he has appropriated the same for his own use to the prejudice of, and in violation of the trust reposed in him by, his client. It is a gross violation of general morality as well as of professional ethics; it impairs the public confidence in the legal profession and deserves punishment. Lawyers who misappropriate the funds entrusted to them are in gross violation of professional ethics and are guilty of betrayal of public confidence in the legal profession. Those who are guilty of such infraction may be disbarred or suspended indefinitely from the practice of law.[51] Indeed, lawyering is not a business. It is a profession in which duty to public service, not money, is the primary consideration.[52]

In some cases, the Court stripped lawyers of the privilege to practice their profession for breach of trust and confidence pertaining to their clients' moneys and properties. In Manzano v. Soriano,[53] therein respondent, found guilty of grave misconduct (misappropriating the funds belonging to his client) and malpractice, represented therein complainant in a collection suit, but failed to turn over the amount of P50,000.00 as stipulated in their agreement and, to conceal the misdeed, executed a simulated deed of sale, with himself as the vendor and, at the same time, the notary public. In Lemoine v. Balon, Jr.,[54] therein respondent, found guilty of malpractice, deceit, and gross misconduct, received the check corresponding to his client's insurance claim, falsified the check and made it payable to himself, encashed the same, and appropriated the proceeds.

Law advocacy, it has been stressed, is not capital that yields profits. The returns it births are simple rewards for a job done or service rendered. It is a calling that, unlike mercantile pursuits which enjoy a greater deal of freedom from government interference, is impressed with public interest, for which it is subject to State regulation.[55] Respondent's repeated reprehensible acts of employing chicanery and unbecoming conduct to conceal her web of lies, to the extent of milking complainant's finances dry, and deceitfully arrogating upon herself the insurance proceeds that should rightfully belong to complainant, in the guise of rendering legitimate legal services, clearly transgressed the norms of honesty and integrity required in the practice of law. This being so, respondent should be purged from the privilege of exercising the noble legal profession.

WHEREFORE, respondent Atty. Zenaida P. Reyes is found guilty of gross misconduct and DISBARRED from the practice of law. Let her name be stricken off the Roll of Attorneys. This Decision is immediately executory.

Let all the courts, through the Office of the Court Administrator, Integrated Bar of the Philippines, and the Office of the Bar Confidant, be notified of this Decision and be it duly recorded in the personal file of the respondent.

Respondent is ORDERED to turn over to complainant Marites E. Freeman the proceeds of the insurance policies remitted to her by Lincoln Financial Group, in the amount of £10,489.57, and Eagle Star Life Assurance Company Limited, £471.06, or in the total amount of £10,960.63, which is approximately equivalent to P700,000.00, pursuant to the prevailing exchange rate at the time of the subject transaction.


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