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Responsibility over a subordinate lawyer, paralegal, or employee, C3S10 CPRA

Section 10, Canon III

SECTION 10. Responsibility over a subordinate lawyer, paralegal, or employee. – A lawyer or law firm shall be responsible for the mistakes, negligence, and/or acts or omissions of a subordinate lawyer, paralegal, or employee under the lawyer’s direct supervision and control, who is acting within the scope of the assigned tasks, that cause damage or injury which brings dishonor to the profession or violates the rule on confidentiality.
However, such liability of the supervising lawyer does not attach upon proof of exercise of diligence of a good parent of a family in the selection and supervision of subordinate lawyer, paralegal, or employee. (2023 Code of Professional Responsibility and Accountability or CPRA)

1. Responsibility over a subordinate lawyer, paralegal, or employee

a. Command responsibility

Under this section, lawyers or law firms are “responsible for the mistakes, negligence, and/or acts or omissions of a subordinate lawyer, paralegal, or employee under the lawyer’s direct supervision and control, who is acting within the scope of the assigned tasks, that cause damage or injury which brings dishonor to the profession or violates the rule on confidentiality.”

[L]awyers are administratively liable for the conduct of their employees in failing to timely file pleadings. (Solatan v. Inocentes, A.C. No. 6504, August 9, 2005, Per Tinga, J.)

A responsible lawyer is expected to supervise the work in his office with respect to all the pleadings to be filed in court and he should not delegate this responsibility, lock, stock and barrel, to his office secretary. If it were otherwise, irresponsible members of the legal profession can avoid appropriate disciplinary action by simply disavowing liability and attributing the problem to the fault or negligence of the office secretary. Such situation will not be countenanced by this Court. (Gutierrez v. Zulueta, En Banc, A.M. No. 2200, July 19, 1990, Per Curiam)

[P]artners and practitioners who hold supervisory capacities are legally responsible to exert ordinary diligence in apprising themselves of the comings and goings of the cases handled by the persons over which they are exercising supervisory authority and in exerting necessary efforts to foreclose the occurrence of violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility by persons under their charge. (Solatan v. Inocentes [2005], supra.)

Gutierrez v. Zulueta, En Banc, A.M. No. 2200, July 19, 1990, Per Curiam:

• On October 13, 1980, the complainant filed with this Court a sworn letter-complaint dated October 11, 1980 seeking the disbarment of the respondent lawyer on the grounds of dishonesty and conduct unbecoming of a member of the legal profession.

• The complainant alleges that the respondent lawyer was his counsel in two cases, namely, a workmen’s compensation case and a civil case filed with the then Court of First Instance of Zamboanga Del Sur. The complaint concerns the latter case.

• The complainant filed the said civil case against his former employer, the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The trial court ruled in his favor. On appeal to the Court of Appeals, the said appellate court. reversed the decision of the trial court and ruled in favor of the company. It is categorically stated in the said decision that the complainant did not file a brief. Thus, he maintains that the case was resolved against him primarily because his lawyer, the herein respondent, did not file the required brief with the appellate court and such omission is attributable to the dishonesty of the respondent lawyer.

• In support of his contention, the complainant alleges that sometime in August 1976, the respondent lawyer, who was then in Manila, wired him to send the amount of P400.00 to cover the expenses in relation to the preparation and printing of the appellee’s brief, and upon receipt of the message, he sent the said amount to the respondent lawyer through the Philippine National Bank. He also alleges that he sent a telegram to the respondent lawyer for the purpose of informing the latter that the P400.00 can be obtained at the Sampaloc, Manila branch office of the same bank.

• It appears that sometime thereafter, the respondent lawyer assured the complainant that the brief had already been filed in court and that a copy thereof will be made available to the latter in due time.

• It also appears that immediately after the complainant received a copy of the decision of the Court of Appeals, he reported the matter to the provincial governor inasmuch as the respondent lawyer is the provincial legal counsel. An investigation ensued but the same failed to settle the problem.

• In the investigation that ensued, the respondent lawyer testified that he received the amount of P400.00 from the complainant for the purpose of preparing the said brief and that he gave the said amount to his secretary to cover the expenses to be incurred in such preparation. He also testified that he had to leave for Pagadian City at that time and that he instructed his secretary to attend to the filing of the brief. He likewise stated that sometime thereafter, his secretary assured him that the brief had been filed already. He also said that he could not furnish the complainant with a copy of the brief inasmuch as his secretary, for undisclosed reasons, left the office, taking with her his records and his typewriter. The respondent lawyer admits that he received the additional amount of P100.00 from the complainant for the purpose of securing a copy of the brief for the latter.

• The record of the case undoubtedly discloses that the respondent lawyer failed to exercise due diligence in protecting and attending to the interest of his client, the herein complainant. The failure of the respondent lawyer to undertake the necessary measures to submit the required brief certainly caused material prejudice to the complainant inasmuch as the appellate court reversed the decision of the trial court which was in favor of the latter.

• The explanation given by the respondent lawyer to the effect that the failure is attributable to the negligence of his secretary is devoid of merit. A responsible lawyer is expected to supervise the work in his office with respect to all the pleadings to be filed in court and he should not delegate this responsibility, lock, stock and barrel, to his office secretary. If it were otherwise, irresponsible members of the legal profession can avoid appropriate disciplinary action by simply disavowing liability and attributing the problem to the fault or negligence of the office secretary. Such situation will not be countenanced by this Court.

• In sum, therefore, this Court is of the well-considered opinion that the respondent lawyer failed to live up to the duties and responsibilities of a member of the legal profession. His suspension from the practice of law is in order.

Solatan v. Inocentes, A.C. No. 6504, August 9, 2005, Per Tinga, J.:

• Attys. Inocentes and Camano were both engaged in the practice of law under the firm name of Oscar Inocentes and Associates Law Office. Atty. Inocentes held office in his home located at No. 19 Marunong St., Central District, Quezon City, while Atty. Camano was stationed at an “extension office” of the firm located in 3rd/F, 956 Aurora Blvd., Quirino Dist., Quezon City.

• The Oscar Inocentes and Associates Law Office was retained by spouses Andres and Ludivina Genito (spouses Genito), owners of an apartment complex (the Genito Apartments) located at 259 Tandang Sora cor. Visayas Avenue, Quezon City, when the Genito Apartments were placed under sequestration by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) on 9 July 1986. The law office represented the spouses Genito before the PCGG and the Sandiganbayan, and subsequently, with authority from the PCGG. in ejectment cases against non-paying tenants occupying the Genito Apartments.

• Complainant’s sister, Gliceria Solatan, was a tenant in Door 10, Phase B of the Genito Apartments. It appears from the records that Gliceria Solatan left for the United States in 1986, and since then, the apartment was either intermittently used by members of her family or placed under the charge of caretakers. In August 1987, a complaint for ejectment for non-payment of rentals was filed against Gliceria Solatan. On 3 March 1988, in a judgment by default, a Decision was rendered ordering Gliceria Solatan to vacate the premises of the apartment, pay the spouses Genito the amount of Thirty Thousand Six Hundred Pesos (₱30,600.00) as unpaid rentals from February 1986 to July 1987 with interest at 24% per annum from 20 August 1987 until the premises are vacated, Ten Thousand Pesos (₱10,000.00) as attorney’s fees, and costs of the suit.

• Complainant was occupying the subject apartment when he learned of the judgment rendered against his sister. On 10 May 1988, prior to the implementation of a writ to execute the judgment, complainant and his mother, Elvira Solatan, approached Atty. Inocentes at his home office. Complainant informed Atty. Inocentes of his desire to arrange the execution of a lease contract by virtue of which complainant would be the new lessee of the apartment and thus make possible his continued stay therein. Atty. Inocentes referred complainant and his mother to his associate, Atty. Camano, the attorney in charge of the ejectment cases against tenants of the Genito apartments. After the exchange, complainant went to Atty. Camano at the satellite office of Atty. Inocentes’s firm. From here on out, events quickly turned sour. Different versions of subsequent events were presented. The facts reproduced hereunder are by and large culled from the findings of the IBP Investigating Commissioner, Siegfred B. Mison.

• During the meeting with Atty. Camano, a verbal agreement was made in which complainant and his mother agreed to pay the entire judgment debt of Gliceria Solatan, including fifty percent of the awarded attorney’s fees and One Thousand Six Hundred Pesos (₱1,600.00) as costs of suit provided that Atty. Camano would allow complainant’s continued stay at Door 10, Phase B of the Genito Apartments. As partial compliance with the agreement, complainant issued in the name Atty. Camano a check for Five Thousand Pesos (₱5,000.00) representing half of the ₱10,000.00 attorney’s fees adjudged against complainant’s sister.

• Complainant and his mother failed to make any other payment. Thus, the sheriff in coordination with Atty. Camano and some policemen, enforced the writ of execution on 22 June 1988 and levied the properties found in the subject apartment. An attempt at renegotiation took place at the insistence of complainant, resulting in Atty. Camano’s acquiescence to release the levied properties and allowing complainant to remain at the apartment, subject to the latter’s payment of costs incurred in enforcing the writ of execution and issuance of postdated checks representing installment rental payments. Complainant, thus, issued four (4) checks drawn on Far East Bank and Trust Company dated the fifteenth (15th) of July, August, September, and October 1988 each in the amount of Three Thousand Four Hundred Pesos (₱3,400.00).11 Half of the amount represented complainant’s monthly rental, while the other half, a monthly installment for the payment of Gliceria Solatan’s judgment debt.

• On 28 June 1988, acting on the advice of Atty. Camano, complainant presented an Affidavit of Ownership to the sheriff who then released the levied items to complainant. However, a Northern Hill 3-burner gas stove was not retuned to complainant. The stove was in fact kept by Atty. Camano in the unit of the Genito Apartments wherein he temporarily stayed and, thereafter, turned over the same to a certain Recto Esberto, caretaker of the Genito Apartments.

• On 1 August 1988, complainant filed the instant administrative case for disbarment against Atty. Inocentes and Atty. Camano. After formal investigation, and despite conflicting testimonies on the tenor and content of agreements and conversations, several disturbing facts were revealed to have been uncontroverted—Atty. Camano’s acceptance from complainant of attorney’s fees and the costs of implementing the writ of execution, possession of complainant’s levied Northern Hill oven, and advice to complainant on how to recover the latter’s levied items.

• Atty. Inocentes seeks to distance himself from the events that transpired and the reprimand resulting therefrom by asserting that he was incorrectly punished for Atty. Camano’s acts when his mere participation in the fiasco was to refer complainant and his mother to Atty. Camano.

• However, it is precisely because of such participation, consisting as it did of referring the complainant to his associate lawyer, that Atty. Inocentes may be held administratively liable by virtue of his associate’s unethical acts. His failure to exercise certain responsibilities over matters under the charge of his law firm is a blameworthy shortcoming. The term “command responsibility,” as Atty. Inocentes suggests, has special meaning within the circle of men in uniform in the military; however, the principle does not abide solely therein. It controls the very circumstance in which Atty. Inocentes found himself.

• We are not unaware of the custom of practitioners in a law firm of assigning cases and even entire client accounts to associates or other partners with limited supervision, if at all. This is especially true in the case of Attys. Inocentes and Camano who, from the records, both appear to be seasoned enough to be left alone in their work without requiring close supervision over each other’s conduct and work output. However, let it not be said that law firm practitioners are given a free hand to assign cases to seasoned attorneys and thereafter conveniently forget about the case. To do so would be a disservice to the profession, the integrity and advancement of which this Court must jealously protect.

• That the firm name under which the two attorneys labored was that of Oscar Inocentes and Associates Law Office does not automatically make Atty. Inocentes the default lawyer acting in a supervisory capacity over Atty. Camano. It did, however, behoove Atty. Inocentes to exert ordinary diligence to find out what was going on in his law firm. It placed in Atty. Inocentes the active responsibility to inquire further into the circumstances affecting the levy of complainant’s properties, irrespective of whether the same were in fact events which could possibly lead to administrative liability. Moreover, as name practitioner of the law office, Atty. Inocentes is tasked with the responsibility to make reasonable efforts to ensure that all lawyers in the firm should act in conformity to the Code of Professional Responsibility. It is not without reason or consequence that Atty. Inocentes’s name is that which was used as the official designation of their law office.

• With regard to the actual existence of Atty. Inocentes’s supervisory capacity over Atty. Camano’s activities, the IBP Investigating Commissioner based the same on his finding that Atty. Inocentes received periodic reports from Atty. Camano on the latter’s dealings with complainant. This finding is the linchpin of Atty. Inocentes’s supervisory capacity over Atty. Camano and liability by virtue thereof.

• Law practitioners are acutely aware of the responsibilities that are naturally taken on by partners and supervisory lawyers over the lawyers and non-lawyers of the law office. We have held that lawyers are administratively liable for the conduct of their employees in failing to timely file pleadings. In Rheem of the Philippines, Inc., et al. v. Zoilo R. Ferrer, et al., partners in a law office were admonished for the contemptuous language in a pleading submitted to court despite, and even due to, the fact that the pleading was not passed upon by any of the partners of the office. We held therein that partners are duty bound to provide for efficacious control of court pleadings and other court papers that carry their names or the name of the law firm.

• We now hold further that partners and practitioners who hold supervisory capacities are legally responsible to exert ordinary diligence in apprising themselves of the comings and goings of the cases handled by the persons over which they are exercising supervisory authority and in exerting necessary efforts to foreclose the occurrence of violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility by persons under their charge. Nonetheless, the liability of the supervising lawyer in this regard is by no means equivalent to that of the recalcitrant lawyer. The actual degree of control and supervision exercised by said supervising lawyer varies, inter alia, according to office practice, or the length of experience and competence of the lawyer supervised. Such factors can be taken into account in ascertaining the proper penalty. Certainly, a lawyer charged with the supervision of a fledgling attorney prone to rookie mistakes should bear greater responsibility for the culpable acts of the underling than one satisfied enough with the work and professional ethic of the associate so as to leave the latter mostly to his/her own devises.

• While Atty. Camano’s irregular acts perhaps evince a need for greater supervision of his legal practice, there is no question that it has been Atty. Inocentes’ practice to allow wide discretion for Atty. Camano to practice on his own. It does constitute indifference and neglect for Atty. Inocentes to fail to accord even a token attention to Atty. Camano’s conduct which could have brought the then impending problem to light. But such is not equivalent to the proximate responsibility for Atty. Camano’s acts. Moreover, it appears from the records that Atty. Inocentes is a former judge and a lawyer who, as of yet, is in good standing and it is the first time in which Atty. Inocentes has been made to answer vicariously for the misconduct of a person under his charge. An admonition is appropriate under the circumstances.

b. Defense: Diligence of a good parent of a family

The liability for command responsibility is subject to the defense “upon proof of exercise of diligence of a good parent of a family in the selection and supervision of subordinate lawyer, paralegal, or employee.”

[T]he liability of the supervising lawyer in this regard is by no means equivalent to that of the recalcitrant lawyer. The actual degree of control and supervision exercised by said supervising lawyer varies, inter alia, according to office practice, or the length of experience and competence of the lawyer supervised. Such factors can be taken into account in ascertaining the proper penalty. Certainly, a lawyer charged with the supervision of a fledgling attorney prone to rookie mistakes should bear greater responsibility for the culpable acts of the underling than one satisfied enough with the work and professional ethic of the associate so as to leave the latter mostly to his/her own devises. (Solatan v. Inocentes, A.C. No. 6504, August 9, 2005, Per Tinga, J.)

References

Canon III, 2023 Code of Professional Responsibility

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