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When public figures correct their mistakes

(Article published in the June 17, 2002 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

It was our law professor Ricardo Puno, then a justice of the Court of Appeals, who told us, in one of those many occasions at the Ateneo Law Shool when we dissected to derision the wayward ratio of Supreme Court rulings on succession, the great divide between the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. When the Court of Appeals commits an error, its mistake can still be corrected by the Supreme Court. When it is the Supreme Court that commits an error, its mistake becomes the law.

That must have been why Supreme Court Justice Sabino De Leon, Jr. in his second opinion rendered in MERALCO’s suit against Muntinlupa (MERALCO v. Nelia A. Barlis, G.R. No. 114231, promulgated February 1, 2002) corrected what he himself wrote as ponente of the court’s earlier ruling (MERALCO v. Nelia A. Barlis, G.R. No. 114231 promulgated May 18, 2001), even if, at the end of the day, MERALCO was nevertheless unable to prevent Muntinlupa from garnishing its bank accounts for unpaid real estate taxes. Barely three months before his retirement from the Supreme Court, the good justice did not want his respected record in the judiciary marred by an inadvertent legacy of bad law.










 
Sometime in 1985, the then Municipality of Muntinlupa, after reviewing its records pertaining to assessments and collection of real property taxes, realized that MERALCO had not declared or had misdeclared for taxation (and consequently had not paid the real estate taxes due thereon from January 1, 1976 to December 29, 1978) some equipment and machineries found in its power-generating plants in Sucat, Muntinlupa. By the time Muntinlupa made the discovery, MERALCO had already sold the power plants to NAPOCOR. In fact, it was an examination of the deed of sale executed on December 29, 1978, between MERALCO and NAPOCOR that gave Muntinlupa the lead to MERALCO’s peccadillo.

The Municipal Assessor of Muntinlupa accordingly issued, on November 05, 1985, the necessary tax declarations over the omitted real properties and sent them to MERALCO, which did not react. Notices were also sent at various times in 1986 through 1989. Still, MERALCO did not pay. The municipality sought the help of the Bureau of Local Government Finance at the Department of Finance (BLGF-DOF) which conducted hearings on the matter, with both Muntinlupa and MERALCO attending. On August 14, 1989, the BLGF-DOF issued a letter-endorsement ruling that MERALCO was indeed liable to pay deficiency or delinquent real property taxes for the undeclared or misdeclared properties.

Thus emboldened, Muntinglupa, after following the requisite steps for the administrative collection of real property taxes, issued warrants of garnishments against the bank deposits of MERALCO with the then PCIBank, METROBANK, and BPI, to the extent of the unpaid taxes. MERALCO, this time acted swiftly and brought the matter to the regional trial court, asking it to prohibit Muntinlupa from garnishing its bank accounts. Muntinlupa responded with a motion to dismiss arguing that immediate resort to the court was not MERALCO’s proper remedy because it failed to first pay the tax under protest and that it did not properly question the assessment through the administrative channels that would have lead to a final determination, at that level, from the Local Board of Assessment Appeals. The regional trial court denied the motion to dismiss. Muntinlupa brought the matter up to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the regional trial court. MERALCO elevated the case to the Supreme Court where the resolution of the case would become the law.

As expected whenever lawyers get into the fray, many were the issues raised before the highest court. The focus of this piece, however, is on two letters sent to MERALCO on September 3, 1986 and October 31, 1989. Both are in a form that may be familiar to most of us. The heading says "Patalastas", or "Notice" and the opening paragraph after the usual "Dear ____" informs the addressee that, according to the records of the office, the tax on the properties indicated thereunder had not yet been paid." There is then a listing, for each property referred to, of the tax declaration number, the location, the assessed value, the year of the delinquency, the tax due, the penalty, and the total of the last two. Politely, the hope is expressed that the notice will not be disregarded since the dire consequence of long-standing delinquency is an auction sale of the property, as mandated by law. Finally, the letter recognizes that the addressee may, after all, have actually paid, contrary to what the office records indicate, and thus requests the taxpayer to present proof of payment and ignore the notice.

The first ponencia of Justice Sabino De Leon, Jr. in the decision promulgated on May 18, 2001, characterized that form letter as notice of assessment which MERALCO should have questioned administratively all the way up to the Local Board of Assessment Appeals. That was bad law. Taxation is a deprivation of a taxpayer of his property and the Real Property Tax Code itself requires, in compliance with the due process clause of the Constitution, that collection begin with fully informing the taxpayer of how his tax liability is arrived at. The letters dated September 3, 1986 and October 31, 1989 sent to MERALCO contained no more information than a mere statement of the amount being collected.

This was pointed out to the Supreme Court by MERALCO in its motion for reconsideration and dutifully, the court took a second look on the letters. In his second ponencia, Justice Sabino De Leon, Jr. acknowledged that it was "apparent" why the notices, on the face of the letters, were not notices of assessment. And he mentioned, point by point, the reasons they did not contain the essential information required by law; their tenor was simply expressive of an intention to collect, hence a reminder of the consequences of non-payment; and, they asked the taxpayer to ignore the notices if the taxes had in fact been paid. In addition, the opinion even noted that the BLGF-DOF itself considered them as collection letters.

Mincing no words, the good justice wrote that "a second and more careful examination of the said notices leads us to concede that petitioner [MERALCO] indeed has a point" and, after citing the foregoing reasons, explicitly reversed himself saying "we now hold that the September 3, 1986 and October 31, 1989 notices were actually notices of collection only as contended by petitioner". Now that is good law and good manners.

Compare that quiet dignity with the demeanor of some members of that branch of the government that also makes law, but this time by passing statutes, that two-chambered body where the uncouth is common sight. Where the title "Honorable" is by a great number unmeant as the notices’ supposedly affectionate "Dear".

Only recently, one of them mistook me for somebody else. He must have been suffering from some sort of illiteracy because in plain sight, a foot way from his frothing mouth as he was pouring out his spleen and expelling his offal, he could see my press ID with my name on it in big letters. When I calmly told him I was not the person he mistook me for, he responded, lacking the polish even of his fake counterparts from sidewalks of Taiwan, "I am sorry if I made a mistake", and walked away. Passing off as conditional what was clearly a blatant fact.

Making a mistake is a fraility of the flesh, a common attribute both man and animal, is heir to. But for humans, that class of creatures partly animal and partly spirit, the ratios are not uniform for everyone, and some are more animal than others.

   

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