SC ruling dispossesses millions of lot owners

GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) Updated April 02, 2012 12:00 AM
http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=793370&publicationSubCategoryId=64

Catastrophic is the Supreme Court ruling on the Piedad Estate. On surface, it merely reverts to the State a thousand hectares of Quezon City prime commercial-residential land straddling Commonwealth Avenue. Yet actually upset are the Torrens titling, home financing, and executive-legislative-judicial remediating systems.

That this occurs because an absent justice was made to “cast a tie-breaker” is another blow against impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona. The implications are farther-reaching, though. From the SC’s 8-7 final vote, millions of lot owners nationwide can lose their property if falling within former friar lands like Piedad Estate.

It all began with the Manotok clan, owner of a 34-hectare slice of Piedad near UP-Diliman and posh Ayala Heights, repelling two belated claimants. One group came out to contest the Manotok holding after fire gutted the Quezon City land registry in 1985. Another emerged, as court battle ensued, to say that land tenure had passed on to them. The Court of Appeals deemed the last-minute claimants’ titles and deeds bogus.

Chaos from the city hall fire had given rise to land-grabbing gangs. The Manotoks filed for reconstitution of property documents dating back to 1919. Something odd happened in court: their papers suddenly came under questioning. Two items supposedly were missing from the files. One, the original Sale Certificate from the US colonial government to the Manotok forebears, of the land confiscated from Spanish friars. Two, the Secretary of Interior’s signature in the original Assignment of Sale Certificate. Yet it was the government’s duty, not the landowners’, to protect the deed registry. (Manila had come under invasion and countless calamities in the past century.) As for the lacking signature, landowners should not be faulted for a bureaucrat’s lapse.

The case reached the SC. Upheld in August 2010 was the finding that the two counterclaims were fakes. But in light of supposed flaws in the Manotok deeds, the government must repossess the entire 1,282-hectare Piedad Estate.

The Manotoks and contestants both moved for reconsideration. On March 6, 2012, the SC promulgated a final decision, penned by Justice Martin Villarama. The counterclaims again were denied. So was the Manotok ownership right.

Concurring with Villarama’s ponencia were: CJ Corona, Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza, and Mariano del Castillo.

Justice Antonio Carpio led the dissent, joined by Justices Presbitero Velasco, Arturo Brion, Roberto Abad, Maria Lourdes Sereno, Bienvenido Reyes, and Estela Perlas-Bernabe.

Setting legal circles abuzz was how the majority got eight votes versus the dissenters’ seven. Del Castillo was absent during the March 6 promulgation, having gone on leave starting February 13, for a second heart bypass. He extended the leave on March 21, and returned to work only on March 28, last week. He had not participated in any division or en banc deliberations during his leave, or voted on any case.

Except, curiously, del Castillo voted on this Piedad case; at least, so says Corona. Concurring and dissenting justices all signed above their names. Above del Castillo’s is the handwritten note: “I certify that J. del Castillo sent his vote concurring with Justice Villarama.” Scribbled next is Corona’s signature, same as the one with his name at the top of the list. Del Castillo’s signature does not appear above his name, implying he had not read the ponencia.

In effect, Corona had voted twice in the Piedad case, making his side win by one vote, instead of ending tied. Why he dared do this in the middle of his impeachment trial, only he knows. Some say it has to do with his defense by the Iglesia ni Cristo sect. The lawyers of one of the counterclaimants hold office at the College of Law, New Era University, run by the INC.

Del Castillo’s absentee vote “shows how influential the CJ is over the Supreme Court and the judiciary,” says impeachment prosecution spokesman Rep. Miro Quimbo. “As we’ve been saying, he’s so strong that he played a great part in the issuance of the SC order that almost let former President Gloria Arroyo and husband flee the country.”

Corona reportedly denies signing for del Castillo, or swaying the justices’ votes, or any impropriety in the Piedad ruling. In December 2011 he was impeached by 188 congressmen, almost double the one-third needed from members of the House of Representatives. Del Castillo also is facing impeachment raps for plagiarism in a ponencia against “comfort women” forced into sex slavery by World War II Japanese invaders.

In dissent, Carpio cites scores of other friar land sales in the early 1900s with the Secretary of Interior’s signature also missing. With the majority ruling, he says, all these landholdings would be voided. For, it ignores the fact that the National Archives has copies of the documents. Too, that Congress already had corrected the missing signature via a recent all-encompassing law arising from the Banilad friar estate in Cebu. Lastly, that the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources in 2005 had clarified that the Banilad legislation covered other erstwhile friar lands as well.

Since the SC ruled otherwise, not only the Manotoks’ 34 and Piedad Estate’s 1,282 hectares in Quezon City are affected. All one-time friar lands are too. In Metro Manila alone, Carpio says, these consist of 35,033 hectares. (Makati, one of the 17 cities, has an area of 2,736 hectares; the whole metropolis, 63,600 hectares.) The SC’s 8-7 ruling imperils over half of Metro Manila. Former friar lands exist elsewhere, as industrial, commercial or residential estates.

“If we do not apply the DENR memo … the SC will be disquieting titles held by generations of landowners since the passage in 1904 of the (Friar Lands Act),” says Carpio. “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of landowners would surely be dispossessed of their lands in these areas. This is a disaster waiting to happen – a blow to the integrity of our Torrens system and the stability of land titles in this country.”

* * *

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Government failure punishes buyer

Government failure punishes buyer

By Amado P. Macasaet

http://www.malaya.com.ph/03192012/edmacasaet.html

IN its ruling promulgated March 15, the Supreme Court effectively made the state – the government – a land grabber of a valuable 34-hectare property bought and paid for and titled to the name of Severino Manotok as early as 80 years ago.

The ruling on a 7-7 vote gives the land back to the government obviously because the Court cannot determine who among several claimants can produce the documents proving ownership.

The records of the Court show that Severino Manotok bought the property, owned by the friars, in 1919 on a 10-year installment agreement. He completed the payment in more than 10 years.

Under the law, the state is required to transmit to the register of deeds the deed of conveyance in favor of Severino Manotok. The deed was transmitted as required by the state.

Forthwith, a title was issued to the buyer.

The ruling, penned by Associate Justice Martin Villarama upholds the recommendation of the Court of Appeals that the property belongs to the state and the title must be cancelled based on the statute that states “no sale shall be valid until approved by the Secretary (of agriculture and natural resources)”

It is plain to us that the state failed Severino Manotok, now represented in Court by his heirs. We agree that there might be such a requirement. But we ask, did Severino Manotok have any kind of control over the duty of the state – the secretary of agriculture and natural resources in this case – to sign the deed of conveyance?

In fact, the buyer of the friar land, Severino Manotok, may not have known whether or not some details were missed in the deed of conveyance since the document was transmitted to the register of deed without him or his representative being notified – least of all given a chance to review it.

Why then should the Manotoks (heirs of Severino) be denied a right to own the land proven by payment, deed of conveyance and a title that was subsequently issued?

The Manotoks cannot be divested of their right to the land on the argument by the Supreme Court that the deed of conveyance did not have the signature of the secretary of agriculture and natural resources. If that were to be so, the Supreme Court is punishing the Manotoks for the failure of the state to do its job.

It is not reasonable either for the Court to argue that the register of deeds can no longer find the transfer documents. The heirs of Severino Manotok never had any role in that negligence.

Therefore, the property must be turned over to the state, absent such evidence that the Manotoks are not required to produce the documents?

When the state fails to do its job – by omission or design – nobody should suffer for it. That is common sense law. After all, there is proof of full payment of the friar land. Taxes have been paid by the Manotoks up to this day from the time they took over possession.

They have been in possession for around 80 years. They will lose the friar land sold to them by the state for failure of the state to perform its duty? That does not sound fair.

It is important to remember that the state sold the friar lands to private persons or corporations after taking them over from the Spaniards. The state did its job of giving the Filipino the right to own land in his country. But the buyer must pay. And pay the Manotoks did. The records prove it.

If the state takes back the land on orders of the Supreme Court, it will undo what it did when it sold the friar lands to the private sector. For what reason? That the deed of conveyance and other transfer documents supposed to be kept by the state cannot now be found?

The precedent is dangerous. There could be hundreds, maybe thousands of buyers of friar lands, similarly situated as the Manotoks. Will their lands be ceded back to the state if the documents are questioned or adverse claims are filed and the documents perfecting the transaction cannot now be produced by the state although it is the keeper?

But the Supreme Court said that is another matter. It is not.

Some powerful people can always file an adverse claim with the Court. Some powerful people may strike a deal to buy the land after the state takes over.

What happens to the buyer who has been presumably cultivating the land he paid for and got a title for it? He will lose it to the state, courtesy of the Supreme Court?

If the Supreme Court can commit this kind of injustice it effectively condones the inefficiency of the state in keeping records as far as friar lands are concerned, or more specifically as far as the Manotoks are concerned.

The Supreme Court makes the state a land grabber. The victim is an innocent buyer who believed – it now turns out wrongly – that if he performs his part of the sale the state will similarly do its job.

The state did not. He must pay for the mistake or negligence of the state.

It must be noted that the Supreme Court based its decision on the recommendations of the Court of Appeals which usurped the powers of the Regional Trial Court which, according to the law, has the original jurisdiction in administrative reconstitution of land titles.

It is not funny at all that the High Court remanded the case to the CA instead of the RTC to comply with law.

There is more than meets the eye in this case. We recall that in a division ruling, the land was awarded the heirs of Homer Barque. It turns out, however, that the documents of the Barques are not genuine as discovered by the appellate court.

The fact finding job belongs to the regional trial court. That is what the law provides.

Twice to vote

Twice to vote
By: Conrado R. Banal
Philippine Daily Inquirer

http://business.inquirer.net/51537/twice-to-vote

Disturbing issues hound Chief Justice Renato Corona regarding his actions in the Supreme Court even while he is standing trial at the Senate that may cost him his powerful position.

According to reports, in a landmark case involving a 30-year dispute over some 34 hectares of prime property in Quezon City, the Chief Justice in effect voted not just once but twice.

The SC early this month issued a ruling en banc that the so-called Piedad Estate, which is close to the Ayala Heights project of premier developer Ayala Land, should belong to the government.

The en banc voting was close at 8 versus 7, meaning it could have gone either way. It seems the Chief Justice himself broke the deadlock, but not with his own vote.

Together with his own vote, he supposedly also used the vote of a justice on leave for more than a month—Justice Mariano del Castillo. The ailing Del Castillo reportedly was not even able to take part in the deliberation.

In fact, all other SC documents would show that Del Castillo was on leave. In this particular case, the Chief Justice simply used the vote of the absent justice. It was the tie-breaking vote, at that.

Disturbing questions thus arise. For one, can an absent justice, who could not be present in the discussion of the issues in a case, vote on en banc decision? May the Chief Justice really take the place of an absent justice?

Is it legal, and if it is, is it the proper thing to do, particularly for a man who is supposed to be the paragon of fairness and morality in this country?

* * *

We have been following this interesting case since the 1990s and have written a number of pieces on it. It started way back when, in 1988, a mysterious fire broke out at the office of the Registry of Deeds at the Quezon City hall. The result was a flood of apparently spurious titles over pieces of property in the city.

The longtime owner of the Piedad Estate was the Manotok family, whose ancestor bought the land from the government in the 1930s. For the past 80 years or so, the family has been paying for the real estate tax on the property.

All of a sudden after the fire at city hall, two other titles appeared, purportedly as evidence of the real ownership of the property. Two other names surfaced in the land title mess, Manahan and Barque, both claiming ownership of the property.

Thus the Manotok family went to court to challenge the alleged “reconstituted” titles. The case dragged on for over two decades, going back and forth between the Court of Appeals and the SC.

This is important: The ownership of the Manotok family, who had control over the property for the longest time by sheer of possession, was never in question in the original case.

In an earlier decision, the SC negated the claims of the two groups—the Manahans and Barques. Thus, you would think that the Manotok family has won in the long-running land dispute.

For whatever mysterious reason, the SC also decided that the CA should answer a question that came from nowhere. And that was, “Did the Manotok family own the land or not?”

The CA eventually ruled that the property should go back to the government because of one reason: Some bureaucrat’s signature was missing in the documents presented by the Manotok family.

Look at that: it was the government that failed to do its job. The court in effect said that, because of such a government failure, the poor individual must be punished.

The SC in 2010 upheld the CA decision. The SC early this month ruled with finality on the case. That was the ruling in which the Chief Justice voted twice, if only to beat the dissenting opinion, penned by Senior Justice Antonio Carpio.

* * *

Horror stories are flying on the possible reason for the daring role that the impeached Renato Corona played in this landmark decision.

One story points at the group of lawyers specializing in land disputes in Quezon City. It is said that the Chief Justice could possibly owe the group favors in connection with the ongoing trial at the Senate.

Those stories are rather difficult to substantiate. The fact is they are going around business and legal circles. They are not doing the impeachment process any good.

But more than the reputation of the embattled Chief Justice, the land title system in this country can be in danger of collapse.

Thousands—if not millions—of individuals already have titles on their properties in former friar lands, seized by the Americans during their occupation of the Philippines, and then sold to various individuals.

More than half of Metro Manila used to be friar lands. The question is this: What will happen to the titles covering all those properties?

The recent SC ruling takes the force of law, and it could therefore encourage other crooks to lay claim on thousands upon thousands of hectares of property all over the country.

The decision may even open up an entire new racket in the property sector: Some syndicates would be selling land titles over certain property owned by millions of Filipinos for the past several years.

Officials of the Land Registration Authority have long admitted such a problem. It seems that, for some time now, the LRA has been trying to settle land disputes—all in Quezon City.

The cases were all handled by a certain group of lawyers associated with an organization.

SC can quiet titles or make a mess

October 15, 2009

AMADO P. MACASAET

http://www.malaya.com.ph/09012010/columnbusi1.html

‘What the decision – my guess, not the Court’s – will create is utter confusion and leave useless and meaningless all titles to those lands. Torrens titles from which transfer certificates of titles were drawn and have been quieted by operation of law and for lack of any adverse claims will be questionable as a result of the possible ruling.’

WE have no information on how the Supreme Court will decide the long-drawn land dispute among the Manotoks, the Manahans and the heirs of Homer Barque.

We can make two guesses. One, the Court may award the 34-hectare property to the Manotoks who have proven they have all it takes to own the land or to either the Barques or the Manahans.

The other possibility, remote as I see it, is the return of the land to the state. Which means that in the judgment of the Court the documents that justified the issuance of the titles of the three claimants are all forgeries.

I am personally scared of the third possibility in the sense that it creates a jurisprudence over all friar lands sold by the state.

More than 145,000 hectares of such land were former friar lands. They are scattered in at least eight provinces.

I am not saying that Court will rule that way. I am merely making a guess.

The effects can paralyze the economy. Business operates through borrowings from banks. In most cases, the collateral offered is real property.

Because of the decision – if that indeed will be the decision as I guess – the lending bank will have to first determine whether or not the offered collateral was formerly friar land.

If it happens to be, the bank will not give the loan for a very simple sensible reason. The land might be seized by the state.

Nearly all of the lands in Laguna and Cavite were former friar lands. They could be subject to forfeiture by the state if the Supreme Court rules that the Manotok property, originally part of the Piedad Estate which was friar land, must revert back to the government.

Having said that, I believe that the Supreme Court will look deeply and dispassionately into the documents presented to the Court of Appeals by the contending parties.

I said earlier that the Barques admitted that they submitted fake documents. The Manahans, on the other hand, presented documents that cannot be verified and, logically, must be presumed spurious. They do not exist.

At this point, it may be helpful to the Court and to all owners of former friar lands to know that the Manotoks, maybe like other owners of former friar lands, have in their possession documents which have never been doubted although a division decision in the same Court awarded the Manotok property to the heirs of Homer Barque.

The first step in acquiring friar lands bought or ceded to the state is to have a certificate of sale. This cannot be issued without proof of payment although such payment may be made in installments.

The certificate of sale may be assigned to just about anybody the holder wants to assign it to.

The next step is the issuance of a deed of conveyance by the director of the bureau of lands, now the Land Management Bureau under the Land Registration Administration.

The deed shall be issued only upon full payment of the value of the land. The document must be notarized.

From what I can figure out the documents are transmitted to the register of deeds in the locality where the land is located. The register of deeds issues a Torrens title.

That makes the title unassailable. So are the original certificates of title or transfer certificates of title drawn from the Torrens title. They are unassailable only if the documents that led to the issuance of the Torrens title are beyond question. Such is the case of the Manotoks as proven by official records.

In the dispute now under deliberation by the Supreme Court, it appears that only the Manotoks have proofs that their documents are genuine as proven by the existence of copies in the files of the National Archive.

I heard that there is this argument that the deed of conveyance issued to Severino Manotok is void because it does not have the signature of the secretary of agriculture and natural resources.

If that is the case, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of deeds of conveyance that do not have the signature of the secretary of agriculture and natural resources.

They are as void as the deed of conveyance issued to Severino Manotok. Therefore, these lands must likewise revert to the state. Their owners will not surrender their land without a separate order from the Supreme Court.

Or is the jurisprudence that the Court could establish equivalent to an order to surrender the land?

Two claimants have no proof of ownership

October 15, 2009

AMADO P. MACASAET

http://www.malaya.com.ph/08302010/columnbusi1.html

‘In a word, the Court has documents submitted by the Manahans that cannot be verified and an admission by the Barquez that they submitted fake evidence. That leaves the Manotoks as a claimant with a valid claim – verified contract of sale deed of conveyance and a Torrens title.’

THE Manahans, represented by supposed man and wife Rosendo and Felicitas Manahan, in claiming that the family has a valid claim to the disputed 34-hectare property long occupied by the heirs of Severino Manotok, appear to have submitted to the Court of Appeals documents which do not exist.

This is obviously intended to support the admission that they do not have a title to the disputed property.

The basis of their alleged validity of claim is a deed of conveyance supposedly issued in 2000 by Ernesto Adobo, director of the Bureau of Lands. The deed does not have the signature of the secretary of agriculture and natural resources.

It is the lack of this signature that emboldened the Manahans to say that the deed of conveyance issued to Severino Manotok as early as 1923 is void. But it does exist as shown by a copy certified by the National Archives.

The Manahans told the Court of Appeals that there is a General Memorandum Order No. 1 supposedly issued by the Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources in 1977 allowing the director of lands to substitute his signature for that of the secretary.

The allegation states “then secretary of agriculture and natural resources.” The Manahans did not even know that at that time the secretary was Jun Leido Jr. from Mindoro Oriental.

The lawyers of the Manahans promised to submit a copy of the Memorandum Order.

They have not done so even as the Court of Appeals has already submitted its report to the Supreme Court before the Supreme Court makes a final resolution.

The lawyers cannot submit the document. It does not exist. The deed of conveyance issued by Ernesto Adobo is void. It has no basis.

One of the Manotoks took pains to ask the Department of Agriculture for a certified copy of General Memorandum Order No. 1 She was told that the copy should be in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

So off she went to the DENR. A certain Galo Martinez showed the Manotok heir all the memorandums issued in 1977 kept in the vault. There is no such General Memorandum Order No. 1.

Martinez told her back in those days, specifically 1977, memos were never called general memorandum orders. They were called “department administrative order”, “ministry order” or department memorandum order (1977).

In an official communication addressed to Ma. Milagros V. Manotok, Galo C. Martinez Jr., chief, records management and documentation division of the DENR, declared “please be informed that this office does not have in its custody a General Memorandum Order No. 1 signed by then Minister of Environment and Natural Resources issued in 1977.”

The Manahans also submitted to the Court of Appeals a machine copy of a document showing that they had a contract of sale signed by Dean Worcester in 1913.

A certified copy of this document, supposedly on file with the National Archives, has not been produced either.

Obviously, the Manahans wanted the Court to believe that their contract of sale over the disputed property was obtained ahead of the Manotoks who had their contract signed in 1923.

But the Manotoks submitted to the Court a copy of their contract certified by the National Archives. The Manahans did not have a certified copy.

The Barquez, the other party in the dispute, admitted before the Court of Appeals that they submitted a fake document.

In a word, the Court has documents submitted by the Manahans that cannot be verified and an admission by the Barquez that they submitted fake evidence.

That leaves the Manotoks as a claimant with a valid claim – verified contract of sale deed of conveyance and a Torrens title.

Strangely, there has been no question on the genuineness of the documents submitted in evidence by the Manahans. Nobody except the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

Where does the Supreme Court go from here?

The Court of Appeals submitted to the Supreme Court a 159-page report. This report shall be the basis for the High Tribunal to make a final decision.

Nobody except the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court en banc knows about the report. The Manotoks asked the High Tribunal to order the CA to furnish them with a copy.

They filed two motions. Both motions were denied.

The Manotoks also asked for oral arguments. The Supreme Court gave them the thumbs down.

In effect, the denial by the Supreme Court to order the Court of Appeals to furnish the litigants a copy each of the report amounts to a denial to due process in the sense that a ruling will be made without giving the parties the right to question in the sense that a ruling will be made without giving the parties the right to question or seek clarification on the report.

Oral arguments would have substituted for the copy of the report. But again, the Supreme Court denied request of the Manahans for the orals.
(To be continued)