[ G.R. No. 76386, October 26, 1987 ]
CELSO AMARANTE HEIRS, NAMELY: FELOMINA, FERNANDA, GENARO, CARMELITA, CRISPIN, CORAZON, ISIDRA, LYDIA, ANTONIO, BIENVENIDO, NATHALIA, DEGUILO, DOMINADOR, ZOSIMA, HUGO AND LORNA, ALL SURNAMED AMARANTE, BOHEMIA INFIEL, FAUSTA AMARANTE, PETRA AMARANTE, MARCELA VAILOCES,
LUCIANO FERRAREN, BIYORA INFIEL AND VICENTE MANGABIS, PETITIONERS, VS. THE HONORABLE COURT OF APPEALS, GREGORIO BOLO, EPIFANIO VILLANUEVA @ PANIYO, MATEA FELIX @ ESTRELLA, SUAREZ FELIX, BUENAVENTURA @ TURA, ANDA FELIX, DIOSDADO FELIX, DIRO FELIX, ANTONIA FELIX, EVANGELISTA FELIX
AND VICTORIA FELIX, RESPONDENTS.
D E C I S I O N
On 20 August 1954, petitioners filed a complaint (docketed as Civil Case No. 2967) against respondents for the recovery of a twenty-hectare parcel of unregistered agricultural land (Lot 1236, Pls-667) situated in Sitio Campulay, Barrio Atotes, Bindoy, a remote, mountainous region of Negros Oriental. The complaint was dismissed by the trial court on 31 January 1962 due to the failure of counsel for the petitioners to appear at the scheduled hearing of the case; the dismissal, however, was ordered without prejudice to the refiling of the same complaint.
On 20 December 1962, petitioners refiled their complaint (docketed this time as Civil Case No. 4100) with the then Court of First Instance of Negros Oriental (12th Judicial District).
The evidence for the petitioners (plaintiffs below) indicates that Lot 1236 was one of two pieces of real property originally owned and cultivated by the late Malonis Infiel, a native negrito or Aeta (Ate in the Ilongo dialect). Upon his death (the date is not specified), Lot 1236 was inherited by: (1) Silverio Amarante, Bohemia Infiel, Belta Infiel, Apolonia Infiel, and Inojaria Infiel, the children of Malonis Infiel with Elena Infiel; and (2) Felix Malonis, the son of Malonis Infiel with Lucia Infiel. The other, five-hectare, property situated in Sitio Awang, Barrio Atotes, Bindoy, Negros Oriental (Lot 1237, Pls-667), on the other hand, was inherited solely by Felix Malonis.
Petitioners, the grandchildren and descendants of Malonis Infiel out of his union with Elena Infiel, contended that Malonis Infiel began occupying Lot 1236 long before the advent of World War II and had cultivated the land by planting no less than 300 coconut trees, 19 mango trees, and 33 bamboo groves thereon. The occupation and possession by Malonis Infiel, his children, and petitioners of Lot 1236 remained undisturbed until sometime in 1953 when respondent Gregorio Bolo, a common law husband of one of the granddaughters of Felix Malonis, caused the survey of Lots 1236 and 1237 in June 1948, and proceeded to occupy Lot 1236 claiming to have purchased the same on 11 April 1948 from respondent heirs of Felix Malonis. Petitioners contested the claim of respondent Bolo and asserted that what had been sold to him was only Lot 1237 (area: 5 hectares) and that Lot 1236 (area: 20 hectares) was surreptitiously declared by respondent Bolo in the aforementioned survey as property owned exclusively by Felix Malonis. Petitioners also contended that respondent Bolo, in his desire to consolidate possession and ownership of Lot 1236 in his name, harassed petitioners by instituting a criminal case for qualified theft on 7 October 1953 against Eleuterio Amarante and petitioner Celso Amarante, and by threatening to liquidate the other petitioners if they persisted in their refusal to abandon the disputed property.
For their part, respondents (defendants below), the grandchildren and surviving heirs of Felix Malonis, contended that it was not improper for them to sell Lot 1236 to respondent Bolo on the ground that said property had always been owned exclusively by Felix Malonis, contrary to the claim by petitioners that Lot 1236 was owned in common by the six children of Malonis Infiel by his two wives. Respondents presented Tax Declaration No. 123 issued on 7 August 1948 in the name of "Herederos de Felix Malonis" in support of their claim of ownership over Lot 1236, and in rebuttal of Tax Declaration No. 6051 issued in 1953 in the name of Malonis Infiel which was presented in evidence by petitioners.
On 17 September 1984, Branch 42 of the Regional Trial Court of Dumaguete City (Seventh Judicial District) rendered a Decision, the dispositive portion of which reads:
"WHEREFORE, premises considered, plaintiffs' complaint is hereby dismissed and declaring the sale between the heirs of Felix Malonis and Gregorio Bolo over the property in question valid, and finally declaring Gregorio Bolo owner of the parcel of land declared under Tax Declaration No. 123 in the name of the Heirs of Felix Malonis and now declared in his name under Tax Declaration No. 4393.
The Court refrains from granting defendants' counterclaim for damages, the same not being proved by convincing evidence.
On appeal to the Court of Appeals, this case was docketed as CA-G.R. CV No. 05697. In a Decision dated 3 April 1986, the decision of the trial court was affirmed in toto by the Court of Appeals (First Civil Cases Division).
The Court of Appeals (Sixth Division), in a Resolution dated 17 September 1986, denied petitioners' Motion for Reconsideration not on its merits but rather for having been filed late, and ordered that entry of judgment of the decision dated 3 April 1986 of the First Civil Cases Division be made.
In a resolution dated 14 January 1987, this Court set aside the resolution dated 17 September 1986 of the Court of Appeals (Sixth Division), as well as the entry of judgment ordered by the Sixth Division in said resolution of the decision dated 3 April 1986 of the First Civil Cases Division. Respondents have since then filed their Comment to the petition while petitioners, in response, have filed their Reply to respondents' comment.
The present Petition for review was filed with the Court on 11 November 1986.
We are of course aware of the familiar rule that, as a matter of general principle, the conclusions and findings of fact by the trial court are entitled to great weight on appeal on account of said court's having been in a better position to examine real evidence, as well as to observe the demeanor of the witnesses while testifying in the case. This rule, however, admits of exceptions, as where the evidence of record fails to support or substantiate the lower court's findings of fact and conclusions; or where the lower court overlooked certain facts of substance and value that, if considered, would affect the outcome of the case; or where the disputed decision is based on a misapprehension of facts.
We are similarly not unmindful of the well-established rule that the Court of Appeals is the final arbiter of questions of fact and, hence, the jurisdiction of this Court in cases brought before it from the Court of Appeals is limited to reviewing and revising only errors of law. Exceptions to this rule, however, likewise exist, such as when: "(1) the conclusion is a finding grounded entirely on speculation, surmise and conjectures; (2) the inference made is manifestly mistaken; (3) there is grave abuse of discretion; (4) the judgment is based on a misapprehension of facts; (5) the Court of Appeals went beyond the issues of the case and its findings are contrary to the admission of both appellant and appellees; (6) the findings of fact of the Court of Appeals are contrary to those of the trial court; (7) the findings of fact are conclusions without citation of specific evidence on which they are based; (8) the facts set forth in the petition as well as the petitioner's main and reply briefs are not disputed by the respondents; and (9) when the finding of fact of the Court of Appeals is premised on the absence of evidence and is contradicted by evidence on record".
The record here discloses several rather unsettling and unexplained circumstances which compel us to order are-trial of the case at bar.
1. The ground of laches was relied upon very heavily in deciding this case against petitioners. Said the trial judge in this respect:
"Plaintiffs (petitioners) are guilty of lachesfor allowing Gregorio Bolo to possess, cultivate and own the disputed property for fourteen (14) long years before instituting the present action (Civil Case No. 4100). This inaction negates whatever pretensions there are that plaintiffs own the property in question."
The respondent appellate court similarly held:
"x x x For a period of nine (9) years from 1953 .... they (petitioners) neglected to take positive steps to assert their dominical claim over the property. They commenced the instant case (Civil Case No. 4100) only on December 10, 1962. As correctly concluded by the lower court, laches have set in. x x x"
Both the trial judge and the appellate court had apparently forgotten all about Civil Case No. 2967, instituted by petitioners on 20 August 1954against respondents for recovery of the possession of Lot1236. The dismissal of this case without prejudice on 31 January 1962, in fact, occasioned the filing on 20 December 1962 of Civil Case No. 4100 which, in effect, was merely a revival of Civil Case No. 2967 and not a new action altogether. We are, consequently, unable to understand how the doctrine of laches could be regarded as applicable in the present case.
2. The trial judge, in substantiation of the position taken by him in Civil Case No. 4100, enumerated in his decision several "facts" (which are really conclusions), which were simply adopted in their entirety by the appellate court. Conspicuously missing, however, in the decisions of both courts is an exposition and evaluation of the specific factual circumstances and the supporting evidence which led to such conclusions.
After summarizing the respective contentions of the petitioners (plaintiffs below) and the private respondents (defendants below), the trial Judge went on to state in his decision:
"In the assessment of the evidence spread on the records of the case, this court believes and so holds that defendants have proven their case by preponderance of evidence asshown by the following facts:
1. Plaintiffs are guilty of laches for allowing Gregorio Bolo to possess, cultivate and own the disputed property for fourteen (14) long years before instituting the present action. This inaction negates whatever pretensions there are that plaintiffs own the property in question;
2. Tax Declaration No. 6051 shows that it was a concoction to make it appear that the land was declared by plaintiffs' predecessor in interest Malonis Infiel; its preparation and issuance was motivated by the desire to provide basis in filing the case and to offset the effect of defendants' tax declaration which is older than that of the plaintiffs;
3. While asserting fraud in the pleadings, fraud was never proved, a fatal evidentiary shortcoming; falling short of the jurisprudential requirement that it should be proved by convincing and sufficiently (sic) rather than presume the same;
4. The testimonies of plaintiffs' witnesses hardly proved a case at (sic). Several loose ends and lack of proofs of ownership of the disputed property characterized their testimonies;
5. No competent and sufficient evidence have been adduced to prove that the property in question was plaintiffs' and defendants' common property and neither was there evidence to show defendants' betrayal of trust reposed on them by plaintiffs as co-owners of the property in question;
6. Finally, the plaintiffs themselves except Gregorio Bolo took the witness stand as witnesses for the defendants declaring that the property in question was the exclusive property of Felix Malonis and not their common inheritance from their deceased alleged original owner, Malonies Infiel;
WHEREFORE, premises considered, plaintiffs' complaint is hereby dismissed and declaring the sale between the heirs of Felix Malonis and finally declaring Gregorio Bolo owner of the parcel of land declared under Tax Declaration No. 123 in the name of the Heirs of Felix Malonis and now declared in his name under Tax Declaration No. 4393.
The Court refrains from granting defendants' counterclaim for damages, the same not being proved by convincing evidence.
The respondent appellate court, for its part, quoted the same above "facts" found by the trial court and then went on to state as follows:
"The record supports the findings of the lower court. Plaintiffs declared the land for assessment purposes in 1953 after it was already declared far the same purpose by defendants in 1948 and sold by them to Bolo in 1949. Plaintiffs' Tax Dec. No. 6051 for the year 1953 is indicated as 'NEW' at the bottom of the reverse side thereof. Some of the plaintiffs, such as Luciano Ferraren, Fausto Papa (Amarante) and Ines Papa (Infiel), testified for the defendants and named Felix Malonis as the owner of the land in question. Exhs. C and C-1 indicate that defendants are in possession of the land. Plaintiffs also admit that Bolo had caused the land to be surveyed, showing his possession thereof. Pursuant to Art. 541 of the Civil Code, defendant Gregorio Bolo should now be deemed the owner of the disputed property (Samonte vs. Court of Appeals, G.R. No. L-44841, Jan. 27, 1986). For a period of nine (9) years from 1953, when plaintiffs Celso Amarante and Eleuterio Amarante were charged with qualified theft (Exh. C), and they claimed ownership of the land (Exh. C-1), they neglected to take positive steps to assert their dominical claim over the property. They commenced the instant case only on December 10, 1962. As correctly concluded by the lower court, laches have set in. Fraud is a question of fact and the circumstances constituting fraud must be alleged and proved in the court below. The finding of the lower court as to the existence or non-existence of fraud is final and cannot be reviewed here unless clearly shown to be erroneous (Commissioner of Internal Revenue vs. Ayala Securities Corp., 70 SCRA 205). In this Court, the evidence and sufficiently their averment of fraud in the execution of the deed of sale in favor of Gregorio Bolo.
WHEREFORE, the appealed judgment is hereby AFFIRMED in toto. Costs against plaintiffs-appellants."
(a) In respect of petitioners' and respondents' conflicting tax declarations covering Lot No. 1236, no explanation or documentation was offered by either the trial Judge or the appellate court to explain how the conclusion that petitioners' tax declaration was a mere "concoction" devised only "to offset the effects of defendants' tax declaration" was arrived at. It should be readily evident that the mere fact that petitioners' tax declaration was later in time than defendants' tax declaration does not rationally justify such a conclusion. The conclusion of the two (2) courts, thus, appears based only on conjecture or supposition.
(b) The trial Judge, referring to the testimonies of the petitioners' witnesses, summarily declared that the testimonies of plaintiffs "hardly proved [their] case" and that "several loose ends and lack of proof of ownership of the disputed property characterized their testimonies". The trial Judge, however, refrained from identifying the witnesses adverted to and the portions of their testimonies found to have "loose ends".
(c) The trial Judge held that the petitioners failed to prove their allegations of fraud, a conclusion that the respondent appellate court upheld not by independent inquiry but by saying that "the finding of the lower court as to the existence [or] the non-existence of fraud is final and cannot be reviewed here unless clearly shown to be erroneous." Once again, both decisions failed to document the position taken on this crucial point. Neither decision contained even a summary discussion of or reference to the evidence of record, whether in substantiation or in rebuttal of these allegations of fraud. Neither Court disclosed, in other words, the basis of the finding of fact they purported to have made.
(d) On the critical question of possession of the disputed land, the Court of Appeals said in its decision: "Exhs. C and C-1 indicate that defendants are in possession of the land. Plaintiffs also admit that Bolo had caused the land to be surveyed, showing his possession thereof." It is important to point out that Exh. C of the petitioners consisted of a criminal complaint dated 7 October 1953, against Eleuterio Amarante and petitioner Celso Amarante charging them with the crime of qualified theft -- theft of twenty (20) pieces of coconuts allegedly belonging to Gregorio Bolo having the total value of P1.00. This complaint was docketed as Criminal Case No. 257 of the Justice of the Peace Court, Negros Oriental. Exh. C-1 was the order dated 23 September 1954 of the Justice of the Peace Roque B. Amante dismissing "temporarily" the complaint, "it appearing that the question of ownership over the subject matter of this action [20 coconuts] had been raised by the defense in this case and which question is presently pending determination in the Court of First Instance of this province [Civil Case No. 2967]". We are unable to understand how the respondent appellate court could regard Exhs. C and C-1 as evidence showing that defendants (respondents herein) were in possession of the land. We are similarly unable to understand how the circumstance that respondent Bolo had caused the land to be surveyed could be regarded as evidence that he (Bolo) was in possession thereof; this appears a simple non-sequitur.
3. Civil Case No. 4100, so the record discloses, apart from having taken all of twenty-two years to resolve, was heard and decided by six different judges, the participation of the sixth and last judge being limited solely to the writing of the decision therein. The judge who wrote the decision, in other words, had not personally heard any part of the case. This unusual circumstance must affect the weight that a reviewing tribunal normally accords to the findings of fact of the trial judge who is assumed to have observed the detailed demeanor of witnesses in the course of their testimony before the court.
4. In both their Memorandum filed with the trial court in Civil Case No. 4100 and their appellants' Brief filed in the Court of Appeals, petitioners, among other things, painstakingly outlined and cited the portions of the testimonies of their witnesses showing that Lot 1236 was originally owned by Malonis Infiel, a native negrito, who lived and died on said property; that Malonis Infiel, upon his death, was succeeded by his six children by his two wives; that petitioner Celso Amarante, together with his aunts and their children, were the actual occupants of Lot 1236 until 1954 when respondent Bolo unlawfully divested them of their possession; that what was sold by respondent heirs of Felix Malonis to respondent Bolo was Lot 1237 and, if ever, at most only their 1/6 share in Lot 1236; that respondent Bolo threatened and harassed petitioners in order to lay claim to Lot 1236; and that due to the fraud allegedly perpetrated upon them, and for the "measly sum of P1,146.00", all the real property -- comprising no less than twenty-five hectares -- once owned and cultivated by Malonis Infiel and the members of his family, and all the improvements thereon, suddenly wound up in the singular possession of respondent Bolo, who has since benefitted from the produce thereof. Petitioners likewise pointed to several material inconsistencies in the testimonies of respondents' four witnesses which, had they been evaluated more carefully, might have altered the result of this case altogether. Finally, there is also the argument by petitioners that those who purportedly affixed their thumbmarks to the Absolute Deed of Sale covering Lot 1236 in favor of respondent Bolo could not have possibly been aware of the consequences of their individual acts because they were all illiterate mountain people lacking in any formal education, in stark contrast with respondent Bolo who, apart from being a local political official in those days (he was a municipal councilor), was a schooled individual -- apparently the only one among the contracting parties. The detailed discussion of the evidence by the petitioners was not dealt with at all, was in fact ignored, by the two courts in their decisions. The obvious inequality, in level of understanding of formal transactions, between the parties did not move either court to substantial efforts to make sure that the rights of illiterate negritos were protected.
The curious silence of the two courts on the foregoing matters, coupled with the strikingly inadequate, practically non-existent discussion of the facts and evidence in this case, must be viewed in the light of an important public policy which bears upon this case. That public policy is embodied, inter alia, in Article 24 of the Civil Code which, "in all contractual, property or other relations, when one of the parties is at a disadvantage on account of his moral dependence, ignorance, indigence, mental weakness, tender age or other handicap", enjoins courts to be "vigilant for [the] protection [of such party]." This same public policy is manifested in the recognition in our statute law and case law that members of our cultural or ethnic minority groups, such as Aetas, are commonly handicapped and vulnerable in dealing with other members of the community and, therefore, need and deserve particular protection. Section 145 (b) of the Revised Administrative Code of Mindanao and Sulu, for instance, prescribes that no conveyance or encumbrance of real property shall be made in the territorial jurisdiction of that Department by a non-christian inhabitant thereof unless, among other requirements, the deed is approved by the Provincial Governor or his authorized representative. Section 120 of the Public Land Act, Commonwealth Act No. 141 as amended, has extended the same kind of protection to all "non-christian Filipinos" or "national cultural minorities", whether in Mindanao and Sulu or elsewhere; conveyances and encumbrances made by illiterate non-christians (or by literate non-christians if the deed is in a language not understood by them) need the approval of the Chairman of the Commission of National Integration [now, the Presidential Assistant for Cultural Minorities] to be valid. In Mangayao, et al. v. Lasud, et al., Mr. Justice J.B.L. Reyes referred, in his characteristic, trenchant language, to "the obvious intent of [these] statutes to guard the patrimony of illiterate non-christians from those who are inclined to prey upon their ignorance or ductility (Porkanv. Yatco, 70 Phil. 161, Porkanv. Navarro, 73 Phil. 698, Madale v. Sa Raya, 92 Phil. 558)". We must give meaning to this public policy in this case.
All the above factors lead us to the conviction that the interests of substantial justice will best be served by remanding this case to the trial court. Ordinarily, we would remand this case for trial de novo. This controversy has, however, been in our courts since 1954; we cannot allow this situation to persist a day longer than is absolutely essential.
WHEREFORE, the Decision of Branch 42 of the Regional Trial Court of Dumaguete City dated 17 September 1984 in Civil Case No. 4100 is SET ASIDE. This case is REMANDED to that Regional Trial Court which is hereby DIRECTED to proceed as follows:
1. It shall consider carefully all the evidence previously submitted to it by petitioners.
2. It shall hold hearings for the purpose of receiving such additional evidence as petitioners may wish to submit in support of their principal allegations and arguments, to wit:
(a) that Lot No. 1236 was originally owned by Malonis Infiel who cultivated and lived and died on that property;
(b) that Malonis Infiel, upon his death, was succeeded, insofar as Lot No. 1236 was concerned, by his six (6) children by his two (2) wives;
(c) that petitioner Celso Amarante, his aunts and their children were in actual possession of Lot No. 1236 until 1954 when respondent Bolo by fraud, breach of trust, threats, intimidation, harassment, misrepresentation and other unlawful means divested them of their possession;
(d) that what was sold by respondent heirs of Felix Malonis to respondent Bolo was Lot No. 1237 and, if at all and at most, a 1/6 share in Lot No. 1236; and
(e) that the Absolute Deed of Sale covering Lot No. 1236 in favor of respondent Bolo is invalid or unenforceable.
3. If additional evidence is submitted by petitioners, respondents shall be entitled to cross-examine petitioners' additional witnesses and to submit rebuttal evidence.
4. This Regional Trial Court, Branch 42, Dumaguete City shall, with all deliberate dispatch, and in any case within ninety (90) days from receipt hereof, submit a report on the evidence of record and on its findings of fact to this Court. Such findings of fact shall be fully documented by reference to the evidence of record; the basis of each finding of fact shall be clearly identified. The Regional Trial Court shall furnish petitioners and private respondents with a copy of its report to this Court. The entire record of this case shall be elevated to this Court.
After receipt and consideration of the report of the Regional Trial Court, this Court will resolve the Petition for Review and the underlying case on the merits. No costs.
SO ORDERED.Fernan, (Chairman), Gutierrez, Jr., Bidin, and Cortes, JJ., concur.
 Brief for Appellants, p. 2; and Memorandum, p. 1.
 This criminal case was dismissed by the trial court on 21 February 1956. Petitioner Celso Amarante died on 2 September 1984 and was substituted in this petition by his wife, fourteen children, and two grandchildren.
 RTC Records, pp. 241-245. The decision was penned by Judge Daniel B. Bernaldez.
 The majority opinion was penned by Quetulio-Losa, J., and concurred in by Gaviola, Jr. and Ines-Luciano, JJ.
 The Sixth Division was then composed of Griño-Aquino, Ines-Luciano and Cui, JJ.
 Rollo, p. 42.
 Chase vs. Buencamino, Sr., 136 SCRA 365 ; People vs. Grefiel, 125 SCRA 102 ; and Chacon Enterprises vs. Court of Appeals, 124 SCRA 784 .
 Castillo vs. Court of Appeals, 124 SCRA 808 .
 People vs. Royeras, 130 SCRA 259 .
 ArevaloGomez Corp. vs. Lao Hian Liong, 148 SCRA 372 ; and De la Cruz vs. Sosing, 94 Phil. 26 .
 Tongoy vs. Court of Appeals, 123 SCRA 99 ; and Enriquez vs. Court of Appeals, 104 SCRA 656 .
 Manero vs. Court of Appeals, 102 SCRA 817 at 822 ; and Tolentino vs. De Jesus, 56 SCRA 167 at 172 ; underscoring supplied.
 RTC Decision, p. 3; underscoring supplied.
 CA Decision, pp. 4-5; underscoring supplied. The Complaint in Civil Case No. 4100 was dated 10 December 1962 and was filed in court on 20 December 1962.
 RTC Records, pp. 224-237.
 Rollo, p. 40 (consisting of twenty-five pages).
 Brief for Appellants, pp. 11 and 15; and Memorandum, pp. 2 and 10.
 Brief for Appellants, p. 14; Memorandum, p. 4.
 Brief for Appellants, pp. 13-17; and Memorandum, pp. 3-5.
 Brief for Appellants, pp. 10, 11 and 16; and Memorandum, pp. 4-5.
 Brief for Appellants, pp. 13-14; and Memorandum, pp. 3-4.
 Brief for the Appellants, pp. 4, 14, 15, and 23; and Memorandum, pp. 3, 4, 10, 12, and 13.
 Brief for Appellants, pp. 17-22; and Memorandum, pp. 6-9.
 Brief for Appellants, p. 10; and Memorandum, p. 9.
 120 Phil. 154 .
 Id., at 159.