Philippine National Oil Company-Energy Development Corporation vs. Buenviaje
G.R. Nos. 183200-01/G.R. Nos. 183253 & 183257. June 29, 2016
Philippine National Oil Company-Energy Development Corporation (PNOC-EDC) hired Amelyn Buenviaje (Buenviaje) as Assistant to the then Chairman/President and Chief Executive Officer Sergio A.F. Apostol (Apostol), her father. Buenviaje’s employment contract provided that she will serve until June 30, 2004 or co-terminous with the tenure of Apostol, whichever comes first. On August 4, 2003, Apostol approved the creation of PNOC-EDC’s new Marketing Division composed of thirty (30) positions. Seven (7) of these thirty (30) positions were also newly created, one of which was that of a Marketing Division Manager. Buenviaje assumed this position as early as the time of the creation of the Marketing Division.
On January 5, 2004, Apostol filed his Certificate of Candidacy as Governor for the province of Leyte, yet continued to discharge his functions as President in PNOC-EDC. Buenviaje also continued to perform her duties as Assistant to the Chairman/President and Marketing Division Manager in PNOC-EDC. Subsequently, Paul Aquino (Aquino), the new President of PNOC-EDC, appointed Buenviaje to the position of Senior Manager for Marketing Division. In line with PNOC-EDCs policies, Buenviaje was subjected to a performance appraisal. She received a satisfactory grade of three (3). In her subsequent performance appraisal, she received an unsatisfactory grade of four (4). Thus, Ester Guerzon (Guerzon), Vice President for Corporate Affairs of PNOC-EDC, informed Buenviaje that she did not qualify for regular employment. PNOC-EDC, through Guerzon, communicated in writing to Buenviaje her non-confirmation of appointment as well as her separation from the company effective July 31, 2004. On July 2, 2004, Buenviaje gave her written comments on the results of her second performance appraisal. In reply, PNOC-EDC sent her two (2) more letters reiterating her non-confirmation and separation from the company. Aquino also issued a Memorandum to Buenviaje instructing her to prepare a turnover report before her physical move-out.
Buenviaje responded by filing a complaint before the Labor Arbiter for illegal dismissal with money claims.
The Labor Arbiter held that Buenviaje was a regular employee because her appointment letter clearly says so. Any doubt caused by the statement in the appointment letter that Buenviaje’s appointment was subject to confirmation must be resolved against PNOC-EDC. In addition, PNOC-EDC failed to prove that reasonable standards were explained to Buenviaje at the time of her engagement, thusly negating PNOC-EDC’s claim that she was merely a probationary employee. The Labor Arbiter noted that PNOC-EDC even admitted that the alleged standards were only set and discussed with Buenviaje more than a month after her actual appointment.
The Labor Arbiter further ruled that PNOC-EDC also failed to explain why Buenviaje was allowed to enjoy benefits that were supposed to be exclusive for regular employees. As a regular employee, therefore, Buenviaje could only be dismissed for any of the just or authorized causes under Articles 282 and 283 of the Labor Code. Since the cause for Buenviaje’s dismissal was not included in any of the grounds enumerated in either Article, she was considered illegally dismissed. Both parties appealed to the NLRC.
The NLRC partly granted the appeal.
The NLRC agreed with the Labor Arbiter that Buenviaje was a regular employee of PNOC-EDC, noting that the terms of her appointment expressly grants a regular status of employment. The NLRC also found that PNOC-EDC admitted that Buenviaje has been performing the functions of a Marketing Division Manager for more than six (6) months before she was formally appointed to the said position. Nevertheless, the NLRC ruled that she was not illegally dismissed because she did not enjoy security of tenure. The NLRC noted that the condition in Buenviaje’s appointment letter, which provided that her appointment is subject to confirmation by her immediate superior based on her performance during the next six (6) months, was clear and understood by her when she affixed her signature to the appointment letter. The NLRC concluded that only upon confirmation of her appointment will Buenviaje enjoy the right to security of tenure. As it was, PNOC-EDC found her performance unsatisfactory and Buenviaje failed to disprove these findings. Therefore, Buenviaje failed to complete her appointment as a regular employee and her non-confirmation cannot be considered as an illegal dismissal.
The CA partially modified the Resolution of the NLRC. The CA found no reason to disturb the findings of both the Labor Arbiter and the NLRC that Buenviaje was a regular employee of PNOC-EDC. However, it disagreed with the NLRC’s ruling that Buenviaje failed to acquire security of tenure. The CA stated that where an employee has been engaged to perform activities which are usually necessary or desirable in the usual business of the employer, such employee is deemed a regular employee and is entitled to security of tenure notwithstanding the contrary provisions of his contract of employment. As a regular employee, Buenviaje may only be dismissed if there are just or authorized causes. Thus, PNOC-EDC’s reasoning that she failed to qualify for the position cannot be countenanced as a valid basis for her dismissal.
Both parties filed their respective motions for reconsideration, which the CA denied. Hence, the consolidated petitions.
Whether or not Buenviaje was a regular employee
Buenviaje was a permanent employee. If the clause in the appointment letter did cause an ambiguity in the employment status of Buenviaje, the ambiguity should be resolved in her favor. This is in line with the policy under our Labor Code to afford protection to labor and to construe doubts in favor of labor. We upheld this policy in De Castro vs. Liberty Broadcasting Network, Inc., ruling that between a laborer and his employer, doubts reasonably arising from the evidence or interpretation of agreements and writing should be resolved in the former’s favor. Hence, what would be more favorable to Buenviaje would be to accord her a permanent status.
What was significant in the case of Abbott Laboratories, Philippines vs. Alcaraz, was that both the offer sheet and the employment contract specifically stated that respondent was being employed on a probationary status. Thus, the intention of Abbott was to hire Alcaraz as a probationary employee. This circumstance is not obtaining in this case and the opposite, as we have already discussed, is true.
By the very nature of a probationary employment, the employee needs to know from the very start that he will be under close observation and his performance of his assigned duties and functions would be under continuous scrutiny by his superiors. It is in apprising him of the standards against which his performance shall be continuously assessed where due process lies. Likewise, probationary employees are entitled to know the reason for their failure to qualify as regular employees.
An unsatisfactory rating can be a just cause for dismissal only if it amounts to gross and habitual neglect of duties. Analogous to this ground, an unsatisfactory performance may also mean gross inefficiency. “Gross inefficiency” is closely related to “gross neglect,” for both involve specific acts of omission on the part of the employee resulting in damage to the employer or to his business. Failure to observe prescribed standards of work or to fulfill reasonable work assignments due to inefficiency may constitute just cause for dismissal. Such inefficiency is understood to mean failure to attain work goals or work quotas, either by failing to complete the same within the allotted reasonable period, or by producing unsatisfactory results. This management prerogative of requiring standards may be availed of so long as they are exercised in good faith for the advancement of the employer’s.
The fact that an employee’s performance is found to be poor or unsatisfactory does not necessarily mean that the employee is grossly and habitually negligent of or inefficient in his duties.
Awarded moral damages due to termination as probationary despite the fact she was treated as regular with the use of performance appraisal form for regular employee.