Republic of the Philippines
A.C. No. 8866 | September 15, 2020
Catherine V. Villarente, Complainant,
Atty. Benigno C. Villarente, Jr., Respondent.
Before the Court is a complaint asking for the disbarment of respondent Atty. Benigno C. Villarente, Jr. (respondent) after the latter continued cohabiting with his mistress and for siring another child, despite the clear warning by the Court against the commission of the same or similar act.
Catherine V. Villarente (complainant) filed on October 29, 2010 a complaint for Serious Misconduct as a Lawyer and as Judge against her husband, respondent herein, a retired judge, for allegedly delaying Civil Case No. PN-0306 for Nullity of Marriage filed by respondent in the Regional Trial Court (RTC), Branch 17, Palompon, Leyte, and for continuously cohabiting with his concubine and their illegitimate child, despite a previous disbarment case which warned him against continuing such relationship.
Earlier, complainant filed a disbarment case, A.C. No. 10017, against respondent for gross immorality which was decided by the Court’s Second Division on September 23, 2013, approving the recommendation of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) to impose upon respondent a penalty of suspension from the practice of law for one year with a stern warning that should evidence surface that his alleged conduct be proven grossly immoral, the matter will be dealt with more severely.
On February 25, 2015, complainant wrote IBP Commissioner Victor D. Cruz stating that respondent “emboldened by the very light penalty in A.C. No. 10017 (formerly CBD Case No. 05-1620 for Gross Immorality), has flaunted his immorality by siring a second illegitimate child with his mistress with whom he has been openly cohabiting since 2002 at No. 28 Sitio NGA, Lahug, Cebu City.”
The IBP Report and Recommendation
On November 25, 2015, the case was endorsed to Investigating Commissioner Dominica L. Dumangeng-Rosario (Commissioner Dumangeng-Rosario), who submitted her Report and Recommendation on July 21, 2016.
According to Commissioner Dumangeng-Rosario:
x x x [M]ore than the paralyzing of the Declaration of Nullity of Marriage whose issues brought out by the complainant had been rendered moot and academic as these had already been resolved by the proper courts, the arguments of both parties centered on the respondent’s open and shameless cohabitation with his mistress-concubine and siring two (2) illegitimate sons with her. The younger son was born after the first disbarment case against him, CBD Case No. 05-1620 was filed.
x x x x
x x x [A]tty. Villarente, Jr. had been subjected to a disbarment proceeding docketed as CBD Case No. 05-1620 upon complaint for gross immorality, dated December 15, 2005 filed by his wife, complainant herein. There it was alleged that respondent and complainant were married on December 30, 1975 at Pamplona, Leyte and out of such union had four children. Complainant claimed that sometime in 2002, respondent started cohabiting with a certain Maria Ellen Guarin who gave birth to a son, Benigno Junius Guarin on December 25, 2002.
On May 27, 2010, IBP Commissioner Dennis Siapno recommended disbarment for gross immorality committed by respondent who has completely disregarded and made a mockery of the fundamental institutions of marriage and family. On November 19, 2011, the IBP Board of Governors adopted and approved the recommendation with modification finding respondent guilty of gross immorality and imposing the penalty of indefinite suspension. Respondent filed a motion for reconsideration and on March 22, 2013, the IBP Board of Governors passed a resolution unanimously granting the same and modifying the penalty to suspension from the practice of law for one (1) year with stern warning that should evidence surface that his alleged conduct be proven to be grossly immoral conduct, the matter will be dealt with more severely. This Resolution was adopted and approved by the Supreme Court (Second Division) in a Resolution dated September 25, 2013.
Respondent had also been meted out the penalty of fine of equivalent to his six (6) months salary by the Chairman Gerardo Nograles of the NLRC for the case of Gross Immorality which could not be executed because respondent had already retired and received his benefits in 2010.
Despite being previously penalized with one (1) year suspension from the practice of law by the Supreme Court in CBD Case No. 05-1620 for gross immorality, respondent continued to cohabit with Maria Ellen Guarin who was not his legal wife which led to the birth of their second son. It is to be noted that respondent did not deny siring the first child as even the child’s certificate of live birth identified him, “Benigno Jr. Clitar Villarente” as the father with his occupation written as “Lawyer (Ret. RTC Judge). While the informant for the data on the Certificate of Live Birth was Maria Ellen T. Guarin, mother of Benigno Junius Guarin, respondent signed the Affidavit of Acknowledgment/Admission of Paternity which was duly notarized. While complainant has alleged that respondent has sired a second child but has not submitted evidence in support of the same, it is of public knowledge that certificates of live birth and other civil registry records, save death certificate, can only be requested by a close kin of the record owner. Be that as it may, this information was proposed by complainant for admission in her Mandatory Conference Brief which was admitted by respondent. Also, a Certification was issued by the Barangay Captain of Lahug, Cebu City to the effect that “BENIGNO VILLARENTE[, JR.] and MARIA ELLEN T. GUARIN are residents of [No.] 28 Sitio NGA, Lahug, Cebu City.
x x x x
Atty. Villarente, Jr. failed to live up to the standards of the profession, not only as a lawyer but as a judge. He is lacking in moral integrity expected of him without due regard for public decency as he continued his illicit liaison with his concubine. It is to be noted that the penalty imposed on respondent in his first disbarment case carried a caveat that should evidence surface that his alleged conduct be proven to be grossly immoral conduct, the matter will be dealt with more severely.”
On June 17, 2017, Resolution No. XXII-2017-1205 was passed by the IBP Board of Governors:
RESOLVED to ADOPT the findings of fact of the investigating Commissioner imposing the penalty of DISBARMENT.
On November 8, 2018, the IBP Board of Governors issued another Resolution:
CBD Case No. 12-3385
(Adm.Case No. 8866)
Catherine V. Villarente vs.
Judge Benigno C. Villarente (Ret.)
RESOLVED to DENY the Motion for Reconsideration; and ADOPT the findings of fact and recommendation of the Investigating Commissioner to mete out upon the respondent the penalty of DISBARMENT.
Whether respondent Atty. Villarente, Jr., a retired judge, should be disbarred.
The Court’s Ruling
We rule in the affirmative.
The Code of Professional Responsibility, which all lawyers have vowed to uphold, clearly states that a lawyer shall not engage in immoral conduct. Neither shall he engage in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law, nor should he, whether in public or private life, behave in a scandalous manner to the discredit of the legal profession.
It is expected that every lawyer, being an officer of the Court, must not only be in fact of good moral character, but must also be seen to be of good moral character and leading lives in accordance with the highest moral standards of the community. Specifically, a member of the Bar and officer of the Court is required not only to refrain from adulterous relationships or keeping mistresses, but also to conduct himself in such a way as to avoid scandalizing the public by creating the belief that he is flouting those moral standards. If the practice of law is to remain an honorable profession and attain its basic ideals, whoever is a member of its ranks should not only master its tenets and principles, but must also, in their lives, accord continuing fidelity to them. The requirement of good moral character is of much greater import, as far as the general public is concerned, than the possession of legal learning.
Not only is herein respondent a lawyer, he was also once a member of the Judiciary, a fact that aggravates his infractions. For having occupied a place of honor in the Bench, respondent knew that a judge’s actuations ought to be free from any appearance of impropriety. This is because a judge is the visible representation of the law, and more importantly, of justice. Ordinary citizens consider judges as a source of strength that fortifies their will to obey the law. A judge should therefore avoid the slightest infraction of the law in all of his actuations, lest it be a demoralizing example to others.
As correctly observed by Commissioner Dumangeng-Rosario and affirmed by the IBP Board of Governors, respondent has been warned unequivocally by no less than this Court that should evidence surface that his alleged conduct be proven to be grossly immoral, the matter shall be dealt with more severely.
Here, complainant was able to show that after the Court slapped respondent with a one-year suspension for immorality, with stern warning against its continued commission, respondent still continued to cohabit with his mistress in Lahug, Cebu City and even begot another child.
Immorality or immoral conduct is that which is so willful, flagrant or shameless as to show indifference to the opinion of good and respectable members of the community. Grossly immoral conduct is one that is so corrupt that it amounts to a criminal act. It is so unprincipled as to be reprehensible to a high degree or committed under such scandalous or revolting circumstances as to shock the common sense of decency.
Without a doubt, a married lawyer’s abandonment of his spouse in order to live and cohabit with another, constitutes gross immorality. The offense may even be criminal, amounting to concubinage or adultery. Here, respondent’s offense is compounded by the fact that he sired two children with his mistress, one of whom was born after he was warned by the Court about his illicit relationship.
In keeping with the high standards of morality imposed upon every member of the legal profession, respondent should have desisted with his relationship with his mistress. Instead, he completely ignored the Court’s warning and continued with the relationship which even led to the birth of a second child.
Any lawyer guilty of gross misconduct should be suspended or disbarred, even if the misconduct relates to his personal life, for as long as the misconduct evinces his lack of moral character, honesty, probity or good demeanor. Any lawyer who cannot abide by the laws in his private life, cannot be expected to do so in professional dealings.
Respondent’s continuing illicit liaison with a woman other than his lawfully-wedded wife, despite previous sanction and warning, shows his cavalier attitude, even arrogance towards the Court. His act of cohabiting with his mistress while his marriage with complainant subsists, and siring two children with said mistress show his disregard of family obligations, morality and decency, the law and the lawyer’s oath. Such misbehavior over a long period of time shows a serious flaw in respondent’s character, his moral indifference to scandal in the community, and his outright defiance of established norms. As these acts put the legal profession in disrepute and place the integrity of the administration of justice in peril, the need for strict, but appropriate action is therefore in order.
WHEREFORE, the Court finds and declares respondent Atty. Benigno C. Villarente, Jr. GUILTY of gross immorality in violation of Rule 1.01 and Rule 7.03 of the Code of Professional Responsibility for which he is DISBARRED from the practice of law effective upon receipt of this Decision. His name is ORDERED stricken off from the Roll of Attorneys.
Let a copy of this Decision be attached to Atty. Benigno C. Villarente, Jr.’s personal record in the Office of the Bar Confidant.
Furnish a copy of this Decision to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines for its information and guidance; and the Office of the Court Administrator for dissemination to all courts of the Philippines.
Peralta, C.J., Perlas-Bernabe, Caguioa, Gesmundo, Reyes, J. Jr., Hernando, Carandang, Lazaro-Javier, Inting, Zalameda, Lopez, Delos Santos, and Gaerlan, JJ., concur.
Leonen, J., see dissenting opinion.
Baltazar-Padilla, J., on sick leave.
NOTICE OF JUDGMENT
Please take notice that on September 15, 2020 a Decision, copy attached herewith, was rendered by the Supreme Court in the above-entitled case, the original of which was received by this Office on January 7, 2021 at 2:35 p.m.
Very truly yours,
(SGD.) EDGAR O. ARICHETA
 IBP Commission on Bar Discipline Report and Recommendation dated July 21, 2016, rollo, p. 404.
 Id. at 405.
 Id. at 404-413.
 Id. at 407, 409-410, 413.
 Id. at 402-403.
 Id. at 400-401.
 See Code of Professional Responsibility, Rule 1.01.
 Id. at Rule 7.03.
 Advincula v. Atty. Advincula, 787 Phil. 101, 112 (2016).
 Tapucar v. Atty. Tapucar, 355 Phil. 66, 73 (1998).
 Hierro v. Atty. Nava II, A.C. No. 9459, January 7, 2020.
 Panagsagan v. Atty. Panagsagan, A.C. No. 7733, October 1, 2019.
 Ceniza v. Atty. Ceniza, Jr., A.C. No. 8335, April 10, 2019.
 Hierro v. Atty. Nava II, supra.
 Tapucar v. Atty. Tapucar, supra note 11.
I respectfully disagree with the majority’s decision to disbar respondent Atty. Benigno C. Villarente (Atty. Villarente) on the ground of immorality.
I have always maintained the position that administrative cases involving immorality should be resolved with caution. Disciplinary cases should not be a license for this Court to police its lawyers’ personal lives and intimate relationships, which are often accompanied by very private issues best left outside the scope of this Court’s powers.
Administrative cases against members of the Bar are sui generis. Their ultimate goal is the protection of the public good, considering the essential role that lawyers play in the administration of justice and their professional duty to uphold the rule of law. In certain instances, lawyers’ conduct in both their public and private lives can have an adverse effect on their ability to live up to these roles. As its primary purpose is to protect public interest, disbarment cases should not be allowed by this Court to become the vehicle for asserting private rights.
Thus, administrative cases present an opportunity for this Court to inquire into a lawyer’s actions to determine his or her fitness to continue as an attorney. Specifically, in charges of immorality:
“[I]mmoral conduct” should relate to their conduct as officers of the court. To be guilty of “immorality” under the Code of Professional Responsibility, a lawyer’s conduct must be so depraved as to reduce the public’s confidence in the Rule of Law.
In the ponencia‘s words, a lawyer shall not “engage in conduct that adversely reflects on his [or her] fitness to practice law, nor should he [or she], whether in public [or] private life, behave in a scandalous manner to the discredit of the legal profession.” Moreover, the grossly immoral conduct must be so gross as to be “willful, flagrant, or shameless, and which shows a moral indifference to the opinion of the good and respectable members of the community.”
It is against this backdrop that I have proposed the use of a clear, objective, and secular standard to govern cases of immorality, lest we run the risk of imposing arbitrary benchmarks for professional conduct. As I have previously stated, “an objective criterion of immorality is that which is tantamount to an illegal act.”
In this case, the ponencia faults respondent Atty. Villarente mainly for two things: first, his continued cohabitation with another woman who is not his wife; and second, his siring of two children with the same woman. It then finds respondent guilty of gross immorality and imposes on him the penalty of disbarment.
With due respect, I disagree.
In my separate opinion in Anonymous Complaint v. Dagala:
The highest penalty should be reserved for those who commit indiscretions that (a) are repeated, (b) result in permanent rearrangements that cause extraordinary difficulties on existing legitimate relationships, or (c) are prima facie shown to have violated the law.
In Ceniza v. Atty. Ceniza cited in the ponencia, I concurred in the disbarment of Atty. Eliseo Ceniza (Ceniza) on the ground of immorality. In that case, Ceniza, a legal officer in Mandaue City, was suspended from service by the Ombudsman for disgraceful and grossly immoral conduct, in violation of Republic Act No. 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. Ceniza was found to have abandoned his legitimate family in order to live with another woman who was also married. He also callously ignored his own children’s pleas, resulting to one of his children attempting suicide due to depression. Despite the pain he had caused his family, Ceniza showed no remorse.
Such circumstances clearly exhibiting gross immoral conduct are not present here. The evidence in this case do not meet the required standard to warrant disbarment. At most, respondent is only guilty of gross misconduct.
Atty. Villarente’s conduct is not of such degree as would erode the public’s confidence in the legal profession and the rule of law. It is important to note that the issues raised in this disbarment complaint are mainly private matters not directly related to respondent’s duties as a lawyer. It was also not established how his acts discredit the legal profession and the rule of law. Thus, I cannot agree that he should be disbarred on the ground of gross immorality.
This, however, does not mean that respondent should be absolved of any liability as he committed violations of the Code of Professional Responsibility. In Canon 7, Rule 7.03:
Canon 7 – A lawyer shall at all times uphold the integrity and dignity of the legal profession and support the activities of the Integrated Bar.
. . . .
Rule 7.03 – A lawyer shall not engage in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law, nor shall he whether in public or private life, behave in a scandalous manner to the discredit of the legal profession.
As a lawyer, respondent should conduct himself in a manner consistent with the integrity and dignity of the legal profession. This applies in his personal dealings, as he may still be found liable for “gross misconduct not connected with his professional duties, which [show] him to be unfit for the office and unworthy of the privileges which his license and the law confer to him.”
Hence, while I do not find the evidence sufficient to disbar respondent for gross immorality, it is my view that it is enough to hold him liable for gross misconduct and suspend him from the practice of law.
ACCORDINGLY, I vote to SUSPEND respondent Atty. Benigno C. Villarente from the practice of law for three (3) years.
 See J. Leonen, Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in Zerna v. Atty. Zerna, A.C. No. 8700, September 8, 2020, <https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/14203/> [Per Curiam, En Banc]; J. Leonen, Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in Anonymous Complaint v. Dagala, 814 Phil. 103 (2017) [Per Curiam, En Banc].
 J. Leonen, Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in Zerna v. Atty. Zerna, A.C. No. 8700, September 8, 2020. <https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/14203/> [Per Curiam, En Banc]. See also J. Leonen, Dissenting Opinion in Sabillo v. Atty. Lorenzo, A.C. No. 9392, December 4, 2018 [Per Curiam, En Banc].
 Kimteng v. Young, 765 Phil. 926, 944 (2015) [Per J. Leonen, Second Division].
 J. Leonen, Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in Zerna v. Atty. Zerna, A.C. No. 8700, September 8, 2020, <https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/14203/> [Per Curiam, En Banc].
 J. Leonen, Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in Anonymous Complaint v. Dagala, 814 Phil. 103, 154 (2017) [Per Curiam, En Banc] citing Perfecto v. Esidera, 764 Phil. 384 (2015) [Per J. Leonen, Second Division].
 Ponencia, p. 4.
 Arciga v. Maniwang, 193 Phil. 730, 735 (1981) [Per J. Aquino, Second Division].
 See Perfecto v. Esidera, 764 Phil. 384 (2015) [Per J. Leonen, Second Division]; J. Leonen, Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in Zerna v. Atty. Zerna, A.C. No. 8700, September 8, 2020, <https://sc.judiciary.gov.ph/14203/> [Per Curiam, En Banc]; J. Leonen, Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in Anonymous Complaint v. Dagala, 814 Phil. 103 (2017) [Per Curiam, En Banc].
 J. Leonen, Dissenting Opinion in Sabillo v. Atty. Lorenzo, A.C. No. 9392, December 4, 2018 [Per Curiam, En Banc] citing J. Leonen, Separate Opinion in Anonymous Complaint v. Dagala, 814 Phil. 103 (2017) [Per Curiam, En Banc].
 814 Phil. 103 (2017) [Per Curiam, En Banc].
 Id. at 155.
 A.C. No. 8335, April 10, 2019, <https://elibrary.judiciary.gov.ph/thebookshelf/showdocs/1/65158> [Per Curiam, En Banc].
 Ponencia, p. 5. The ponencia cites Ceniza to show that the offense may amount to the crime of concubinage, which justifies disbarment.
 See Agno v. Cagatan, 580 Phil. 1 (2008) [Per J. Leonardo-De Castro, En Banc].
 Enriquez v. De Vera, 756 Phil. 1, 13 (2015) [Per J. Leonen, Second Division].