Erlinda Foster vs Jaime Agtang
A.C. No. 10579 – Legal Ethics – Borrowing From Clients Not Appropriate
Civil Claims Cannot Be Litigated in a Disbarment Suit
In 2009, Erlinda Foster engaged the services of Atty. Jaime Agtang in a realty dispute in Ilocos Norte. Agtang’s acceptance fee was P20,000.00 plus P5,000.00 for incidental expenses.
For the case, Agtang collected P150,000.00 from Foster as filing fee. He also advised Foster to shell out a total of P50,000.00 for them to bribe the judge and get a favorable decision. Although reluctant, Foster gave in to Agtang’s demands.
On various occasions, Agtang borrowed money from Foster for his personal use, i.e., car repair. Such loan amounted to P122,000.00. Foster, being prudent, asked for receipts for all funds she handed over to Agtang.
Later however, Foster learned that she lost the case due to Agtang’s negligence and incompetence in drafting the complaint. She also found out that the filing fee therefor was only P22,410 (not P150k). Further, it turned out that Agtang was once the lawyer of the opposing party. When she asked Agtang to return her the balance, the said lawyer failed to do so hence, she filed an administrative complaint against Agtang.
The IBP Board of Governors (IBP-BOG) eventually ordered Agtang to return the balance of the filing fee (P127,590.00) as well as the money he borrowed from Foster (P122,000.00). It was also recommended that Agtang be suspended for three months only.
ISSUE: Whether or not the recommendation by the IBP-BOG is proper.
HELD: No. The recommended penalty of 3 months suspension is too light. Agtang was disbarred by the Supreme Court.
Rule 1.0, Canon 1 of the Code of Professional Responsibility, provides that “a lawyer shall not engage in unlawful, dishonest, immoral or deceitful conduct.”
In this case, Agtang is guilty of engaging in dishonest and deceitful conduct, both in his professional and private capacity. As a lawyer, he clearly misled Foster into believing that the filing fees for her case were worth more than the prescribed amount in the rules, due to feigned reasons such as the high value of the land involved and the extra expenses to be incurred by court employees. In other words, he resorted to overpricing, an act customarily related to depravity and dishonesty.
When asked to return the balance, he failed and refused to do so and even had the temerity that it was all the client’s idea. . A lawyer’s failure to return upon demand the funds held by him on behalf of his client gives rise to the presumption that he has appropriated the same for his own use in violation of the trust reposed in him by his client. Such act is a gross violation of general morality as well as of professional ethics. It impairs public confidence in the legal profession and deserves punishment.
It is clear that Agtang failed to fulfill this duty. He received various amounts from Foster but he could not account for all of them. Worse, he could not deny the authenticity of the receipts presented by Foster.
Rule 16.04, Canon 16 of the Code of Professional Responsibility states that “a lawyer shall not borrow money from his client unless the client’s interests are fully protected by the nature of the case or by independent advice. Neither shall a lawyer lend money to a client except, when in the interest of justice, he has to advance necessary expenses in a legal matter he is handling for the client.”
In the first place, Agtang should have never borrowed from Foster, his client. Second, his refusal to pay reflects his baseness. Deliberate failure to pay just debts constitutes gross misconduct, for which a lawyer may be sanctioned with suspension from the practice of law. Lawyers are instruments for the administration of justice and vanguards of our legal system. They are expected to maintain not only legal proficiency, but also a high standard of morality, honesty, integrity and fair dealing so that the people’s faith and confidence in the judicial system is ensured. They must, at all times, faithfully perform their duties to society, to the bar, the courts and their clients, which include prompt payment of financial obligations.
The acts of the Agtang constitute malpractice and gross misconduct in his office as attorney. His incompetence and appalling indifference to his duty to his client, the courts and society render him unfit to continue discharging the trust reposed in him as a member of the Bar.
SIDE ISSUE: May the Court order Agtang to return the money he borrowed from Foster?
No. The Court held that it cannot order the lawyer to return money to complainant if he or she acted in a private capacity because its findings in administrative cases have no bearing on liabilities which have no intrinsic link to the lawyer’s professional engagement. In disciplinary proceedings against lawyers, the only issue is whether the officer of the court is still fit to be allowed to continue as a member of the Bar. The only concern of the Court is the determination of respondent’s administrative liability. Its findings have no material bearing on other judicial actions which the parties may choose against each other. To rule otherwise would in effect deprive respondent of his right to appeal since administrative cases are filed directly with the Court.