SPECIAL SECOND DIVISION
[ G.R. No. 193305, January 27, 2021 ]
REPUBLIC OF THE PHILIPPINES, PETITIONER, VS. BANAL NA PAG-AARAL, PHIL., INC., RESPONDENT.
D E C I S I O N
Before the Court is a petition for review on certiorari1 assailing the Amended Decision2 dated January 8, 2010 and the Resolution3 dated August 3, 2010 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CV No. 82888, which: (a) reversed and set aside its earlier Decision4 dated July 6, 2009, dismissing Land Registration (LRC) Case No. TG-898 without prejudice; and (b) affirmed the Decision5 dated April 1, 2003 of the Regional Trial Court of Tagaytay City, Branch 18 (RTC), approving respondent Banal na Pag-aaral, Phil., Inc.'s (respondent) application for registration.
Respondent filed an Amended Application for Registration6 of Lot Nos. 2304 and 2312, Cad. 482-D Amadeo Cadastre (consolidated as Lot No. 94047) with an area of 57,989 square meters (sq. m.) situated in Barangay Dagatan, Amadeo, Cavite (subject lot) with the RTC, docketed as LRC Case No. TG-898. Respondent claimed ownership and actual possession of the subject lot on the ground of its continuous, exclusive and notorious possession and occupation in the concept of an owner long before World War II, reckoned from the possession of its predecessors-in-interest, the Heirs of Hermogenes Bayot8 (vendors), who executed an Extrajudicial Partition of Estate with Deed of Absolute Sale9 dated September 4, 1997 (document of sale) conveying the same in its favor.
To prove its claim that the subject lot formed part of the alienable and disposable land of the public domain, respondent presented: (a) a Certification10 dated May 22, 2002 issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) – Community Environment and Natural Resources Office of Trece Martires City (CENRO) stating that the subject lot is not covered by any public land application; and (b) a copy of the approved Consolidated Plan Ccn-04-000320-D11 in the names of the vendors bearing the notation that the survey over the subject lot was done "inside alienable and disposable area per [Project] No. 5, [Land Classification] Map No. 3013, x x x."12
On the other hand, to support its claim of possession in the concept of an owner prior to June 12, 1945, it presented documentary and testimonial evidence that: (a) the subject lot was previously owned by Hermogenes Bayot (Hermogenes);13 (b) no other person had laid any claim of ownership on the subject lot;14 (c) Hermogenes had been in possession of the subject lot since the early 1940s until his death;15 (d) Hermogenes held tax declarations in his name; (e) upon Hermogenes' death, was succeeded by his children,16 herein vendors, who sold the subject lot to respondent;17 and (f) respondent is in possession of the subject lot18 which is now covered by TD No. 97 13023.19
The RTC Ruling
In a Decision20 dated April 1, 2003, the RTC approved respondent's application for registration of the subject lot, finding that respondent had: (a) sufficiently established it and its predecessors-in-interest's open, continuous, exclusive and notorious possession and occupation of the subject lot under a bona fide claim of acquisition of ownership since prior to June 12, 1945; and (b) presented convincing evidence that the subject lot is no longer part of the public domain and may now be appropriated for private ownership.21
Dissatisfied, petitioner appealed22 to the CA.
The CA Proceedings
In a Decision23 dated July 6, 2009, the CA reversed and set aside the RTC ruling and dismissed LRC Case No. TG-898 without prejudice for failure of respondent to establish that the subject lot is alienable and disposable.24
Respondent filed a motion for reconsideration25 attaching therewith the following: (a) a CENRO Certification26 dated December 9, 2008 stating that the land subject of respondent's application for registration "was verified to fall within the Alienable or Disposable Land established under Project No. 5 per Land Classification Map No. 3013 [LC-3013 as approved and certified as such on March 15, 1982 under [Bureau of Forest Development (BFD) Administrative Order] FAO No. 4-1656;"27 and (b) a certified true copy of FAO No. 4-165628 issued by the then Minister of Natural Resources Teodoro Q. Peña, declaring as alienable or disposable certain portions of the public domain situated, among others, in the Municipality of Trece Martires under LC Project No. 5 which is "designated and described as alienable and disposable in the [BFD] Map LC-3013."29
Petitioner left the admissibility of the aforesaid documents to the discretion of the CA.30
In an Amended Decision31 dated January 8, 2010, the CA vacated its previous ruling and affirmed the RTC Decision approving respondent's application for registration. It found respondent's submission of the CENRO Certification and FAO 4-1656 as sufficient to establish the true nature or character of the subject lot, holding that the said documents enjoy the presumption of regularity in the absence of contradictory evidence.32
Petitioner moved for reconsideration,33 contending that even with the admission of the said documents, respondent failed to establish its registrable title to the subject lot, there being no substantive evidence that respondent and its predecessors-in-interest have been in possession of the subject lot since June 12, 1945 or earlier, considering that the earliest tax declarations only date back to 1948.34
In a Resolution35 dated August 3, 2010, the CA denied petitioner's motion; hence, the instant petition.
In a Resolution36 dated February 5, 2018, the Court remanded the case to the CA for further proceedings for the purpose of determining the authenticity and due execution of the CENRO Certification, and to submit its resolution to the Court.37 In, compliance with the said Resolution, the CA submitted a Report and Recommendation38 dated June 25, 2019, finding the CENRO Certification to be authentic and duly issued, and recommending that the same be considered accordingly.39
The Issues Before the Court
The core issues for the Court's resolution are whether or not respondent has: (a) possessed the subject lot for the length of time required by law; and (b) proven a registrable title thereto.40
The Court's Ruling
The petition is meritorious.
Section 14 (1)41 of Presidential Decree No. (PD) 1529,42 otherwise known as the "Property Registration Decree," has three requisites for registration of title, viz.: (a) that the property in question is alienable and disposable land of the public domain; (b) that the applicants by themselves or through their predecessors-in-interest have been in open, continuous, exclusive and notorious possession and occupation; and (c) that such possession is under a bona fide claim of ownership since June 12, 1945 or earlier.43
A similar right is granted under Section 48 (b)44 of Commonwealth Act No. (CA) 141,45 as amended by PD 1073,46 otherwise known as "The Public Land Act." There are no material differences between Section 14 (1) of PD 1529 and Section 48 (b) of CA 141, as amended. Section 14 (1) of PD 1529 operationalizes the registration of such lands of the public domain.47
A judicious review of the records shows that respondent has adequately met the requirements under Section 14 (1) of PD 1529 for the registration of the subject lot in its name.
1. Respondent has sufficiently established that the subject lot is alienable and disposable.
Verily, the applicant has the burden of overcoming the presumption that the State owns the land applied for, and proving that the land has already been classified as alienable and disposable as of the time of the filing of the application.48 In Republic v. T.A.N. Properties, Inc. (T.A.N.),49 which is the prevailing jurisprudence, the Court held that in order to prove that the land subject of the application for registration is alienable, an application for original registration must be accompanied by two (2) documents, i.e., (1) a copy of the original classification approved by the DENR Secretary and certified as a true copy by the legal custodian of the DENR's official records; and (2) a certificate of land classification status, i.e., the land subject of the application for registration falls within the approved area per verification through survey, from the CENRO or the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office of the DENR based on the land classification approved by the DENR Secretary.50
Here, respondent presented: (a) the CENRO Certification51 stating that the subject lot containing an area of 57,989 sq. m. was "verified to fall within the Alienable or Disposable Land established under Project No. 5 per Land Classification Map No. 3013 (LC-3013) as approved and certified as such on March 15, 1982 under FAO No. 4-1656;"52 and (b) a certified copy of FAO No. 4-165653 of the then Minister of Natural Resources Teodoro Q. Peña, declaring as alienable and disposable/certain portions of the public domain situated in the Municipality of Trece Martires under LC Project No. 5 which is "designated and described as alienable and disposable in the [BFD] Map LC-3013."54
While belatedly submitted only when respondent moved for reconsideration55 of the CA's earlier July 6, 2009 Decision,56 the Court notes that petitioner did not contest the admissibility of the said documents, leaving their admissibility to the discretion of the CA.57 Neither did the Land Registration Authority nor the DENR oppose respondent's application on the ground that the subject lot is inalienable. Hence, since no substantive rights stand to be prejudiced, the benefit of the aforesaid documents, which the CA found to be authentic and duly issued, should therefore be equitably extended in favor of respondent.58 Clearly, the subject lot is an alienable and disposable land of the public domain. The foregoing documents sufficiently show that the government executed a positive act of declaration that the subject lot is alienable and disposable land of the public domain as of March 15, 1982, which enjoy the presumption of regularity in the absence of contradictory evidence.59 Besides, respondent filed its application in 1999, and the RTC decided the case in 2003, way before the rule on strict compliance was laid down in T.A.N.; hence, substantial compliance may be permitted here.
a. The subject lot need not be alienable and disposable since June 12, 1945 or earlier.
Contrary to petitioner's postulations,60 the land sought to be registered need not have been declared alienable and disposable since June 12, 1945 or earlier in order for the applicant for registration to secure the judicial confirmation of its title. Such contention had already been declared as absurd and unreasonable in Republic v. Naguit.61 Registration under Section 14 (1) of PD 1529 is based on possession and occupation of the alienable and disposable land of the public domain since June 12, 1945 or earlier, without regard as to whether the land was susceptible to private ownership at that time. The applicant needs only to show that the land had already been declared alienable and disposable at any time prior to the filing of the application for registration,62 which respondent was able to do.
2. Respondent has established possession and occupation of the subject lot of the nature and duration required by law.
For purposes of land registration under Section 14 (1) of PD 1529, proof of specific acts of ownership must be presented to substantiate the claim of open, continuous, exclusive and notorious possession and occupation of the land subject of the application. Actual possession consists in the manifestation of acts of dominion over it of such a nature as a party would actually exercise over his own property. Possession is: (a) open when it is patent, visible, apparent, notorious, and not clandestine; (b) continuous when uninterrupted, unbroken, and not intermittent or occasional; (c) exclusive when the adverse possessor can show exclusive dominion over the land and an appropriation of it to his own use and benefit; and (d) notorious when it is so conspicuous that it is generally known and talked of by the public or the people in the neighborhood.63
To prove that it and its predecessors-in-interest have been in possession and occupation in the concept of owner of the subject lot since June 12, 1945 or earlier, respondent presented, among others, the testimony of Melanio Ambat (Melanio). Melanio, who was born in 1927,64 categorically claimed: (a) to have known of Hermogenes' ownership of the subject lot when he was about 15 years old, or around 1941 before the Japanese-American war broke out, since they are barrio mates, their house being merely 15 meters away from each other;65 (b) that the subject lot used to be an agricultural land,66 as he in fact used to till and farm a portion thereof;67 and (c) that no other person had laid any claim of ownership on the subject lot.68 At 15 years of age, Melanio is undoubtedly capable and competent to perceive Hermogenes' possession of the subject lot in the concept of an owner,69 which knowledge was reinforced through the years – with the continued possession of Hermogenes' heirs, herein vendors, who tended to the subject lot prior to the sale to respondent – up until he testified in court70 in 2002 when he was 74 years of age.71 Considering further that the judge below is in a better position to pass judgment on the matter of credibility of the witnesses and their testimony, having personally heard the witnesses testify and observed their deportment and manner of testifying, his finding that such testimony was worthy of belief and credence deserve the highest respect.
The fact that the earliest tax declaration on record is 1948 does not necessarily show that Hermogenes was not in possession of the subject lot since June 12, 1945 or earlier. As long as the testimony supporting possession for the required period is credible, as in this case, the court will grant the petition for registration.72 Indeed, the Court, in a long line of cases, has stated that tax declarations or tax receipts are good indicia of possession in the concept of owner. It does not follow that the belated declaration of the same for tax purposes negates the fact of possession, especially in the instant case where there are no other persons claiming any interest over the subject lot.73
In sum, the Court finds that respondent has met the requirements for registration of the subject lot under Section 14 (1) of PD 1529.ℒαwρhi৷ Accordingly, the CA did not err in affirming the RTC's grant of respondents' application for original registration of its imperfect title over the subject lot.
WHEREFORE, the petition is DENIED. The Amended Decision dated January 8, 2010 and the Resolution dated August 3, 2010 of the Court of Appeals (CA) in CA-G.R. CV No. 82888 approving respondent Banal na Pag-aaral, Phil., Inc.'s application for original registration of the subject lot are hereby affirmed.
Peralta, C.J., (Chairperson), Delos Santos, and Gaerlan, JJ., concur,
Caguioa, J., with separate concurring opinion.
1 Dated September 17, 2010. Rollo, pp. 11-30.
2 Id. at 36-40. Penned by Associate Justice Arcangelita M. Romilla-Lontok with Associate Justices Josefina Guevara-Salonga and Romeo F. Barza, concurring.
3 Id. at 34-35. Penned by Associate Justice Romeo F. Barza with Associate Justices Josefina Guevara-Salonga and Ricardo R. Rosario (now a Member of this Court), concurring.
4 Id. at 116-126. Penned by Associate Justice Arcangelita M. Romilla-Lontok with Associate Justices Josefina Guevara-Salonga and Romeo F. Barza, concurring.
5 Id. at 107-115. Penned by Presiding Judge Alfonso S. Garcia.
6 Dated December 26, 1999. Records, pp. 20-22.
7 See Consolidated Plan Ccn-04-000320-D in the names of the vendors; id. at 47.
8 See Amended Application for Registration dated December 26, 1999; id. at 20.
9 Rollo, pp. 60-62.
10 Id. at 170.
11 Id. at 47. Approved on August 24, 1999.
12 See id.
13 See TD Nos. 1605 and 1607 in Hermogenes' name (rollo, pp. 440 and 448); as well as a 1948 tax declaration under the name of Fortunato dela Peña, i.e., TD No. 3336 (id. at 458).
14 See Transcript of Stenographic Records (TSN), January 10, 2002, p. 16.
15 See TSN, May 23, 2002, pp. 8-9.
16 See TSN, January 10, 2002, p. 6.
17 Through the Extrajudicial Partition of Estate with Deed of Absolute Sale dated September 4, 1997; rollo, pp. 60-62.
18 See TSN, October 25, 2001, p. 5.
19 I.e., Lot No. 2304, Cad. 482-D with an indicated area of 57,456 sq. m. See rollo, p. 463.
20 Id. at 107-115.
21 See id. at 114.
22 See Notice of Appeal dated April 30, 2003; records, p. 198.
23 Rollo, pp. 116-126.
24 See id. at 123-125.
25 Dated July 24, 2009. CA rollo, pp. 136-141.
26 Id. at 143.
27 See id.
28 Id. at 144. Duly certified by the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA).
29 See id.
30 See Comment (on the Motion for Reconsideration) dated October 24, 2008; id. at 181.
31 Rollo, pp. 36-40.
32 See id. at 39.
33 See Motion for Reconsideration dated January 29, 2010; id. at 127-140.
34 See id. at 137.
35 Id. at 34-35.
36 Id. at 486-488. Penned by Justice Andres B. Reyes, Jr. (now retired) with Senior Associate Justice and Chairperson Antonio T. Carpio (now retired) and Associate Justices Diosdado M. Peralta (now Chief Justice), Estela M. Perlas-Bemabe (now Senior Associate Justice), and Associate Justice Alfredo Benjamin S. Caguioa, concurring.
37 See id. at 487.
38 Id. at 500-505. Signed by Presiding Justice and Chairperson Romeo F. Barza and Associate Justices Ricardo R. Rosario (now a Member of the Court) and Zenaida T. Galapate-Laguilles.
39 See id. at 505.
40 See id. at 21.
41 Said Section provides:
Section 14. Who may apply. — The following persons may file in the proper Court of First Instance an application for registration of title to land, whether personally or through their duly authorized representatives:
(1) Those who by themselves or through their' predecessors-in-interest have been in open, continuous, exclusive and notorious possession and occupation of alienable and disposable lands of the public domain under a bona fide claim of ownership since June 12, 1945, or earlier.
42 Entitled "AMENDING AND CODIFYING THE LAWS RELATIVE TO REGISTRATION OF PROPERTY AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES" (June 11, 1978).
43 Republic v. Science Park of the Philippines, Inc., G.R. No. 237714, November 12, 2018.
44 Said Section reads:
Section 48. The following-described citizens of the Philippines, occupying lands of the public domain or claiming to own any such lands or an interest therein, but whose titles have not been perfected or completed, may apply to the Court of First Instance of the province where the land is located for confirmation of their claims and the issuance of a certificate of title therefor, under the Land Registration Act, to wit:
x x x x
(b) Those who by themselves or through their predecessors-in-interest have been, in continuous, exclusive, and notorious possession and occupation of agricultural lands of the public domain, under a bona fide claim of acquisition or ownership, for at least thirty years immediately preceding the Filing of the application for confirmation of title, except when prevented by war of force majeure. Those shall be conclusively presumed to have performed all the conditions essential to a government grant and shall be entitled to a certificate of title under the provisions of this chapter. (Underscoring supplied)
45 Entitled "AN ACT TO AMEND AND COMPILE THE LAWS RELATIVE TO LANDS OF THE PUBLIC DOMAIN" (November 7, 1936).
46 Entitled "EXTENDING THE PERIOD OF FILING APPLICATIONS FOR ADMINISTRATIVE LEGALIZATION (FREE PATENT) AND JUDICIAL CONFIRMATION OF IMPERFECT AND INCOMPLETE TITLES TO ALIENABLE AND DISPOSABLE LANDS IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN UNDER CHAPTER VII AND CHAPTER VIII OF COMMONWEALTH ACT NO. 141, AS AMENDED, FOR ELEVEN (11) YEARS COMMENCING JANUARY 1, 1977" (January 25, 1977).
47 See Victoria v. Republic, 666 Phil. 519, 523-524 (2011).
48 Republic v. Science Park of the Philippines, Inc., supra note 43.
49 578 Phil. 441, 452-453 (2008).
50 Republic v. Science Park of the Philippines, Inc., supra note 43.
51 See CA rollo, p. 143.
52 See id.
53 Id. at 144.
54 See id.
55 Id. at 136-141.
56 Rollo, pp. 116-126.
57 See Comment (on the Motion for Reconsideration) dated October 24, 2008; CA rollo, p. 181.
58 See Republic v. Consunji, 559 Phil. 683, 699-700 (2007).
60 Essentially, that possession prior to the declaration that public lands are alienable and disposable cannot be considered as possession under a bona fide claim of ownership. See rollo, pp. 21-27.
61 489 Phil. 405, 413-414 (2005). In the said case, the Court held:
Petitioner suggests an interpretation that the alienable and disposable character of the land should have already been established since June 12, 1945 or earlier. This is not borne out by the plain meaning of Section 14 (1). "Since June 12, 1945," as used in the provision, qualifies its antecedent phrase "under a bona fide claim of ownership." Generally speaking, qualifying words restrict or modify only the words or phrases to which they are immediately associated, and not those distantly or remotely located. Ad proximum antecedents fiat relation nisi impediatur sentencia.
Besides, we are mindful of the absurdity that would result if we adopt petitioner's position. Absent a legislative amendment, the rule would be, adopting the OSG's view, that all lands of the public domain which were not declared alienable or disposable before June 12, 1945 would not be susceptible to original registration, no matter the length of unchallenged possession by the occupant. Such interpretation renders paragraph (1) of Section 14 virtually inoperative and even precludes the government from giving it effect even as it decides to reclassify public agricultural lands as alienable and disposable. The unreasonableness of the situation would even be aggravated[,] considering that before June 12, 1945, the Philippines was not yet even considered an independent state.
Instead, the more reasonable interpretation of Section 14 (1) is that it merely requires the property sought to be registered as already alienable and disposable at the time the application for registration of title is filed. If the State, at the time the application is made, has not yet deemed it proper to release the property for alienation or disposition, the presumption is that the government is still reserving the right to utilize the property; hence, the need to preserve its ownership in the State irrespective of the length of adverse possession even if in good faith. However, if the property has already been classified as alienable and disposable, as it is in this case, then there is already an intention on the part of the State to abdicate its exclusive prerogative over the property.
62 Republic v. Science Park of the Philippines, Inc., supra note 43, citing Republic v. Heirs of Spouses Ocol, 799 Phil. 514, 529 (2016).
63 Republic v. Science Park of the Philippines, Inc., supra note 43, citing Republic v. Estate of Santos, 802 Phil. 800, 814 (2016).
64 See TSN, January 10, 2002, p. 4.
65 See id. at 7-9.
66 See id. at 17.
67 See id. at 9-10.
68 See id. at 16.
69 See Spouses Recto v. Republic, 483 Phil. 81, 88-90 (2004).
70 See Republic v. CA, 402 Phil, 498, 509-510 (2001).
71 See TSN, January 10, 2002, p. 4.
72 See Spouses Recto v. Republic, supra note 69 at 89.
73 See Republic v. Caraig, G.R. No. 197389, October 12, 2020.
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