GABRIEL L. DUERO vs. HON.COURT OF APPEALS, G.R. No. 131282, January 4, 2002

Facts:
Sometime in 1988, according to petitioner, private respondent Bemardo Eradel entered and occupied petitioner’s land. When petitioner politely informed private respondent that the land was his and requested the latter to vacate the land, private respondent refused, but instead threatened him with bodily harm. Despite repeated demands, private respondent remained steadfast in his refusal to leave the land.

On June 16, 1995, petitioner filed before the RTC a complaint for Recovery of Possession and Ownership with Damages and Attorney’s Fees against private respondent. Herein private respondent Eradel was declared in default for failure to file his answer to the complaint.

Petitioner presented his evidence ex parte on February 13, 1996. On May 8, 1996, judgment was rendered in his favor, and private respondent was ordered to peacefully vacate and turn over the Lot. Private respondent received a copy of the decision on May 25, 1996.

On June 10, 1996, private respondent filed a Motion for New Trial, alleging that he has been occupying the land as a tenant of Artemio Laurente, Sr., since 1958. He explained that he turned over the complaint and summons to Laurente in the honest belief that as landlord, the latter had a better right to the land and was responsible to defend any adverse claim on it. However, the trial court denied the motion for new trial.

On July 24, 1996, private respondent filed before the RTC a Petition for Relief from Judgment, reiterating the same allegation in his Motion for New Trial. He averred that unless there is a determination on who owned the land, he could not be made to vacate the land. He also averred that the judgment of the trial court was void inasmuch as the heirs of Artemio Laurente, Sr., who are indispensable parties, were not impleaded.

On October 8, 1996, the trial court issued an order denying the Petition for Relief from Judgment. In a Motion for Reconsideration of said order, private respondent alleged that the RTC had no jurisdiction over the case, since the value of the land was only P5,240 and therefore it was under the jurisdiction of the municipal trial court. On November 22, 1996, the RTC denied the motion for reconsideration.

On January 22, 1997, petitioner filed a Motion for Execution, which the RTC granted on January 28. On February 18, 1997, Entry of Judgment was made of record and a writ of execution was issued by the RTC on February 27,1997. On March 12,1997, private respondent filed his petition for certiorari before the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals gave due course to the petition, maintaining that private respondent is not estopped from assailing the jurisdiction ‘of the RTC when private respondent filed with said court his Motion for Reconsideration And/Or Annulment of Judgment.

Hence this petition.

Issue:
Whether the private respondent is estopped from questioning the jurisdiction of the RTC.

Held:
No, While participation in all stages of a case before the trial court, including invocation of its authority in asking for affirmative relief, effectively bars a party by estoppel from challenging the court’s jurisdiction, we note that estoppel has become an equitable defense that is both substantive and remedial and its successful invocation can bar a right and not merely its equitable enforcement. Hence, estoppel ought to be applied with caution. For estoppel to apply, the action giving rise thereto must be unequivocal and intentional because, if misapplied, estoppel may become a tool of injustice.

The fundamental rule is that, the lack of jurisdiction of the court over an action cannot be waived by the parties, or even cured by their silence, acquiescence or even by their express consent. Further, a party may assail the jurisdiction of the court over the action at any stage of the proceedings and even on appeal. The appellate court did not err in saying that the RTC should have declared itself barren of jurisdiction over the action. Even if private respondent actively participated in the proceedings before said court, the doctrine of estoppel cannot still be properly invoked against him because the question of lack of jurisdiction may be raised at anytime and at any stage of the action. Precedents tell us that as a general rule, the jurisdiction of a court is not a question of acquiescence as a matter of fact, but an issue of conferment as a matter of law. Also, neither waiver nor estoppel shall apply to confer jurisdiction upon a court, barring highly meritorious and exceptional circumstances.

The point simply is that when a party commits error in filing his suit or proceeding in a court that lacks jurisdiction to take cognizance of the same, such act may not at once be deemed sufficient basis of estoppel. It could have been the result of an honest mistake, or of divergent interpretations of doubtful legal provisions. If any fault is to be imputed to a party taking such course of action, part of the blame should be placed on the court which shall entertain the suit, thereby lulling the parties into believing that they pursued their remedies in the correct forum. Under the rules, it is the duty of the court to dismiss an action ‘whenever it appears that the court has no jurisdiction over the subject matter. Should the Court render a judgment without jurisdiction, such judgment may be impeached or annulled for lack of jurisdiction (Sec. 30, Rule 132, Ibid), within ten (10) years from the finality of the same.

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