Misconduct Or Improper Behavior Must Be Serious To Be A Just Cause For Termination Of Employment

Petitioner Northwest Airlines, Inc. employed respondent Ma. Concepcion M. Del Rosario s one of its Manila based flight attendants. Del Ro...

Petitioner Northwest Airlines, Inc. employed respondent Ma. Concepcion M. Del Rosario s one of its Manila based flight attendants. Del Rosario was assigned at the Business Class Section of Northwest Flight NW 26 bound for Japan. During the boarding preparations, Kathleen Gamboa, another flight attendant assigned at the First Class Section of Flight NW 26, needed to borrow a wine bottle opener from her fellow attendants because her wine bottle opener was dull. Vivien Francisco, Gamboa’s runner, went to the Business Class Section to borrow a wine bottle opener from Del Rosario, but the latter remarked that any flight attendant who could not bring a wine bottle opener had no business working in the First Class Section. Upon hearing this, Aliza Ann Escaño, another flight attendant, offered her wine bottle opener to Francisco. Apparently, Gamboa overheard Del Rosario’s remarks, and later on verbally confronted her. Their confrontation escalated into a heated argument. Escaño intervened but the two ignored her, prompting her to rush outside the aircraft to get Maria Rosario D. Morales, the Assistant Base Manager, to pacify them.

The parties differed on what happened thereafter. Del Rosario claimed that only an animated discussion had transpired between her and Gamboa, but Morales insisted that it was more than an animated discussion, recalling that Del Rosario had even challenged Gamboa to a brawl (sabunutan). Morales asserted that she had tried to pacify Del Rosario and Gamboa, but the two did not stop; that because the two were still arguing although the Business Class passengers were already boarding.

Morales sent a letter to Del Rosario telling her that Northwest would conduct an investigation of the incident involving her and Gamboa. Northwest stated that based on the results of the investigation, Del Rosario and Gamboa had engaged in a fight on board the aircraft, even if there had been no actual physical contact between them; and that because fighting was strictly prohibited by Northwest to the point that fighting could entail dismissal from the service even if committed for the first time, Northwest considered her dismissal from the service justified and in accordance with the Rules of Conduct for Employees. Del Rosario subsequently filed her complaint for illegal dismissal against Northwest.

Was Del Rosario’s dismissal from the service valid?

Del Rosario’s dismissal from the service is NOT valid. As provided in Article 282 of the Labor Code, an employer may terminate an employee for a just cause, to wit:

An employer may terminate an employee for any of the following causes:
(a) Serious misconduct or willful disobedience by the employee of the lawful orders of his employer or representative in connection with his work;
(b) Gross and habitual neglect by the employee of his duties;
(c) Fraud or willful breach by the employee of the trust reposed in him by his employer or duly authorized representative;
(d) Commission of a crime or offense by the employee against the person of his employer or any immediate member of his family or his duly authorized representative; and
(e) Other causes analogous to the foregoing.

Northwest argues that Del Rosario was dismissed on the grounds of serious misconduct and willful disobedience. Misconduct refers to the improper or wrong conduct that transgresses some established and definite rule of action, a forbidden act, a dereliction of duty, willful in character, and implies wrongful intent and not mere error in judgment. But misconduct or improper behavior, to be a just cause for termination of employment, must: (a) be serious; (b) relate to the performance of the employee’s duties; and (c) show that the employee has become unfit to continue working for the employer.

There is no doubt that the last two elements of misconduct were present in the case of Del Rosario. The cause of her dismissal related to the performance of her duties as a flight attendant, and she became unfit to continue working for Northwest. Remaining to be determined is, therefore, whether the misconduct was serious as to merit Del Rosario’s dismissal. In that respect, the fight between her and Gamboa should be so serious that it entailed the termination of her employment even if it was her first offense. Northwest insists that what transpired between her and Gamboa was obviously a form of fight that it strictly prohibited, but Del Rosario disputes this by contending that it was only an animated discussion between her and Gamboa.

In several rulings where the meaning of fight was decisive, the Court has observed that the term fight was considered to be different from the term argument. In People v. Asto, for instance, the Court characterized fight as not just a merely verbal tussle but a physical combat between two opposing parties. Similarly, in Pilares, Sr. v. People, fight was held to be more than just an exchange of words that usually succeeded the provocation by either party.

Based on the foregoing, the incident involving Del Rosario and Gamboa could not be justly considered as akin to the fight contemplated by Northwest. In the eyes of the NLRC, Del Rosario and Gamboa were arguing but not fighting. The understanding of fight as one that required physical combat was absent during the incident. Moreover, even assuming arguendo that the incident was the kind of fight prohibited by Northwest's Rules of Conduct, the same could not be considered as of such seriousness as to warrant Del Rosario's dismissal from the service. The gravity of the fight, which was not more than a verbal argument between them, was not enough to tarnish or diminish Northwest's public image.

Thus, Del Rosario was illegally dismissed.

G.R. No. 157633, September 10, 2014

The author takes no responsibility for the validity, correctness and result of this work. The information provided is not a legal advice and it should not be used  as a substitute for a competent legal advice from a licensed lawyer. See the disclaimer

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