Sunday, April 24, 2011

SISTER’S ACT: How an “Outside Catechist” Saves A School From Liability (Aquinas School vs Spouses Inton and Sr. Margarita Yamyamin, OP, G.R. No. 184202, January 26, 2011)

By Siesta-friendly

First of all, we note the long length of time to resolve this issue. The incident subject of this case occurred in 1998.  The trial court issued its decision only in 2006.  The CA decided in 2008 and the SC only this April 2011. The award was for moral damages of P25,000.00, exemplary damages of P25,000.00, and attorney’s fees of P10,000.00 plus the costs of suit.  It took 13 years for complainants to be paid P50,000 in damages.

Anyway, the case as Ponente Justice Abad summarizes, is “about the private school’s liability for the outside catechist’s act of shoving a student and kicking him on the legs when he disobeyed her instruction to remain in his seat and not move around the classroom.”

Based on the Supreme Court’s decision below, an outside catechist is apparently a religion teacher provided by a congregation to teach religion in a school and whose conduct is nobody’s responsibility but himself/herself. 

The Facts

“In 1998 respondent Jose Luis Inton (Jose Luis) was a grade three student at Aquinas School (Aquinas).  Respondent Sister Margarita Yamyamin (Yamyamin), a religion teacher who began teaching at that school only in June of that year, taught Jose Luis’ grade three religion class. 

On July 14, 1998, while Yamyamin was writing on the blackboard, Jose Luis left his assigned seat and went over to a classmate to play a joke of surprising him.  Yamyamin noticed this and sent Jose Luis back to his seat.  After a while, Jose Luis got up again and went over to the same classmate.  This time, unable to tolerate the child’s behavior, Yamyamin approached Jose Luis and kicked him on the legs several times.  She also pulled and shoved his head on the classmate’s seat.  Finally, she told the child to stay where he was on that spot of the room and finish copying the notes on the blackboard while seated on the floor.

As a result of the incident, respondents Jose and Victoria Inton (the Intons) filed an action for damages on behalf of their son Jose Luis against Yamyamin and Aquinas before the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Pasig City in Civil Case 67427.  The Intons also filed a criminal action against Yamyamin for violation of Republic Act 7610 to which she pleaded guilty and was sentenced accordingly.

With regard to the action for damages, the Intons sought to recover actual, moral, and exemplary damages, as well as attorney’s fees, for the hurt that Jose Luis and his mother Victoria suffered.  The RTC … ruled in Jose Luis’ favor, holding Yamyamin liable to him for moral damages of P25,000.00, exemplary damages of P25,000.00, and attorney’s fees of P10,000.00 plus the costs of suit.

Not satisfied, the Intons elevated the case to the Court of Appeals (CA).  They asked the CA to increase the award of damages and hold Aquinas solidarily liable with Yamyamin.  Finding that an employer-employee relation existed between Aquinas and Yamyamin, the CA found them solidarily liable to Jose Luis.  The CA, however, declined to increase the award of damages.  Jose Luis moved for partial reconsideration but this was denied.  Aquinas, for its part, appealed directly to this Court from the CA decision through a petition for review on certiorari.”

The Ruling

So is the school liable for harm brought by a teacher to a student? Not in this case.  Why not?  Because, believe it or not, Aquinas School – named after St. Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of Catholic schools of all things – does not have control over its catechists.  So the school says and so the Supreme Court believes.

The SC found that –

“Aquinas had an agreement with a congregation of sisters under which, in order to fulfill its ministry, the congregation would send religion teachers to Aquinas to provide catechesis to its students. The SC favored Aquinas’ insistence that “it was not the school but Yamyamin’s religious congregation that chose her for the task of catechizing the school’s grade three students, much like the way bishops designate the catechists who would teach religion in public schools. Under the circumstances, it was quite evident that Aquinas did not have control over Yamyamin’s teaching methods.  The Intons had not refuted the school directress’ testimony in this regard.  Consequently, it was error for the CA to hold Aquinas solidarily liable with Yamyamin.”

Wow, it’s hard enough to imagine that any school would have an arrangement where they lose control over how their students are educated but who would believe that a private catholic school would even think of losing control over the religious education of their students? 

The SC refers to Sr. Margarita as an “outside cathechist” yet Sr. Margarita is from the same order, O.P. or Ordo Praedicatorum, the Dominican Order. Why then when it comes to religious teaching, is she deemed “outside”?  The only reason she is “outside” is likely because Aquinas is an exclusive school for boys run by Dominican fathers.  Aquinas’ lay teachers would be more “outside” when it comes to catechism as they are outside the Dominican Order. 

Anyway, the SC writes it “applied the “four-fold test” to determine the existence of an employer-employee relationship: the employer (a) selects and engages the employee; (b) pays his wages; (c) has power to dismiss him; and (d) has control over his work.  Of these, the most crucial is the element of control.  Control refers to the right of the employer, whether actually exercised or reserved, to control the work of the employee as well as the means and methods by which he accomplishes the same.

The SC does not specify, beyond finding the existence of the teaching agreement with the congregation, where the loss of Aquinas’ control over Sr. Margarita Yamyamin’s work begins. 

The SC admits that “[O]f course, Aquinas still had the responsibility of taking steps to ensure that only qualified outside catechists are allowed to teach its young students.”  The SC enumerates the steps Aquinas took to “avoid the occurrence of improper conduct towards the students by their religion teacher”: 

“First, Yamyamin’s transcript of records, certificates, and diplomas showed that she was qualified to teach religion. 

Second, there is no question that Aquinas ascertained that Yamyamin came from a legitimate religious congregation of sisters and that, given her Christian training, the school had reason to assume that she would behave properly towards the students. 

Third, the school gave Yamyamin a copy of the school’s Administrative Faculty Staff Manual that set the standards for handling students.  It also required her to attend a teaching orientation before she was allowed to teach beginning that June of 1998. 

Fourth, the school pre-approved the content of the course she was to teach to ensure that she was really catechizing the students.
And fifth, the school had a program for subjecting Yamyamin to classroom evaluation.  Unfortunately, since she was new and it was just the start of the school year, Aquinas did not have sufficient opportunity to observe her methods.  At any rate, it acted promptly to relieve her of her assignment as soon as the school learned of the incident.   It cannot be said that Aquinas was guilty of outright neglect.”

But why does the SC limit its findings on the school’s responsibility only to the above 5 steps to justify absolving Aquinas of neglect?  In any case, aren’t they applicable as regards any teacher “outside” or not?

What now prevents a school from having an agreement with other congregations/groups under which the latter would provide teachers to teach other school subjects so that the school is absolved from any responsibility for any of said teachers’ misconduct?

It seems parents must now check what kind of teaching arrangements their children’s schools have.  As these arrangements may matter when a school’s liability is raised once a teacher does wrong to their children.  Obviously, a Catholic school is not beyond doing a Pontius Pilate by washing its hands of liability for a sister’s act.


No comments: