By Rjay Zuriaga Castor and Joseph Bernard A. Marzan
The Civil Service Commission (CSC) has ordered the reinstatement of Joe Mari Esteral as a regular employee of the Iloilo City government after the commission ruled that the formal charge against the latter “was issued without the requisite preliminary investigation.”
The CSC set aside the resolution recommending that Esteral be made liable for gross insubordination and absence without official leave (AWOL), which led to his dismissal and loss of retirement benefits.
“The case is dismissed without prejudice to its refilling. Further, Mayor Jerry P. Treñas is hereby directed to reinstate Esteral to his position and to pay him back salaries and other benefits during the period of his dismissal from the service,” read the dispositive part of the CSC decision promulgated on October 31.
The CSC said that Esteral’s right to due process had been violated, pointing to two facts within the case: the lack of a required preliminary investigation, and the alleged AWOL not being included in the formal charges against him.
The commission cited Sections 18 and 19 under Rule 4 of the 2017 Rules on Administrative Cases in the Civil Service.
Section 18 of the said Rules mandate the need for a preliminary investigation to determine whether a prima facie (on the first impression) case exists to warrant formal charges, while Section 19 provides for the general manner on how these preliminary investigations are conducted by the disciplining authority.
The “disciplining authority” refers to the legally-authorized person or body to impose penalties provided for by the law or the rules, which in this case was Treñas as city mayor.
The CSC mentioned that Esteral was not properly apprised of the AWOL charges against him, and thus he was unable to answer the said allegation.
Likewise, since the formal charge was issued without the preliminary investigation, the charges against Esteral, according to the CSC, were “null and void.”
“The formal charge was issued without the requisite preliminary investigation and, therefore, the formal charge is null and void. In effect, it is as if a formal charge was not issued. Moreover, Esteral was not formally charged of AWOL,” it said.
“Clearly, Esteral was not formally charged for AWOL and the acts constituting the charge were not specified in the formal charge. The Resolution did not even indicate the dates when Esteral incurred his alleged AWOL,” they added.
On the other hand, the commission junked Esteral’s contentions that his reassignment order was patently illegal and that he could not have been liable for gross insubordination.
Gross insubordination was one of the other charges pushed against him, along with grave misconduct and gross neglect of duty.
This was after Esteral was reassigned to Calajunan Dumpsite for bookbinding tasks such as filing, storing, sorting, and safekeeping of documents.
His duties also included making sure the number of dump trucks that are deployed every day and making sure that the weight of the garbage dumped is recorded.
Esteral stressed that his reassignment is “irrelevant” to his original appointment as Book Binder II of the City Civil Registrar’s Office.
The CSC, however, emphasized that they cannot rule on the validity of his reassignment since he had not raised it with the CSC Regional Office.
“Without ruling on the issue of substantial evidence on the administrative offense committed by Esteral, he cannot, at this stage, invoke that his detail/reassignment was illegal as he failed to question the same in a separate proceeding,” the CSC noted.
On August 19, 2019, Treñas issued a detail for reassignment directing Esteral to report to the City General Services Office and fulfill duties at the Calajunan Sanitary Landfill in Mandurriao district.
Esteral then penned a letter to the city mayor September 18, 2019, expressing that starting from September 19, 2019, he could no longer comply with the reassignment order as he was not permitted to carry out his duties as a bookbinder.
In his letter, he also expressed his intention to return to his original assignment at the City Civil Registrar’s Office.
Following this, the city administrator then received a report that Esteral did not perform his assigned tasks at the sanitary landfill beginning September 17 to 23, 2019.
This prompted the City Legal Office to issue a pre-charge evaluation recommending that a formal charge be issued against Esteral for the administrative offenses of gross insubordination, grave Misconduct, and gross neglect of duty.
On September 25, Treñas, on the basis of the recommendation of the investigation report, filed a formal charge against Esteral. The filing of the formal charges placed the city hall employee under preventive suspension for 60 days.
The gross insubordination charge stems for his refusal to obey the detail order issued to him, and for his act of reporting back to the City Civil Registrar’s Office without valid and justifiable reasons.
Meanwhile, the grave misconduct charge is for his obstinate refusal to perform his assigned duties and obligations without any justifiable reasons.
As for the charge of gross neglect of duty, it was argued that Esteral’s “defiance over the lawful order issued to him denotes his unwillingness to perform his duties and obligations assigned to him.”
The CSC noted that Esteral failed to file his answer to the formal charge but only appealed his preventive suspension to the commission.
The appeal on the preventive suspension was eventually resolved on November 23, 2021 as the commission said the suspension was “invalid.”
Following this, in an undated resolution issued by hearing officer Atty. Phymere Gascon, which was approved by the City Legal Office and Treñas, recommended that Esteral should be made liable for gross insubordination and AWOL.
The resolution further recommended his dismissal from the service, along with the forfeiture of all his retirement benefits.