By Atty. Eduardo T. Reyes III
The easing of pandemic-induced restrictions had awakened many land disputes that were put on hold during the lockdowns.
A surfeit of cases involving land ownership and/ or possession had suddenly erupted where neighbors, relatives or strangers are at odds.
Ownership on one hand is different from possession on the other.
While ideally, the owner must enjoy possession as among the features of ownership; nonetheless, another may enjoy possession independently from ownership, such as: a lessee (tenant), usufructuary, or one who is granted by tolerance the temporary right to possession.
Ructions usually happen when the possessor mounts a resistance against the owner. Here, the owner must take possession back by proving his/ her ownership and the corresponding right to possession.
What can the owner show as proof of ownership and entitlement to possession in order to expel the possessor from the property?
One, the owner may prove ownership through a tax declaration in his/ her name, or some proof of acquisition like a document of sale, donation or a deed of adjudication. However, if the possessor challenges the validity of any of these documents or what they represent, courts can immediately scrutinize them and rule on their validity or invalidity without much legal constraints because the ownership rests on shaky documentary proof.
Or, second, the owner can show a Torrens title, if he/ she has one.
In the second scenario, it is tougher to attack the ownership because of the indefeasible nature of a Torrens title.
As a rule under the Torrens Law (PD 1529), a Torrens title cannot be defeated as its validity can only be challenged through a direct action for nullification of title or reconveyance as held in Sanson v Tapuz, et al., G.R. No. 245914. June 16, 2021. While in Heirs of Leonarda Latoja v Heirs of Gavino Latoja et al. G.R. No. 195500. March 17, 2021, it was explained that: “The principle of indefeasibility of a Torrens title has been carved in case law edicts. This means that a certificate of title registered under the Torrens System serves as proof of an incontrovertible title over the property in favor of the individual whose name appears on the title. With the emergence of the Torrens System, the integrity and conclusiveness of a certificate of title may be guaranteed and preserved”.
And so a Torrens title may be challenged only through a “direct proceeding” called an action for “reconveyance”. An action for reconveyance based on fraud is a direct attack on a Torrens title. It follows that despite the finality accorded to a Torrens title, reconveyance may prosper as an equitable remedy given to the rightful owner of a land that was erroneously registered in the name of another.
So, as the rule stands, if a possessor would want to attack the owner’s Torrens title, he/ she must do so through an action for reconveyance which is a direct action. No collateral or indirect attack is allowed against a Torrens title.
Yet if the titleholder himself/ herself initiates the action for the eviction of the possessor, may the latter still question the validity of the titleholder’s Torrens title by way of defense?
Yes, through what is called a counterclaim.
In Virginia Dela Cruz joined by her husband Prudencio Ferido v. Sps. Paulino and Delia Frondarina, G.R. No. 213042. March 24, 2021, it was held that an attack on the validity of a free patent title through a counterclaim is a direct attack.
Affirmative Defense in Ejectment or Accion Publiciana suits.
But what about in an ejectment or accion publiciana suit? May the possessor raise as affirmative defense the invalidity of a Torrens title in these cases which only involve possession as a core issue, not ownership?
In ejectment or accion publiciana suits an Affirmative Defense predicated on the nullity of plaintiff’s title is allowed because anyway the trial court in such actions does not have the power or jurisdiction to cancel the Torrens title. Sections 16 and 18, Rule 70 of the Rules of Court provides that the determination of ownership is only for the purpose of deciding the issue of possession, but such determination is “provisional in nature”.
But on the issue, the Supreme Court has two (2) diverse rulings. In Heirs of Cullado v Guitierez, G.R. No. 212938 July 30, 2019, it was held that an affirmative defense is not allowed for the purpose of attacking a Torrens title. But Mendiola v. Sangalang, G.R. No. 205283, June 7, 2017, concluded that “Settled is the rule that an action to declare the nullity of a void title does not prescribe and is susceptible to direct, as well as to collateral attack”.
Counterclaim in Ejectment or Accion Publiciana suits.
But as opposed to a mere affirmative defense, if the validity of the Torrens title is impugned as a counterclaim in a forcible entry or unlawful detainer action, attacking the Torrens title is not allowed because of the limited jurisdiction of the Municipal Trial Court which must apply the rules on summary procedure under Rule 70 of the Rules of Court even as it does not have the power to declare a Torrens title as void pursuant to Heirs of Cullado v Guitierez.
However, in an accion publiciana suit, this is allowed but it must be underlined that as ruled in Heirs of Cullado v Guitierez to successfully ask for reconveyance or nullification of the Torrens title of the plaintiff, the defendant/ counterclaimant must file a permissive – not a compulsory– counterclaim and must pay the docketing fees. This way, either the MTC or the RTC which has jurisdiction over the accion publiciana suit, can acquire jurisdiction to nullify the title through the counterclaim which is a direct attack on the title.
Accion Reivindicatoria Suit.
Finally, as pointed out in Heirs of Cullado v Guitierez, in an accion reivindicatoria case, which already involves the issue of ownership to start with, then regardless of the counterclaim of the defendant (whether compulsory or permissive) the trial court can order the nullification of the plaintiff’s Torren’s title if warranted by the evidence presented to support the counterclaim.
Such is how the rules cascade insofar as the mode of attacking the validity of a Torrens title is concerned. It can be said that a Torrens titleholder does enjoy a stronger insulation from a challenge against the validity of the certificate of title, than one whose ownership is not based on a Torrens title. Yet the protection that the Torrens System guarantees is only up to some extent. Once the chink in the armor of the Torrens title is discovered, it loses its indefeasible nature.
The key on the part of the challenger is to know how and where to attack the Torrens title.
(The author is the senior partner of ET Reyes III & Associates- a law firm based in Iloilo City. He is a litigation attorney, a law professor and a book author. His website is etriiilaw.com).