Jurisdiction is defined as the authority to hear and determine a cause or the right to act in a case. In addition to being conferred by the Constitution and the law, the rule is settled that a court’s jurisdiction over the subject matter is determined by the relevant allegations in the complaint, the law in effect when the action is filed, and the character of the relief sought irrespective of whether the plaintiff is entitled to all or some of the claims asserted. Consistent with Section 1, Rule 141 of the Revised Rules of Court which provides that the prescribed fees shall be paid in full “upon the filing of the pleading or other application which initiates an action or proceeding”, the well-entrenched rule is to the effect that a court acquires jurisdiction over a case only upon the payment of the prescribed filing and docket fees.
For failure of R-II Builders to pay the correct docket fees for its original complaint or, for that matter, its Amended and Supplemental Complaint as directed in respondent RTC’s 19 May 2008 order, it stands to reason that jurisdiction over the case had yet to properly attach. Applying the rule that “a case is deemed filed only upon payment of the docket fee regardless of the actual date of filing in court” in the landmark case of Manchester Development Corporation v. Court of Appeals, this Court ruled that jurisdiction over any case is acquired only upon the payment of the prescribed docket fee which is both mandatory and jurisdictional. To temper said ruling, the Court subsequently issued the following guidelines in Sun Insurance Office, Ltd. v. Hon. Maximiano Asuncion, viz.:
1. It is not simply the filing of the complaint or appropriate initiatory pleading, but the payment of the prescribed docket fee, that vests a trial court with jurisdiction over the subject matter or nature of the action. Where the filing of the initiatory pleading is not accompanied by payment of the docket fee, the court may allow payment of the fee within a reasonable time but in no case beyond the applicable prescriptive or reglementary period.
2. The same rule applies to permissive counterclaims, third-party claims and similar pleadings, which shall not be considered filed until and unless the filing fee prescribed therefor is paid. The court may also allow payment of said fee within a reasonable time but also in no case beyond its applicable prescriptive or reglementary period.
3. Where the trial court acquires jurisdiction over a claim by the filing of the appropriate pleading and payment of the prescribed filing fee but, subsequently, the judgment awards a claim not specified in the pleading, or if specified the same has been left for determination by the court, the additional filing fee therefor shall constitute a lien on the judgment. It shall be the responsibility of the Clerk of Court or his duly authorized deputy to enforce said lien and assess and collect the additional fee.
True to the foregoing guidelines, respondent RTC admitted R-II Builder’s Amended and Supplemental Complaint and directed the assessment and payment of the appropriate docket fees in the order dated 19 May 2008. Rather than complying with said directive, however, R-II Builders manifested its intent to evade payment of the correct docket fees by withdrawing its Amended and Supplemental Complaint and, in lieu thereof, filed its Second Amended Complaint which deleted its cause of action for accounting and conveyance of title to and/or possession of the entire Asset Pool, reduced its claim for attorney’s fees, sought its appointment as Receiver and prayed for the liquidation and distribution of the Asset Pool. In upholding the admission of said Second Amended Complaint in respondent RTC’s assailed 3 March 2009 Order, however, the CA clearly lost sight of the fact that a real action was ensconced in R-II Builders’ original complaint and that the proper docket fees had yet to be paid in the premises. Despite the latter’s withdrawal of its Amended and Supplemental Complaint, it cannot, therefore, be gainsaid that respondent RTC had yet to acquire jurisdiction over the case for non-payment of the correct docket fees.
In the 15 February 2011 Resolution issued in the case of David Lu v. Paterno Lu Ym, Sr., this Court, sitting En Banc, had occasion to rule that an action for declaration of nullity of share issue, receivership and corporate dissolution is one where the value of the subject matter is incapable of pecuniary estimation. Subsequent to the trial court’s rendition of a decision on the merits declared to be immediately executory and the CA’s denial of their application for a writ of preliminary injunction and/or temporary restraining order to enjoin enforcement of said decision, the defendants questioned the sufficiency of the docket fees paid a quo which supposedly failed take into consideration the value of the shares as well as the real properties involved for which the plaintiff additionally caused notices of lis pendens to be annotated. Finding that defendants were already estopped in questioning the jurisdiction of the trial court on the ground of non-payment of the correct docket fees, the Court discounted intent to defraud the government on the part of the plaintiff who can, at any rate, be required to pay the deficiency which may be considered a lien on the judgment that may be rendered, without automatic loss of the jurisdiction already acquired, in the first instance, by the trial court.
The factual and legal milieus of the case at bench could not, however, be more different. While R-II Builders styled its original complaint and Amended and Supplemental Complaint as one primarily for the resolution and/or declaration of the DAC, it simultaneously and unmistakably prayed for the conveyance, possession and control of the Asset Pool. Alongside the fact that HGC has consistently questioned the sufficiency of the docket fees paid by R-II Builders, estoppel cannot be said to have set in since, the lapse of more than five years from the commencement of the complaint notwithstanding, it appears that the case has yet to be tried on the merits. Having admitted that its original complaint partook the nature of a real action and having been directed to pay the correct docket fees for its Amended and Supplemental Complaint, R-II Builders is, furthermore, clearly chargeable with knowledge of the insufficiency of the docket fees it paid. Unmistakably manifesting its intent to evade payment of the correct docket fees, moreover, R-II Builders withdrew its Amended and Supplemental Complaint after its admission and, in lieu thereof, filed its’ Second Amended Complaint on the ground that said earlier pleading cannot be considered admitted in view of its non-payment of the docket and other fees it was directed to pay. In so doing, however, R-II Builders conveniently overlooked the fact that the very same argument could very well apply to its original complaint for which – given its admitted nature as a real action – the correct docket fees have also yet to be paid.
The importance of filing fees cannot be over-emphasized for they are intended to take care of court expenses in the handling of cases in terms of costs of supplies, use of equipment, salaries and fringe benefits of personnel, and others, computed as to man-hours used in the handling of each case. The payment of said fees, therefore, cannot be made dependent on the result of the action taken without entailing tremendous losses to the government and to the judiciary in particular. For non-payment of the correct docket fees which, for real actions, should be computed on the basis of the assessed value of the property, or if there is none, the estimated value thereof as alleged by the claimant, respondent RTC should have denied admission of R-II Builders’ Second Amended Complaint and ordered the dismissal of the case. Although a catena of decisions rendered by this Court eschewed the application of the doctrine laid down in the Manchester case, said decisions had been consistently premised on the willingness of the party to pay the correct docket fees and/or absence of intention to evade payment of the correct docket fees. This cannot be said of R-II Builders which not only failed to pay the correct docket fees for its original complaint and Amended and Supplemental Complaint but also clearly evaded payment of the same by filing its Second Amended Complaint.
By itself, the propriety of admitting R-II Builders’ Second Amended Complaint is also cast in dubious light when viewed through the prism of the general prohibition against amendments intended to confer jurisdiction where none has been acquired yet. Although the policy in this jurisdiction is to the effect that amendments to pleadings are favored and liberally allowed in the interest of justice, amendment is not allowed where the court has no jurisdiction over the original complaint and the purpose of the amendment is to confer jurisdiction upon the court. Hence, with jurisdiction over the case yet to properly attach, HGC correctly fault the CA for upholding respondent RTC’s admission of R-II Builders’ Second Amended Complaint despite non-payment of the docket fees for its original complaint and Amended and Supplemental Complaint as well as the clear intent to evade payment thereof.
With the determination of the jurisdictional necessity of the dismissal of the complaint of R-II Builders docketed as Civil Case No. 05-113407, first before Br. 24 and later before Br. 22 both of the RTC of Manila, we no longer find any reason to go into a discussion of the remaining issues HGC proffers for resolution. In view, particularly, of its non-acquisition of jurisdiction over the case, respondent RTC clearly had no authority to grant the receivership sought by R-II Builders. It needs pointing out though that the prayer for receivership clearly indicates that the R-II Builders sought the transfer of possession of property consisting of the assets of the JVA from HGC to the former’s named Receiver. As already noted, said transfer of possession was sought by respondent R-II Builders since the very start, overtly at the first two attempts, covertly in the last, the successive amendments betraying the deft maneuverings to evade payment of the correct docket fees