Gross inefficiency is a just case since it is closely related to gross neglect.

G.R. No. 167286, 05 February 2014

Complainant Evangeline Santos filed a labor complaint for illegal dismissal against her employer defendant International School Manila and Brian McCauley. Previously, complainant was “first hired by the School in 1978 as a full-time Spanish language teacher.” After filing for a leave of one academic year, she agreed to teach the only available Spanish class and four other classes of Filipino.

Since it was her first time to teach Filipino, “the School’s high school administrators observed the way she conducted her classes. The results of the observations on her classes were summarized in Classroom Standards Evaluation Forms accomplished by the designated observers. In accordance with said forms, Santos was evaluated in the areas of Planning, the Teaching Act, Climate, Management and Communication.”

Subsequently, after making observations, the Assistant Principal completed his Classroom Standards Evaluation Form. He remarked that “the lesson plan that Santos provided ‘was written with little detail given.’ Santos was also noted as needing improvement in the following criteria: (1) uses effective questioning techniques; (2) is punctual and time efficient; (3) states and enforces academic and classroom behavior expectations in a positive manner; and (4) reinforces appropriate behavior. Hill also stated that Santos’s management of the class left much to be desired. Hill added that ‘[t]he beginning and the end of the class were poorly structured with students both coming late and leaving early with no apparent expectations to the contrary.’” Almost similar remarks were made on the Spanish class of Santos.

After another observation on the Filipino classes, the new Assistant Principal noted that Santos needed improvement on certain areas. Thereafter, Santos was made to undergo a remediation phase of the evaluation process through a Professional Growth Plan. After the implementation of the plan, there were noticeable improvements on Santos. However, the positive reviews “were gradually replaced by renewed concerns on her planning.” Thus, a written notice to explain was sent to complainant “directing her to explain in writing why her employment from the School should not be terminated because of her failure to meet the criteria for improvement set out in her Professional Growth Plan and her substandard performance as a teacher.”

In response, “Santos blamed the School for her predicament. She said that, in the last few years, she had been forced to teach Filipino, a subject which she had no preparation for. The School allegedly made this happen against her objections and despite the fact that she had no training in Filipino linguistics and literature. Santos also asked for clarification on why she was being asked to explain and the reasons therefor.

Thereafter, a series of conferences were held to clarify matters. Afterwards, the management rendered a decision terminating her employment.

HELD: Defendants were not liable. Termination was valid and legal. “In all cases involving termination of employment, the burden of proving the existence of the above just causes rests upon the employer. The quantum of proof required in these cases is substantial evidence, that is, such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, even if other equally reasonable minds might conceivably opine otherwise.”

Citing jurisprudence, the concept of gross negligence “connotes want or absence of or failure to exercise slight care or diligence, or the entire absence of care. It evinces a thoughtless disregard of consequences without exerting any effort to avoid them. Fraud and willful neglect of duties imply bad faith of the employee in failing to perform his job, to the detriment of the employer and the latter’s business.” On the other hand, habitual neglect “implies repeated failure to perform one’s duties for a period of time, depending upon the circumstances.”

Further, “in dismissing an employee for gross and habitual neglect of duties, the negligence should not merely be gross, it should also be habitual.”

Meanwhile, gross inefficiency, while not stated in the Labor Code, falls within the purview of “other causes analogous to the foregoing.” Hence, it is a just cause to terminate an employee. Citing caselaw, one is analogous to another “if it is susceptible of comparison with the latter either in general or in some specific detail; or has a close relationship with the latter. ‘Gross inefficiency’ is closely related to ‘gross neglect,’ for both involve specific acts of omission on the part of the employee resulting in damage to the employer or to his business. [In a previous case], this Court ruled that failure to observe prescribed standards of work, or to fulfill reasonable work assignments due to inefficiency may constitute just cause for dismissal.”

In this case, the actuations of Santos cannot constitute gross and habitual neglect of her duties. “From the very beginning of her tenure as a teacher of the Filipino language, the recurring problem observed of Santos was that her lesson plans lacked details and coherent correlation to each other, to the course, and to the curriculum, which in turn affected how lessons and instructions were conveyed to the students. After Santos was placed in a Professional Growth Plan on March 29, 1996, petitioners observed a noticeable improvement on her part. In his memo dated May 24, 1996, then Assistant Principal Loy even stated that Santos’s improvement was a result of her positive attitude in approaching her growth plan. Unfortunately, though, Santos could not sustain this progress. Not long after, the School administrators were again admonishing Santos for her vague lesson plans that lacked specifics.”

However, based on records, “the inadequacies of Santos as a teacher did not stem from a reckless disregard of the welfare of her students or of the issues raised by the School regarding her teaching. Far from being tainted with bad faith, Santos’s failings appeared to have resulted from her lack of necessary skills, in-depth knowledge, and expertise to teach the Filipino language at the standards required of her by the School.” Consequently, defendants “sufficiently proved the charge of gross inefficiency, which warranted the dismissal of Santos from the School.”

As previously held, “it is the prerogative of the school to set high standards of efficiency for its teachers since quality education is a mandate of the Constitution. As long as the standards fixed are reasonable and not arbitrary, courts are not at liberty to set them aside.” Further, this is also in in line with the academic freedom accorded to schools.

Going further, the “CBA between ISAE and the School for the years 1992-1995 also recognized the exclusive right of the School to ‘hire and appoint qualified faculty subject to such reasonable rules and regulations as it may prescribe,’ as well as the right of the School to discipline its faculty and determine reasonable levels of performance. Section 8 of Appendix A of the CBA also states that ‘[a]ll faculty members must meet the high standard of performance expected by the SCHOOL and abide by all its policies, procedures and contractual terms.’

Here, “it is not accurate to state that Santos was dismissed by the School for inefficiency on account of the fact that she was caught only once without a lesson plan. The documentary evidence submitted by [defendants], the contents of which we laid down in detail in our statement of facts, pointed to the numerous instances when Santos failed to observe the prescribed standards of performance set by the School in several areas of concern, not the least of which was her lack of adequate planning for her Filipino classes. Said evidence established that the School administrators informed Santos of her inadequacies as soon as they became apparent; that they provided constructive criticism of her planning process and teaching performance; and that regular conferences were held between Santos and the administrators in order to address the latter’s concerns. In view of her slow progress, the School required her to undergo the remediation phase of the evaluation process through a Professional Growth Plan. Despite the efforts of the School administrators, Santos failed to show any substantial improvement in her planning process. Having failed to exit the remediation process successfully, the School was left with no choice but to terminate her employment.”

Lastly, it must be pointed out that “Santos voluntarily agreed to teach the Filipino classes given to her when she came back from her leave of absence. Said classes were not forced upon her by the School. This much she admitted in the hearing of the case before the Labor Arbiter. She stated therein that for the school year 1993-1994, she was given the option to teach only one Spanish class and not have any Filipino teaching loads. She, however, said that if she took that option she would have been underpaid and her salary would not have been the same. Moreover, for the school years 1994-1995 and 1995-1996, she made known to the School that she did not prefer a change in teaching assignment. Thus, when she consented to take on the Filipino classes, it was Santos’s responsibility to teach them well within the standards of teaching required by the School, as she had done previously as a teacher of Spanish. Failing in this, she must answer for the consequences.”

While employees who were validly terminated are ordinarily not entitled to separation pay, an exception is “when the court finds justification in applying the principle of social justice according to the equities of the case.” In this case,  “the Court finds equitable and proper the award of separation pay in favor of Santos in view of the length of her service with the School prior to the events that led to the termination of her employment. To recall, Santos was first employed by the School in 1978 as a Spanish language teacher. During this time, the records of this case are silent as to the fact of any infraction that she committed and/or any other administrative case against her that was filed by the School. Thus, an award of separation pay equivalent to one-half (1/2) month pay for every year of service is awarded in favor of Santos on grounds of equity and social justice.”