Iglesia loses land case in SC

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — The Supreme Court has junked the suit filed by the Iglesia ni Cristo, assailing an order of a Quezon City Regional Trial Court over a land dispute between the religious group and the heirs of the property’s owner.

In a 25-page decision written by Associate Justice Romeo Callejo Sr., the SC First Division affirmed the ruling of the Court of Appeals that upheld Quezon City Judge Thelma Ponferrada who threw out INC’s appeal to dismiss the case filed by the heirs of the late Enrique Santos, who died in 1970.

INC lawyers asserted that the suit filed by the Santoses was defective due to some technicalities.

Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban and Associate Justices Consuelo Ynares Santiago, Ma. Alicia Austria Martinez and Minita Chico Nazario concurred with the ruling.

“Since respondents [Santoses] were in actual or physical possession of the property when they filed their complaint against petitioner [INC] on Oct. 24, 2001, the prescriptive period for the reinvindicatory action had not even commenced to run, even if petitioner [INC] was able to secure TCT No. 321744 over the property in 1984,” the Court ruled.

The high tribunal said under the law, “one who is in actual possession of a piece of land claiming to be the owner thereof may wait until his possession is disturbed or his title is attacked before taking steps to vindicate his right.”

“The reason for the rule being, that his undisturbed possession gives him a continuing right to seek the aid of a court of equity to ascertain and determine the nature of the adverse claim of a third party and its effect on his own title, which right can be claimed only by one who is in possession,” the Court stressed.

On Oct. 24, 2001, Alicia, Alfredo, Roberto, Enrique and Susan, all surnamed Santos, and Sonia Santos Wallin, represented by Enrique Santos, filed a complaint for quieting of title before Quezon City RTC against the INC.

The parties’ ancestor, a certain Enrique Santos, was described as owner of a 936-sq m parcel of land located in Tandang Sora, Quezon City.

He had the owner’s duplicate of the title, and was in continuous, open, adverse and peaceful possession of the property until he died on Feb. 9, 1970, survived by his wife, Alicia Santos, and children.

Thereafter, the heirs took over the property but when fire struck the Office of the Register of Deeds of Quezon City on June 11, 1988, the original copy of the title was burned as well. The title was reconstituted based on the owner’s duplicate.

Sometime in February 1996, the Santoses learned the INC was claiming ownership over the property based on a title issued on Sept. 18, 1984, for titles originally in the names of the spouses Marcos and Romana de la Cruz.

The Santoses insisted the INC’s title was not among those issued by the Register of Deeds of Quezon City and even if it had issued said titles, it was contrary to law, and that Enrique Santos, during his lifetime, and his heirs, after his death never disposed of the property.

In 1996, plaintiffs had the property fenced but defendant deprived them of the final use and enjoyment of their property, prompting them to initiate the case against the INC.

Church counsels said the suit filed by the Santoses was defective since, among others, it was unverified and had been filed beyond the allowed time.

Unconvinced, the RTC upheld the authority of the heirs to sue, prompting the INC to elevate the case to the appellate court and subsequently to the SC.