Spouses Vittorio and Ma. Helen Donini
GR 167017 June 22, 2009
In an oral lease agreement, Cheng agreed to lease his property to Donini, who intended to put up a restaurant thereon. Donini then proceeded to introduce improvements in the premises.
However, before respondents’ business could take off and before any final lease agreement could be drafted and signed, the parties began to have serious disagreements regarding its terms and conditions. Cheng wrote to Donini, demanding payment of the deposit and rentals, and signifying that he had no intention to continue with the agreement should Donini fail to pay. Donini ignored the demand, and continued to occupy the premises, until in April 17, 1991, when their caretaker voluntarily surrendered the property to the petitioner.
Note that the CA made the following findings and conclusions: 1.) There was no agreement that the deposit and rentals accruing to petitioner would be deducted from the costs of repairs and renovation incurred by respondents; 2.). Respondents committed a breach in the terms and conditions of the agreement when they failed to pay the rentals; 3) There was no valid rescission on the part of petitioner; 4). Respondents were entitled to reimbursement for the cost of improvements under the principle of equity and unjust enrichment; and 5) The award of damages in favor of petitioenr had no basis in fact and law.
SC declared that because there was never an absence of law or judicial rules of procedure, petitioner cannot invoke the concept of equity.
Rule on the right of Cheng and Donini as to the improvements, the right to be reimbursed for the expenses, and the right to retain the property.
The relationship between petitioner and respondents was explicitly governed by the Civil Code provisions on lease, which clearly provide for the rule on reimbursement of useful improvements and ornamental expenses after termination of a lease agreement. Article 1678 states:
“If the lessee makes, in good faith, useful improvements which are suitable to the use for which the lease is intended, without altering the form or substance of the property leased, the lessor upon the termination of the lease shall pay the lessee one-half of the value of the improvements at that time. Should the lessor refuse to reimburse said amount, the lessee may remove the improvements, even though the principal thing may suffer damage thereby. He shall not, however, cause any more impairment upon the property leased than is necessary.
With regard to ornamental expenses, the lessee shall not be entitled to any reimbursement, but he may remove the ornamental objects, provided no damage is caused to the principal thing, and the lessor does not choose to retain them by paying their value at the time the lease is extinguished.”
Contrary to respondents position, Articles 448 and 546 of the Civil Code did not apply. Under these provisions, to be entitled to reimbursement for useful improvements introduced on the property, respondents must be considered builders in good faith. Articles 448 and 546, which allow full reimbursement of useful improvements and retention of the premises until reimbursement is made, apply only to a possessor in good faith or one who builds on land in the belief that he is the owner thereof. A builder in good faith is one who is unaware of any flaw in his title to the land at the time he builds on it.
But respondents cannot be considered possessors or builders in good faith. As early as 1956, in Lopez v. Philippine & Eastern Trading Co., Inc., the Court clarified that a lessee is neither a builder nor a possessor in good faith. “This principle of possessor in good faith naturally cannot apply to a lessee because as such lessee he knows that he is not the owner of the leased property. Neither can he deny the ownership or title of his lessor. Knowing that his occupation of the premises continues only during the life of the lease contract and that he must vacate the property upon termination of the lease or upon the violation by him of any of its terms, he introduces improvements on said property at his own risk in the sense that he cannot recover their value from the lessor, much less retain the premises until such reimbursement.”
Under Article 1678 of the Civil Code, the lessor has the primary right (or the first move) to reimburse the lessee for 50% of the value of the improvements at the end of the lease. If the lessor refuses to make the reimbursement, the subsidiary right of the lessee to remove the improvements, even though the principal thing suffers damage, arises. Consequently, on petitioner rests the primary option to pay for one-half of the value of the useful improvements. It is only when petitioner as lessor refuses to make the reimbursement that respondents, as lessees, may remove the improvements. Should petitioner refuse to exercise the option of paying for one-half of the value of the improvements, he cannot be compelled to do so. It then lies on respondents to insist on their subsidiary right to remove the improvements even though the principal thing suffers damage but without causing any more impairment on the property leased than is necessary.
As regards the ornamental expenses, respondents are not entitled to reimbursement. Article 1678 gives respondents the right to remove the ornaments without damage to the principal thing. But if petitioner appropriates and retains said ornaments, he shall pay for their value upon the termination of the lease.
The fact that petitioner will benefit from the improvements introduced by respondents is beside the point. In the first place, respondents introduced these improvements at their own risk as lessees. Respondents were not forced or obliged to splurge on the leased premises as it was a matter of necessity as well as a business strategy. In fact, had respondents only complied with their obligation to pay the deposit/rent, there would have been no dispute to begin with. If they were able to shell out more than a million pesos to improve the property, the measly P34,000 deposit demanded by petitioner was a mere drop in the bucket, so to speak. More importantly, the unequivocal terms of Article 1678 of the Civil Code should be the foremost consideration.