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Inside Mel Tiangco and ABS-CBN's 27-year court battle

By NICK GARCIA Published Jun 03, 2022 7:12 pm Updated Jun 03, 2022 7:48 pm

The Supreme Court (SC) has denied Mel Tiangco's appeal to reverse the Court of Appeals (CA) ruling on her illegal dismissal and illegal suspension complaint against ABS-CBN over her appearance in a television commercial.

SC said that its decision was in view of the fact that Tiangco is not an employee of the media giant. 

Here's the timeline of the 27-year court battle between the veteran broadcast journalist and ABS-CBN.

December 1995 to January 1996

Tiangco, who was first engaged by ABS-CBN in July 1986 as a news talent "on an exclusive basis," appeared in the ad for detergent brand Tide in December 1995.

The following January, ABS-CBN suspended her for three months without pay as co-anchor of "TV Patrol" and "Mel & Jay," as she allegedly violated a memorandum barring all on-air and on-camera talents and employees in the Radio and the News and Public Affairs from appearing in commercials.

Tiangco, however, said she had the "verbal approval" of ABS-CBN, noting that the three-month suspension was "harsh and unjust." The management denied giving her verbal approval, and said the penalty of suspension was decided "after a lengthy and careful deliberation."

"The parties exerted efforts to come up with an amicable solution, but in the end could not come to an agreement," said the high court in a 24-page decision penned by Justice Rodil Zalameda dated Dec. 6, 2021, but only uploaded on the SC website June 2.

March 1996

Tiangco filed a complaint against ABS-CBN and its officers for illegal dismissal, illegal suspension, and monetary claims, including back wages, separation pay, 13th month pay, travel and vacation benefits, shares of stocks, damages, and attorney's fees.

April 1999

The Labor Arbiter ruled in Tiangco's favor, declaring her suspension and subsequent constructive dismissal as illegal. It also ordered ABS-CBN to pay her:

  • P1.254 million as salary;
  • P4.17 million as separation pay;
  • P972,249.66 as 13th-month pay; 
  • P500,000 as signing bonus; 
  • P1.1 million as refund of her contributions to employee stock ownership; 
  • P300,000 as commutable travel expense benefit for 1994; 
  • P3 million as moral damages; and 
  • 10% of all the foregoing judgment awards as attorney's fees.

May 1999

ABS-CBN appealed before the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), saying there's no employer-employee relationship between the company and Tiangco, as she's a news talent.

July 2006

The NLRC sided with ABS-CBN and reversed the Labor Arbiter's ruling. It argued that Tiangco, like her co-host Jay Sonza, are "independent contractors." Sonza had sued ABS-CBN in 1996 over unpaid wages as supposed employee, but the SC in 2004 ruled that he's an independent contractor.

Tiangco, in turn, appealed the case, arguing that the NLRC committed "grave abuse of discretion" in using Sonza's case as jurisprudence and not considering the "substantial differences" in their situation.

September 2010

The case was referred to the CA's Philippine Mediation Center.

December 2011

Tiangco and ABS-CBN executed and signed a partial settlement agreement, in which she agreed that ABS-CBN paid her specific monetary claims "in full amount."

"Petitioner Tiangco therefore waives any and all claims she may have as against the respondent for any of the monetary claims as specified above," the partial settlement agreement read.

January 2012

The CA ruled that with the partial settlement agreement, it shall not "in any way be considered as an admission or denial that would adversely affect in any way all other issues presented to the Honorable Court of Appeals for final adjudication."

The remaining issue on whether the NLRC committed grave abuse of discretion in deeming Tiangco as an independent contractor and not an employee also became moot and academic.

And that's when the "aggrieved" Tiangco took the matter to the SC.

December 2021

Nearly a decade later, the SC decided whether Tiangco and ABS-CBN's agreement finally settled all her monetary claims and whether she was an ABS-CBN employee or an independent contractor.

Tiangco argued that her claims for separation pay, moral damages, and attorney's fees "are still unsatisfied and remain to be contested."

The high court, however, said that she is not entitled to the claims as she's an independent contractor.

"Accordingly, separation pay, damages, and attorney's fees were part of petitioner's appeal that were not included in the settlement approved by the CA," the SC said. "Be that as it may, we hold that (Tiangco) is still not entitled to these claims based on the finding that petitioner is not an employee of ABS-CBN."

Tiangco previously contended that she's an employee of ABS-CBN based on the four-fold test, which determines whether there's an employer-employee relationship in the individual's workplace.

The broadcaster contended that similar to what is stated on the test, ABS-CBN "specifically" selected and hired her for her "individual and peculiar talents, skills, personality, and celebrity status," as well as paid her salaries through a payroll account and deducted withholding tax.

She added that she was subject to ABS-CBN's rules and regulations and that the network controlled the "means and method" of her performance as newscaster of TV Patrol.

The high court, however, disagreed with her arguments, saying:

  1. She herself acknowledged that she was hired because of her "peculiar talents, skills, personality, and celebrity status," and a unique skill, expertise, or talent is "one of the factors in determining the nature of a person’s status at work."
  2. Payment through a company payroll on specified dates with income tax is "not conclusive proof" of employer-employee relationship and is "oftentimes" done for the sake of convenience.
  3. The SC also highlighted Tiangco's "extraordinarily high" talent fee, which comprised P410,000 for the first year and P417,000 for the second and third, as well as a signing bonus of P500,000 worth of ABS-CBN stocks, as one that is "unlike ordinary employees." She also had a say on her terms of engagement.

  4. While Tiangco's three-month suspension has "no basis" as ABS-CBN should've just terminated her contract, it was nonetheless rectified by their partial settlement agreement. Still, the SC said it's "incorrect" for Tiangco to view that the company has "power of discipline" over her.
  5. Nothing on record showed that ABS-CBN dictated how Tiangco should read the news, as her voice, stature, aura, and representation is "distinctly her own."

“Possession of unique skills, expertise, or talent is a persuasive element of an independent contractor," the SC said. "It becomes conclusive if it is established that the worker performed the work according to their own manner and method and free from the principal’s control except to the result."

PhilSTAR L!fe reached out to GMA Network, where Tiangco has since transferred following her ABS-CBN suspension, as well as ABS-CBN for comment. Both parties have yet to reply as of this writing.