Published 4 December 2023, The Daily Tribune

Under the Philippines’ Torrens System of land registration, a Torrens certificate is indefeasible and binding upon the whole world unless nullified. The Torrens System guarantees the integrity of land titles and protects their indefeasibility once the claim of ownership is established and recognized.

Possible conflicts of title are avoided by giving the public the right to rely upon the face of the Torrens title without the need to inquire further on the ownership of the property unless the party has actual knowledge of facts that should impel a reasonably cautious man to make inquiries. This rule, enshrined in Section 32 of the Property Registration Decree (PRD), protects an innocent purchaser for value (IPV) who may rightfully rely on the correctness of the Torrens certificate without any obligation to go beyond the certificate to determine the property’s condition. The PRD also extends this protection to innocent mortgagees.

Recently, the Supreme Court revisited the interpretation of the IPV principle and its derivatives in Plana v. Chua (G.R. No. 250636, January 10, 2023).  This case stemmed from a complaint filed by Merlinda Plana against her second husband, Ramon Chiang, and Lourdes Tan Chua for the reconveyance of a parcel of land previously registered under TCT No. T-57961 (Lot No. 10031) under the name of Nelson Plana, Merlinda’s late husband.

Merlinda alleged that Ramon deceived her into signing a Deed of Definite Sale (DDS), which transferred to Ramon Lot No. 10031 and four other lots registered in Nelson’s name. Ramon then obtained TCT No. T-86916 over Lot No. 10031 in his name and mortgaged the same to Lourdes. The mortgage was annotated at the back of the title. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court nullified the DDS for being simulated. Thus, the subject complaint.

After due proceedings, the trial court declared the sale of Lot No. 10031 and the mortgage void and ordered their cancellation. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision with modification, ruling that the mortgage is valid because Lourdes is a mortgagee in good faith. It then ordered the annotation of the mortgage on the reinstated TCT No. T-57961.

The Supreme Court upheld Lourdes’ status as a mortgagee in good faith. Nevertheless, it clarified that where the true owner has not been found negligent or has not committed an act that could have brought about the issuance of another title relied upon by the mortgagee for value, then the true innocent owner, whether still registered or deemed registered, has a better right over the mortgagee in good faith. Thus, the registered owner’s rights take precedence over the rights of a mortgagee in good faith except when the former is guilty of any negligence that gave rise to the issuance of the title relied upon by the mortgagee.

Applying this, the Court found that TCT No. T-86916 was not issued through Merlinda’s fault or negligence. Neither did she lead Lourdes to believe in or rely on the said title. Consequently, whatever right Lourdes may have acquired over Lot No. 10031 must yield to the superior right of Merlinda as the true owner. Thus, the Court upheld the reinstatement of TCT No. T-57961 free from any lien in Lourdes’ favor.

In his separate opinion, Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo suggested that the innocent mortgagee’s remedy is to claim against the Assurance Fund under Section 95 of PRD, whereas Justice Benjamin J. Caguioa opined that innocent holders may still invoke equitable remedies against negligent registered owners. Thus, a subsequent Torrens certificate derived from one procured by fraud may be given effect in the hands of a holder in good faith if the fraud resulted from the registered owner’s negligence. In such cases, J. Caguioa submitted that the innocent holder’s title shall be respected based on the principles of estoppel and equity.

Plana strengthens the Torrens system’s stability by reinforcing the framework that protects the rights of registered owners over third parties, even if the latter are eventually adjudged to be innocent. This preserves the confidence of parties in transactions concerning registered lands.

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