Mel Tiangco loses appeal vs ABS-CBN at SC over 1996 dismissal due to TV ad

Xave Gregorio - Philstar.com
Mel Tiangco loses appeal vs ABS-CBN at SC over 1996 dismissal due to TV ad
File photo of veteran newscaster Mel Tiangco

MANILA, Philippines — The Supreme Court dismissed veteran newscaster Mel Tiangco’s claims for separation pay, damages and attorney’s fees from ABS-CBN on the ground that she is not an employee of the broadcast giant that suspended her for three months in 1996 for appearing in a TV ad for a laundry detergent.

What happened before: Tiangco appeared in a Tide commercial in December 1995, in a supposed violation of a ABS-CBN memorandum issued in February of the same year barring employees and contractual talents, like her, in the Radio and the News and Public Affairs Departments from appearing in ads.

  • As a result, ABS-CBN suspended Tiangco without pay for three months from being co-anchor of TV Patrol and the DZMM radio program Mel & Jay.
  • In written negotiations between Tiangco and ABS-CBN following the suspension, she maintained that the TV network gave her verbal approval to appear in the ad and that the suspension was “harsh and unjust.” ABS-CBN denied ever giving Tiangco the go signal and said the suspension was decided after “lengthy and careful” deliberation.
  • With no amicable ending to the suspension drama in sight, Tiangco filed a complaint against ABS-CBN and its officers for illegal dismissal, illegal suspension, and claims for back wages, separation pay, 13th month pay, travel, vacation benefits of P150,000, shares of stocks, damages and attorney’s fees.
  • Tiangco triumphed over ABS-CBN before the labor arbiter, who ruled that the TV network owed her:
    • P1,254,000 in salaries
    • P4,170,000 as separation pay
    • P972,249.66 as 13th month pay
    • P500,000 as signing bonus
    • P1,100,000 as refund of her contributions to employee stocks
    • P300,000 for travel expenses
    • P3,000,000 as moral damages
    • 10% of all these awards as attorney’s fees
  • The National Labor Relations Commission, however, reversed the labor arbiter’s ruling and sided with ABS-CBN which argued that Tiangco is not its employee, but just an independent contractor much like her co-host Jay Sonza who had also unsuccessfully sued the broadcast giant.
  • Tiangco elevated the case to the Court of Appeals, which ended with a settlement between her and ABS-CBN where she agreed that the network has fully paid her salaries, 13th month pay, travel allowance and employee stock refund. 
  • With this, the CA did not rule on whether Tiangco was an ABS-CBN employee as the issue had become moot and academic.
  • Unsatisfied, Tiangco took the case to the SC where we are now.

What happened now: Tiangco raised two issues for the SC to resolve: Whether the settlement between her and ABS-CBN actually settled all her claims and whether she is an employee or independent contractor of the network.

  • The SC agreed with Tiangco that the settlement did not cover all of her monetary claims as it did not include separation pay, damages and attorney’s fees.
  • But the SC also ruled that she was not entitled to these as she is not an ABS-CBN employee and is only an independent contractor.

Why is Tiangco only an independent contractor: The SC cites four reasons why it considers the veteran broadcaster as an independent contractor and not an employee, as she asserts.

  • She was hired because of her peculiar talents, skills, personality and celebrity status. “A unique skill, expertise, or talent is one of the factors in determining the nature of a person’s status at work,” said the SC.
  • She was paid an “extraordinarily high rate” — P410,000 in the first year of her last contract and then P417,000 in the second and third years — because of her unique skills, expertise or talent. The SC said: “Unlike ordinary employees, who are usually in a position of weakness, petitioner had a say on the terms of her engagement.”
  • While her suspension was “incorrect” as ABS-CBN should have terminated her contract instead, the SC said this has been rectified by the settlement agreement between the two parties.
  • ABS-CBN had no control over Tiangco’s work. The SC said she had control over her voice, stature and manner in delivering the news, which was not dictated by the network.

Why this matters: In dismissing her appeal against ABS-CBN, the SC reiterated its ruling in the suit filed by Sonza against ABS-CBN where it was held that he is not an employee of the network and is only an independent contractor, largely for the same reasons stated by the court in Tiangco's case.

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