Certificate of fitness in seafarer’s disability benefits claims

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January 20, 2018

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THE SUPREME Court warned companies from issuing dubious Certificate of Fitness which it described as “a ploy that aims to take advantage of the worker’s lack of sufficient legal knowledge and his desperate circumstances.”

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a young seafarer who sought payment of permanent total disability benefits for contracting bipolar disorder during his employment, an illness that was declared work-related and aggravated by the harsh treatment he received from the ship officers (Career Shipmanagement vs. Eduardo Godinez, G.R. No. 206826, Oct. 2, 2017).

The Supreme Court emphasized the circumstances on how the alleged Certificate of Fitness for work was executed by the seafarer (during the medication process) and was used by the company to serve as proof of his state of health in an effort to deny his claims for total disability benefits.

The court considered the seafarer’s declaration as not competent since he is not a trained physician, and it cannot take the place of the company-designated physician’s assessment required by law and the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) contract.

The Court warns against the continued use of underhanded tactics that undermine the interests of labor, damage the integrity of the legal profession, mock the judicial process as a whole, and insult the intelligence of the Court.

In prosecuting a client’s case, the Court reminded the company’s counsels that there are multiple ways of securing victory, other than through fabrication, prevarication and guile.

The manner in which the seafarer was dealt with in the proceedings, the Court emphasized, evinces a perverse attempt to evade liability by fabricating evidence and utilizing objectionable and oppressive means and schemes to secure victory. It constitutes an affront not only to the Court but to all honest workingmen earning a living through hard work and risking their lives for their families.

In a related case, the fact that a Certification of Fitness was executed should not also be considered as a bar in a seafarer’s availment of second medical opinion from his personal doctor and later to seek relief from a legal forum.

To adopt and paraphrase the Supreme Court’s wisdom in Mercury Drug vs. Dayao (202 Phil 424), the company’s contention that its employees fully understood what they signed when they executed the Certificate of Fitness and that they should be bound by their voluntary commitment’s is anachronistic in this time and age. The worker is at a disadvantage insofar as the contractual relationship is concerned.

Workers in our country do not have the luxury or freedom of refusing to sign a Certificate of Fitness even when some terms and conditions of employment are not only onerous and inequitous but illegal. It is precisely because of this situation that the framers of the Constitution embodied the provisions on social justice (Section 6, Article II) and protection to labor (Section 9, Article II) in the Declaration of Principles and State Policies.

It is pursuant to these constitutional mandates that the courts are ever vigilant to protect the rights of workers who are places in contractually disadvantageous positions and who sign waivers or provisions contrary to law and public policy.

In labor jurisprudence, it is well-established that quitclaims and/or complete releases executed by the employees do not estop them from pursuing their claims arising from the unfair labor practice of the employer. The basic reason for this is that such quitclaims and/or complete releases are against public policy and, therefore, null and void. The acceptance of termination pay does not divest a laborer of the right to prosecute his employer for unfair labor practice acts.

In the Cariño vs. ACCFA case (L-19808, Sept. 29, 1966, 18 SCRA 183), the Supreme Court said “acceptance of those benefits would not amount to estoppel. The reason is plain. Employer and employee, obviously, do not stand on the same footing. The employer drove the employee to the wall. The latter must have to get hold of money. Because, out of job, he had to face the harsh necessities of life. He thus found himself in no position to resist money proffered. His, then, is a case of adherence, not of choice. One thing sure, however, is that petitioners did not relent their claim. They pressed it. They are deemed not to have waived any of their rights. Renuntiatio non praesumitur.”

In More Maritime Agencies, Inc. vs. NLRC (366 Phil. 646, 653-654), the Court ruled that the law does not consider as valid any agreement to receive less compensation than what a worker is entitled to recover nor prevent him from demanding benefits to which he is entitled. Quitclaims executed by the employees are thus commonly frowned upon as contrary to public policy and ineffective to bar claims for the full measure of the worker’s legal rights, considering the economic disadvantage of the employee and the inevitable pressure upon him by financial necessity. Thus, it is never enough to assert that the parties have voluntarily entered into such a quitclaim.

There are other requisites, to wit: (a) that there was no fraud or deceit on the part of any of the parties; (b) that the consideration of the quitclaim is credible and reasonable; and (c) that the contract is not contrary to law, public order, public policy, morals or good customs, or prejudicial to a third person with a right recognized by law.

This principle was utilized In the case of Var-orient  Shipping  Co. vs. Flores (October 6, 2010 G.R. No. 161934)  when  the Supreme Court took cognizance of the illegality of the Certification of Fitness to Work.   It noted that the Receipt and Quitclaim executed by the seafarer lacks the elements of voluntariness and free will and, therefore, does not absolve employers  from liability in paying him the sickness wages and other monetary claims.

A perusal of the provisions of the Receipt and Quitclaim shows that seafarer  would be releasing and discharging the employers  from all claims, demands, causes of action, and the like in an all-encompassing manner, including the fact that he had not contracted or suffered any illness or injury in the course of his employment and that he was discharged in good and perfect health. These stipulations clearly placed the seafarer  in a disadvantageous position vis-á-vis the employers .

The Certificate of Fitness to work executed by a seafarer  cannot prevail in labor cases since the worker,  untrained in the medical arts, is not in possession of sufficient knowledge to expertly asses his true and correct health status. For while a person can assess his general health, he cannot do so with respect to his medical condition which undoubtedly requires a trained man learned in the medical arts, to properly diagnose and treat. It could not be said that a layman possesses the requisite level of knowledge and expertise which took years of learning and experience for a trained cardiologist to acquire.  Therefore, the act of preying upon the ignorance of the petitioner must not be countenanced by our labor courts.

Moreover, it must be stressed that the POEA SEC recognizes the right of seafarers to seek a second opinion to contest the certification issued by the company doctor, in this case, the “fit to work” certification. To insist that the seafarer is barred from seeking opinion is tantamount to a violation of the POEA SEC’s terms and conditions.


Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho is a graduate of the University of the Philippines’ College of Law (1998) and currently a junior partner at Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan (SVBB) law offices. He heads the seafarers’ division.

He is a speaker on nationwide paralegal seminars on seafarers’ rights and presently the executive vice president of the Maritime Law Association of the Philippines (MARLAW). He is also an active member of the Maritime Forum, Inc., the National Seafarers Day (NSD) committee and International Pro Bono Network.

The SVBB law works hand in hand with various seafarers’ welfare organizations such as the Apostleship of the Seas (AOS) Philippines, Luneta Seafarers Welfare Foundation (LUSWELF), International Seafarers Welfare Assistance Network (ISWAN), and United Filipino Seafarers (UFS).

Atty. Gorecho is also a legal commentator on maritime issues on print, radio and TV, and co-anchor of the radio program “Bantay OCW Usapang Marino” aired over Radio Inquirer dzIQ every Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. to 12 noon. (For comments, email info@sapalovelez.comor call 09175025808 or 09088665786.)/PN



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