Madras High Court on definition of ‘employer’, role of LC and solitary allegation of intemperate language against a female employee
Recently, in a decision dated 17th February, 2020, the Madras High Court in the case of Union of India and Ors. vs Smt. Reva Srinivasan Iyengar and Ors. held, among other things, that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“Law”) cannot be misused to harass people with exaggerated or non-existent allegations.
Mr. V. Natarajan (“Respondent”) was the Deputy Registrar of Trade Mark & GI, in Chennai. One Mrs. Rema Srinivasan Iyengar, Assistant Registrar (“Complainant”) preferred a complaint dated 02.12.2013 (“Complaint 1”) against the Respondent to the Registrar and Controller General of Trade Marks and GI and Patents and Design (“Registrar”). She alleged in Complaint 1 regarding the high handedness of the Respondent and that he had caused hurt to her self-respect due to his arrogant behaviour. The Registrar, on 16.07.2014, Respondent constituted an Internal Committee (“IC”) to look into her Complaint 1.
Subsequently, the Complainant preferred another complaint dated 30.06.2015 (“Complaint 2”) in which she had narrated many incidents about the rude behaviour of Mr. V. Natarajan. In this complaint, she mentioned the word ‘sexual harassment’ repeatedly. Subsequently, the Complainant also wrote to the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women stating that the IC would not render justice to her and that all its members were subordinate to the Respondent, and therefore her complaint should be referred to the Local Committee (“LC”).
In the meanwhile, Chairperson of the IC was changed. This was in response to the objections of the Complainant. In the meantime, it appears that, LC conducted an inquiry based on another complaint of 17.02.2016 (“Complaint 3”) and found that prima facie case is made out under Sec 3 (2) (iii) (iv) (v) of the Law. Accordingly, it recommended an immediate detailed departmental inquiry against the Respondent by his employer.
The Complainant, thereafter, approached the Central Administrative Tribunal, Madras Bench (“CAT”) stating that the new IC should be declared invalid as she felt that the new IC will also not do justice to her complaints. The CAT concluded that LC had already conducted a preliminary inquiry and that the IC formed by the employer is against law due to the sole reason that the Respondent himself was the Head of the Department and therefore a complaint against him can be inquired into only by the Local Committee. Respondent
In light of the above, the following came before the High Court of Madras for their consideration:
- Whether the IC and LC can do the preliminary inquiry parallel.
- Whether the findings of LC which are ex-parte need to be complied with. This question arose because the Respondent had not appeared before the LC during proceedings and had provided reasons for the same. Respondent, therefore, raised a question that he also ought to have been heard by LC.
- Whether Complaint 1 had any allegation warranting the institution of formation of the IC.
- Whether Respondent is the ‘employer’ as per Law.
On the 1st and 2nd issues, the High Court observed that the LC gave an erroneous decision with a non-speaking order which is also ex-parte. It said, “…It is also mandatory for the person accused to be provided an opportunity to defend himself.” It did not comment any further on either the legal validity of parallel proceedings by IC and LC or ex-parte order of LC.
On the 3rd issue, it said that:
- Complaint 1 ‘was generic in nature’ and stated that Respondent was ‘authoritative and also to some extent biased in his action and decisions.’ This, the Court said, was in ‘sharp contrast’ to Complaint 3 as ‘…the latter, though did not mention the date and sequence of events, talked about physical advances made by the petitioner and also his lewd remarks on her physical appearance.’
- It also noted that, Complaint 2, ‘repeatedly mentions the word ‘sexual harassment’ without describing it. It gives an appearance as to that instructing a woman employee to do something officially or even scolding a woman employee itself is sexual harassment.’
- It said that Complaint 2, ‘smacks of tutoring’ and contains all ingredients to make out an offence under Law. It said that, ‘However, it lacks details of the alleged incidents. This complaint like the earlier complaints is too generic. This also appears to be an after thought.
Accordingly, referring to Section 3 of the Law, the Court said, ‘…a solitary allegation of intemperate language against a female employee does not constitute an offence under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Intemperate language used by the petitioner was the essence of the first complaint other than the bias and favouritism he (the petitioner) allegedly exhibited.’
Referring to Section 14, the Court also when on to decide on the intention of the Complainant in filing the complaint. It stated that ‘the constitution of an IC for enquiry into sexual harassment allegations was not warranted in the instant case. However, having formed the Committee, the defiant attitude of the complainant in not attending the Internal Committee hearing and the metamorphosis of the original complaint into a sexual harassment one before the Local Committee expose the real intentions of the complainant. The complainant was well aware of the Internal Committee and ought to have faced it, had her Instead, approaching the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women and giving a different picture there, are all perplexing.”
It further held that “Every office has to maintain a certain decorum and women employees cannot be allowed to go scot-free without completing their assignments. The Administrative Head or the Chief has every right to extract work and he or she has his or her own discretion and prerogatives. If a woman employee is discriminated against due to her inefficiency or for any other official reasons, the recourse for her is not the one taken by this complainant.” The Court observed that though the Law “…is intended to have an equal standing for women in the work place and to have a cordial workplace in which their dignity and self-respect are protected, it cannot be allowed to be misused by women to harass someone with an exaggerated or non-existent allegations.”
On the 4th issue, it held that CAT had erred in concluding that the Respondent was the ‘employer.’ The reason for this, it stated, was that “When the formation of the Internal Committee itself is not decided by the petitioner, terming him as the employer does not have any logic.” It also took note of the fact that Respondent was the Head of the office in Chennai but was subordinate to his Superiors in New Delhi and therefore not an employer.
PAW Observations: The finer nuances of why the Registrar constituted an IC right after Complaint 1, has not been discussed in this decision. This may go on to show that even though the words ‘sexual harassment’ were not mentioned in Complaint 1, it perhaps may have had flavours of such unwelcome instances that may have led Registrar to constitute an IC. These are also important factors to consider given that sexual harassment instances are such that often complainants shy away from providing all details in the beginning and / or to someone unless they trust them completely. In this matter, it constantly appears that the Complainant was unable to trust the IC, which perhaps may have led her to not provide those details to them but to the LC. Further, sometimes individuals are also not aware of what details they should be providing, how and how much. Lack of awareness also sometimes leads to incomplete / improper complaints, which if elaborated on later, may also take the colour of tutoring. In certain cases, the Law also may get misused by individuals after actually getting ‘tutored’ as mentioned in this matter. What is important is that such matters are dealt with extremely sensitively and after thoroughly checking on the background and the allegations of the Complainant.
It also made an observation about the LC’s decision and stated that, ‘While the original complaint dated 02.12.2013 does not even give an iota of what is stated in the latter, the Local Committee concluded that there is a prima facie case without questioning the original complaint.’