In this case, Madras High Court held that solitary allegation of intemperate language against a female employee does not constitute an offense under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
In the present case, the petitioner Mr. V.Natarajan was deputy registrar of Trade Mark and GI, in Chennai and the respondent is Mrs. Rema Srinivasan Iyengar, Assistant Registrar, whom the court referred as the complainant in the judgment.
On 02. 12. 2013, the respondent preferred complaint against the petitioner to the Registrar and Controller General of Trade Marks and GI and Patents and Design, wherein she complained about the high- hardness of petitioner and his arrogant behavior which hurt her self-respect. The Registrar and Controller General constituted an internal committee on sexual harassment at the workplace.
On 30.06. 2015, the complainant preferred another complaint wherein she narrated many instances of the rude behavior of the petitioner and the word “ sexual harassment” was mentioned by her in this complaint. She wrote the letter to Tamil Nadu State Commission of Women, stating her apprehension that the internal committee will not be able to render justice to her, as all those who are part of the committee are subordinate to the petitioner. Thus her complaint should be referred to the local committee.
Accordingly, the Social Welfare Department (Tamil Nadu Government) constituted the Local Committee. Meanwhile, by taking into account, objections raised by the complainant to the internal committee, Smt. Sunita Yadav Director, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Ministry of Commerce and Industry was appointed as chairperson of the internal committee vide letter dated 22.12.2015.
On 30.12.2015, the letter of the complainant was forwarded to the Controller General of Trade Marks to expedite the inquiry. According to letter dated 25.02.2016, which intimate the proceeding of inquiry, it was found that the case is made out under section 3(2)(iii)(iv)(v) of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.
On 28.04 2016, the petitioner replied to District Social welfare Board that two parallel proceedings cannot be construed as legally valid.
As per the letter dated 16.11.2016, the complainant objected to the new internal committee also. Because according to the complainant, even though the chairperson is changed, all other members are remaining the same. Thus she approached Central Administrative Tribunal, Madras Bench to declare that the constitution of the internal committee is invalid. The CAT, madras bench held that Local Committee had already conducted a preliminary inquiry and the internal committee formed by the employer is against the law because the petitioner himself is Head of the Department and thus the complaint against the petitioner should be enquired by the local committee. The appeal was preferred by the petitioner which was dismissed by the Central Administrative Tribunal, Madras Bench. Thus the petitioner filed a writ petition against the order of CAT, Madras Bench.
1) Whether the ICC and Local Committee can do the preliminary inquiry in parallel?
2) Whether the findings of the Local Committee which is ex parte need to be complied with?
3) Whether the original complaint in December 2013 had any allegation warranting the institution of formation of Committee for an inquiry into sexual harassment of women in workplace?
4) Whether the person who is charged was the employer in the strictest sense?
Arguments of the petitioner:
- It has been contended by the petitioner that complainant was an Assistant Registrar in quasi-judicial position and interference in her decision making was not possible. The petitioner was the Head of the office in Chennai but was subordinate to his Superiors in New Delhi and therefore not an employer and that both the first and second complaints were sent to the Registrar and Controller General in New Delhi.
- The petitioner also contended that the Registrar and Controller General ought not to have constituted an Internal Committee for inquiry into complaints of sexual harassment in the first place for a generic complaint with no sexual harassment allegation in it. The complaint could have been redressed by the Superiors in the Department.
- Further, the petitioner argued that the objection of the complainant regarding the members of the Internal Committee was accepted by the employer and a senior lady officer was made the Chairperson which only shows the bonafide intention of the employer and that instead of respecting the superior officer, the complainant went ahead with the complaint to the Local Committee which was unwarranted. Thus it should be set aside.
Arguments of the complainant:
- The learned counsel for the complainant drew the attention of the court toward section 2 (g) of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 which defines “employer”. It was the contention of the complainant that since the petitioner was the Administrative Head of the Office of the Department at Chennai, he has to be treated as an employer under the Act.
- Further, it was contended that Section 6 of the Act gives jurisdiction to the local committee. Thus local committee is the sole authority to try this case.
The Court held that under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“The Act”), the inquiry should not be preliminary and the accused must be given the opportunity to defend himself.
The Madras Highcourt further noted that:
“At the same time, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 also brought in two provisions in order not to deter women from filing complaints. One was that their inability to prove a complaint will not render it false. Secondly, the malicious intent has to be specifically established before disciplinary action is recommended against the complainant.”
The court held the findings of the Local Committee invalid and held that the petitioner was not the employer. It further stated “This letter fits into the definition of sexual harassment complaint and contains all ingredients to make out an offense under “The Act”. However, it lacks details of the alleged incidents.”
It examined Section 3(2) of the Act and held that “a solitary allegation of intemperate language against a female employee does not constitute an offense under the Act”.
It further remarked that “The complainant, it appears, made a futile attempt to settle her personal score with the petitioner. Every office has to maintain 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 Act cannot be allowed to be misused by women to harass someone with exaggerated or nonexistent allegations.
Edited by Pragash Boopal
Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje
Union of India v. Smt. Rema Srinivasan Iyengar