Article (October-2021)

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Personal feud with male superior at workplace is not Sexual Harassment

H.L. Kumar

Designation : -   Advocate, Supreme Court

Organization : -  New Delhi

01-Oct-2021

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A law that has been enacted to help women employees to safeguard their honour and dignity at the workplace cannot be allowed by them to settle their personal scores with male superiors. Personal misunderstandings and not getting along with a male superior would not constitute sexual harassment as held by the Madras High Court in Mary Rajasekaran vs. University of Madras (W.P.No.10364 of 2016 decided on 25.8.2021). The Court set aside an order by the Tamil Nadu Commission for Women that directed Loyola College Society to pay Rs. 64.3 lakh to a terminated woman employee who had levelled sexual harassment charges against former principal, a priest.

Brief facts of the case are that Mary Rajasekaran hereinafter referred to as petitioner had been appointed as an Administrator on a contract basis in Loyola Development Office and Alumni Association in June 2010. She had served in that position until 2015 and was paid a consolidated amount of Rs. 30,000 a month. Afterwards, she had been appointed as Secretary to the Rector of Loyola Institutions on a contract basis. Her services were, however, terminated on September 3, 2014, and she was offered a sum of Rs. 50,000 in lieu of allowing her to serve the notice period the petitioner had rejected the order.

In 2016, she had filed a writ petition in the High Court accusing a former Principal, the Director of Alumni Association for the period between May 2012 and May 2015 of sexual harassment. During the pendency of the proceedings, she had approached the Commission and obtained an order for payment of Rs. 64.3 lakh as compensation.

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In the instant plea moved by the petitioner, she contended that the accused Director had been transferred to Trichy which indicated that the sexual harassment allegations leveled were true. She further contended that her complaint of sexual harassment had not been forwarded to the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and thus there was a violation of the guidelines in the judgment of Supreme Court in Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan, 1997 LLR 991 (SC). She thus contended that she is liable to be paid back wages to the tune of Rs. 23,40,000 besides damages for mental agony to the tune of Rs. 25 lakhs. The High Court initially granted an interim stay in the execution of the Commission's order but thereafter, it set aside the same after holding that there was no material available to show that the woman raised allegations to the college management, except a copy, stated to have been sent to the Coimbatore Police Commissioner, that too after the criminal investigation commenced against her son.

Pursuant to some misunderstandings between her and her male superior at the workplace, she was shifted to some other post on a consolidated pay, the court noted, holding every such instance could be termed as sexual harassment without showing any instances leading to it. However, the Court also noted that the petitioner's document shows she never raised any such complaint. Therefore, the allegation that she was subjected to sexual harassment at the hands of the former principal which resulted from her losing her job was not made out. A perusal of the rival submissions, the Court noted that in the first email sent by the petitioner dated 21st August 2013 to the respondent authorities, there was not a “whisper whatsoever made with regard to the so-called sexual harassment. The Court noted, "On entire allegations found in this letter, there is no allegation with regard to the sexual harassment whatsoever. Whereas the allegations mainly targeted towards some administrative functions, the conduct of functions in Alumni Association and keeping the writ petitioner away from the function and the 5th Respondent conducting it as his own family function, which resulted from a heavy loss to the college. There is no whisper whatsoever made with regard to any sexual harassment."
Hence, allegations of sexual harassment had been leveled by the petitioner for the first time in the email addressed to the Police Commissioner, Coimbatore on June 14, 2014, that too after the criminal investigation had been commenced against her own son. However, there was no mention regarding the specific instances and nature of allegations, the only thing specified was that she had been harassed mentally and sexually, the Court stated.

The Court opined that no complaint of sexual harassment had ever been made directly to the college administration. It further said that:

"It is to be noted that the petitioner is not rustic women. She has worked in Stella Maris College, one of the famous colleges, for more than ten years as per her own document i.e., email dated 14.6.2014. She had also worked in Apollo Hospitals, and she had an opportunity to work with the then Chief Ministers Mr. M.G. Ramachandran and Madam Jayalalitha, Therefore, it cannot be said that the petitioner is not aware of the procedure to make a complaint."

The Court held that personal feud between the petitioner and the accused would not constitute sexual harassment and thus observed, "Merely on the basis some personal feud between the 5th Respondent and her in some other transaction particularly with regard to the conduct of the functions and taking credit in that function or because the petitioner was not getting well with the 5th Respondent, and she was not happy and kept away from the participation of the function and she was not given proper importance. Such misunderstandings or happening in the workplace cannot be classified as sexual harassment."

The order directing the college to pay huge damages is certainly liable to have interfered which are not maintainable and against the very statute under which the Commission was constituted. Also, the claim of the petitioner for compensation for premature termination of service was also rejected by the Court as it was held that the contract of personal service cannot be enforced in writ proceedings since the very employment itself is based on the personal contract service. The court observed that the order for payment of compensation had been made by the Commission without conducting a due inquiry and only on the basis of the submissions of the petitioner. It was also noted that the Chairperson of the Commission had alone conducted the inquiry and that there was no proof of participation of the other members.

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H. L. Kumar - Advocate, Supreme Court of India, New Delhi