Misunderstandings with male superior at workplace do not constitute sexual harassment

Misunderstandings with male superior at workplace do not constitute sexual harassment

Mary Rajasekaran Vs University of Madras

Madras HC

25/08/2021

Writ Petition Nos. 10364 of 2016 & 1298 of 2021

About/from the judgment:

Setting aside Tamil Nadu Women's Commission order directing Loyola College Society to pay Rs. 64.3 lakh to a terminated female employee who had levelled sexual harassment charges against a former principal, the High Court ruled that personal feud, misunderstandings and not getting along with a male colleague would not constitute sexual harassment.

The Court observed that no case of sexual harassment has been made out as per the provisions of the Section 3 of the the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and accordingly opined,

"Without showing any instances leading to sexual harassment merely on the basis of some misunderstandings in the work place between superior and thereafter she was changed to some other post in a consolidate pay, every such instance cannot be termed as sexual harassment…such misunderstandings or happening in the work place cannot be classified as sexual harassment"

The Court also observed that the main allegation of sexual harassment appears to have been an 'after thought' as the instant plea had been filed after more than one and a half years from the date of the alleged incident of sexual harassment.

In the instant case, the petitioner had been appointed as an Administrator on contract in Loyola Development Office and Alumni Association in July 2010. She had served in that position until 2015 and was paid a consolidated amount of Rs 30,000 a month. Subsequently, she had been appointed as Secretary to the Rector of Loyola institutions on contract basis. However, her services were 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 but she had rejected the offer.

In 2016, she had moved 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. While the plea was pending, she had approached the Commission and on December 22 she had obtained an order for payment of Rs 64.3 lakh as compensation.

In the instant plea moved by the petitioner, she contended that the accused Director had been transferred to Trichy which indicates that the sexual harassment allegations levelled were true. She further argued that her complaint of sexual harassment had not been forwarded to the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and thus there was a violation of the Vishaka guidelines. She thus contended that she is liable to be paid backwages to the tune of Rs.23,40,000 and damages for mental agony to the tune of Rs.25 lakhs.

Pursuant to a perusal of the rival submissions, the Court noted that in the first email sent by the petitioner dated August 21, 2013 to the respondent authorities, there was not a 'whisper whatsoever made with regard to the so called sexual harassment'.

"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, 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 heavy loss to the college. There is no whisper whatsoever made with regard to any sexual harassment", the Court noted.

It was further noted that allegations of sexual harassment had been levelled by the petitioner for the first time in the email addressed to the Police Commissioner, Coimbatore on June 14, 2014 that too after 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 further opined that no complaint of sexual harassment had ever been made directly to the college administration and accordingly opined,

"It is to be noted that the petitioner is not rustic women. She has worked in Stella Maris college, one of the famous college, 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 procedure to make a complaint".

The Court further 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 a 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 work place cannot be classified as sexual harassment"

Furthermore, the petitioner's claim for compensation for premature termination of service was also rejected by the Court as it was held that contract of personal service cannot be enforced in writ proceedings since the very employment itself is based on the personal contract service.

While proceeding to dismiss the order of the Tamil Nadu Women's Commission, the Court opined that the order for payment of compensation had been made by the Commission without conducting due enquiry 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.

"This Court is at loss to understand how the commission has passed such order without proper enquiry and without evidence in this regard. Such conclusion was arrived on the basis of representation made by the writ Petitioner", the Court remarked.

The Court further opined that as per the provisions of the National Commission for Women (Procedure) Regulation, 2005, the Commission is entitled to only make recommendations and direct the concerned authorities such as the police to take appropriate action if a prima facie case is made out. Commission cannot direct the implementation of the orders to implement the orders passed by it, the Court added.

Thus, the Court set aside the order of the Commission by concluding,

"The Order directing the College to pay huge compensation certainly liable to be interfered and not maintainable and such order is definitely against the very statue under which the Commission was constituted. Therefore, the Order of the Women Commission is necessarily to be set aside"

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