Delhi High Court: While assailing the order of dismissal from service passed by the Disciplinary Authority, the petitioner also challenged the order passed by the Appellate Authority confirming the findings of the Disciplinary Authority in regard to dismissal of the petitioner from service. A single Judge bench of Chandra Dhari Singh, J., directed the concerned employers of Bank of Maharashtra, Pune to reinstate the petitioner with all consequential benefits as well as compensate her for putting her through the rigours of prejudices inquiry for 10 years.
It was alleged by the senior manager of the Regional Office of Bank of Maharashtra, that the petitioner had removed his credit card and made purchases of a gold ornaments without his consent or knowledge, however, had also returned the cash amount, which was found lying on his table the next day accompanied with an anonymous letter. Consequently, a show cause notice was issued to the petitioner alleging violation of Regulation No.3 (1) and 3 (2) of the Bank of Maharashtra Officer Employees (Conduct) Regulation, 19761. In her reply to the show cause notice, the petitioner contended that the senior manager himself gave her the credit card to purchase the aforesaid gold ornaments as a favour.
The Disciplinary Authority imposed the penalty of dismissal from service and disqualified her from future employment whose findings were confirmed and upheld by the Appellate Authority.
Whether the findings of the Disciplinary and Appellate Authorities, challenged by the petitioner was based on any evidence?
Findings of the Court
The Court referred to an observation made by The Supreme Court in B.C. Chaturvedi v. Union of India2 qua the power of review of inquiry which stated that it is for the Court to see whether the order imposing major penalty passed by the competent authority followed the due procedure, while observing the principles of natural justice, affording fair treatment and drawing the observations, findings and conclusion based on evidence.
The Court noted that the show cause notice was issued after the suspension order was passed making it evident that no opportunity was afforded to the petitioner to defend her case. The petitioner was not formally intimated about the complaint against her until the suspension order was passed against her.
The Court, not investigating into the reasons for signing the confessional statement by the petitioner admitting to the effect of stealing the credit card in question, however, considered the possibility of the alleged detention at odd hours, threat, influence and pressure casted upon her to sign the same.
“The allegations of detention and threat by certain officials by the petitioner were serious enough to cast a shadow of doubt on the credibility of the statement signed by the petitioner admitting to taking the card away from the possession of the Senior Manager.” observed the Delhi High Court.
Following the confessional statement, the suspension orders were signed by the petitioner on the very same night, at odd hours raising a suspicion as to the genuinity of the allegations levelled up against her.
The Court also questioned the reason for rushing the drafting of suspension orders at odd hours which was issued immediately after signing the confessional statement, indicating towards the ulterior motives of the concerned bank officials.
The Court further took note of the fact that the Disciplinary Authority had only reiterated the inquiry proceedings held before the Inquiry Officer without making an observation on the facts, evidence or findings pertaining to the matter thus, failed to give reason for decision to dismiss the petitioner from services. Similarly, the Appellate Authority also failed to pass a reasoned order, hence held it erroneous for the want of reasoning for confirming the order of the Disciplinary Authority.
The Court also considered a significant point pertaining to the unwelcoming sexual advances made by the senior manager towards the petitioner, which were blatantly rejected by the Presenting Officer, dismissing them as being fraud and baseless without conducting a hearing or making preliminary inquiry.
The Court condemned the reposing attitude of the Presenting Officer as arbitrary, stating that sexual harassment at workplace are such issues of critical nature which have to be appropriately dealt with and adjudicated upon.
“An unheard claim of a woman against sexual harassment at workplace can mute others in the future” observed the Delhi High Court and held that the inquiry had completely contravened the directions issued by The Supreme Court in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan3
The Court opined that there was no evidence or material on record to conclusively establish beyond doubt that the allegations levelled against the petitioner were proved and the complaint against the petitioner was heavily influenced by the authorities and prejudiced against her since the inception of the complaint.
While concluding the judgment, the Court stated that the conclusions drawn by the Inquiry Officer, the Disciplinary Authority as well as the Appellate Authority was wholly arbitrary and capricious that no reasonable person could have arrived at in the absence of any incriminating evidence except for the alleged confessional statement signed by the petitioner, which also was disputed, considering that the petitioner had made a categorical statement that she had been threatened to sign the same.
The Court also did not rule out the probability and likelihood of intimidation and threat since the petitioner was not given any opportunity to defend herself and also, considering the fact that the said statement was signed beyond the official hours in the office premises in the presence of only male witnesses.
The Court also took note of the fact that the there was nothing on record to show that the petitioner had in fact taken away the credit card in question from the possession of the senior manager without his knowledge and made purchases of the ornaments by herself.
“It is difficult to accept the contention that the petitioner was able to secure the credit card from the wallet of the Senior Manager, take it to two differently located shops, select two separate jewellery articles and make the payment with the said credit card using the PIN etc. all without the knowledge of the Senior Manager” observed the Delhi High Court.
The Court further observed that the power of judicial review was meant to ensure that the individual receives fair treatment and since the inception of the inquiry against the petitioner, the same was prejudiced and the treatment towards her was neither fair nor reasonable nor equitable. Accordingly, the Court set aside the order passed by the Disciplinary and Appellate Authority with the directions to reinstate the petitioner with all consequential benefits as well as payment of amount of Rs. 1,00,000/- to the petitioner by way of compensation to be put through rigours of prejudiced inquiry for 10 years.
[Raj Kumari v. The Chairman, Bank of Maharashtra, 2022 SCC OnLine Del 4607, decided on 23-12-2022]
Judgment by: Justice Chandra Dhari Singh
Advocates who appeared in this case:
For the Petitioner- Advocate Sanjay Sharawat;
Advocate Digvijay Rai;
Advocate Divyank Rana;
Advocate Archit Mishra;
Advocate Akash Sahraya;
For the Respondent- Advocate Soumitra Chatterjee;
Advocate Sriparna Chatterjee.
1. Employees Regulations