Bombay High Court: In a petition under Article 226 and 227 of Constitution of India challenging the judgment and order passed by Member Industrial Court on 3-03-2023 and order dated 27-04-2018 passed by the Labour Court rejecting complaint under Section 28 of Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act, 1971 (‘1971 Act’) refusing to grant interim protection, N.J. Jamadar, J. dismissed the petition and highlighted that the petitioner enjoying interim protection all along could not be the reason for continuation of the same till the date of final decision due to his failure to make out a strong case in his favour.
The petitioner was working with Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (‘MSRTC’) as a Conductor in a bus from January 2006 till 3-07-2014. The Inspection squad conducted a surprise check of the bus and found that the petitioner had not issued tickets to four passengers despite accepting fare of Rs 646 and Rs 352 respectively, thereby committing misappropriation, and even the cash with the complainant was short by Rs 935/ a certain amount. It was further alleged that after noticing the inspection squad, the petitioner hurriedly took out 4 tickets for the passengers to a destination no passenger was found travelling to.
For the said incident, a charge sheet/show cause notice was served on the petitioner on 22-09-2016 against dismissal from service. This led the petitioner to file a complaint alleging unfair labour practices under Item 1 (a), (b), (d), (f) and (g) of Schedule-IV of 1971 Act, alleging that the proposed punishment for dismissal was prima facie illegal and disproportionate. The petitioner also preferred interim relief seeking restraint against MSRTC from imposing any penalty against the petitioner till the final decision of the instant complaint, which was rejected by the Labour Court for adherence to principles of natural justice and not finding the petitioner entitled to interim relief and the Member Industrial Court also concurred with the said decision in Revision Application. The same was challenged in the instant matter.
Court’s Analysis of Evidence in Disciplinary Proceedings
The Court pointed out that the interim protection was in operation from the filing of complaint and considered it appropriate to delve into the question of entitlement to and continuation of interim protection as against the concurrent decisions holding that the petitioner did not deserve the exercise of discretion in his favour.
The Court referred to the 3 grounds on which the petitioner sought interim relief:
Enquiry being unfair and improper;
Findings recorded by the Inquiry Officer being perverse; and
The proposed penalty being grossly disproportionate to the misconduct.
The Court delved into the question of whether the exercise of discretion by the two lower courts was justifiable and considered the three aforementioned grounds. On enquiry being unfair and improper, the Labour and Industrial Court had prima facie finding that MSRTC adhered to the prescriptions in Discipline and Appeal rules and the principles of natural justice by providing an efficacious opportunity of hearing. On findings recorded by the Inquiry Officer being perverse, the Courts below recorded prima facie view in favour of MSRTC, being a finding of fact at an interim stage, the Court refused to take a different view.
It was alleged by the petitioner that the Inquiry Officer could not return a finding of misconduct in the absence of evidence of passengers who complained of fare accepted without issuing tickets, and that the punishment so proposed being shockingly disproportionate. While the Member Industrial Court viewed that examination of passengers was not necessary for proving such misconduct, the Court perused the standard of proof in a disciplinary proceeding. The Court clarified that strict rules of evidence do not apply in a disciplinary proceeding. The Court also suggested that “it is open for the Tribunals and Courts to substitute their subjective opinion in the place of conclusion arrived at by the domestic tribunal.”
The Court noted that the Inquiry Officer arrived at the findings of misconduct based on inspection report, statements of the passengers, evidence of head of the Inspection squad and the report disclosing petitioner’s declination to furnishing a proper explanation which raked up quarrel with the officers.
The Court observed that “Prima facie, the aforesaid material qualifies as the evidence which can sustain the findings of the domestic tribunal. Non-examination of the passengers cannot be pressed into service to question the justifiably of the findings arrived at by the Inquiry Officer on the basis of such material.” The Court relied on similar facts decided by the Supreme Court in State of Haryana v. Rattan Singh, (1977) 2 SCC 491 wherein, the Industrial adjudicator ruled against the termination of the service of the Conductor based on the findings of the domestic tribunal on the ground that none of the passengers were examined. The Supreme Court in this case stipulated the quality of evidence required in a domestic enquiry, and the principles which govern interference by Courts while exercising judicial review.
The Court also referred to several cases including Devendra Swamy v. Karnataka SRTC, (2002) 9 SCC 644; State of Haryana v. Rattan Singh, (1977) 2 SCC 491; Karnataka SRTC v. A.T. Mane, (2005) 3 SCC 254. Based on the said cases, the Court commented that it was too late to term findings of the Inquiry Officer as perverse merely for non-examination of passengers, and that once misappropriation was established, dismissal from service could not be tagged as disproportionate, but the past conduct of the delinquent should be regarded. There were 9 punishments against the complainant apart from the instant matter as pointed by the lower Courts.
The Court found the Labour and Industrial Courts justified in refusing to exercise jurisdiction in the petitioner’s favour. The Court highlighted that the petitioner enjoying interim protection all along could not be the reason for continuation of the same till the date of final decision due to his failure to make out a strong case in his favour. Therefore, the Court dismissed the instant petition.
[Subhash Gulabchand Pawar v. Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation, 2023 SCC OnLine Bom 1439, decided on 17-07-2023]
Judgment by: Justice N.J. Jamadar
Advocates who appeared in this case :
For Petitioner: Advocate Pavitra Mahesh, Advocate Saurabh Mandlik;
For Respondent: Advocate Yashodeep Deshmukh, Advocate Vaidehi Pradeep, Advocate Aditi Athawale.