Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: The bench of Ajay Rastogi and Abhay S. Oka, JJ has held that any default or delay in the payment of EPF contribution by the employer under the Employees Provident Fund & Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 is a sine qua non for imposition of levy of damages under Section 14B and mens rea or actus reus is not an essential element for imposing penalty/damages for breach of civil obligations/liabilities.

In the case at hand, the establishment of the appellant(s) was covered under the provisions of the Act 1952, but still failed to comply with the same and for such non-compliance of the mandate of the Act 1952, initially the proceedings were initiated under section 7A and after adjudication was made in reference to contribution of the EPF which the appellant was under an obligation to pay and for the contravention of the provisions of the Act 1952, the appellant(s) indeed committed a breach of civil obligations/liabilities and after compliance of the procedure prescribed under the Act 1952 and for the delayed payment of EPF contribution for the period January 1975 to October 1988, after affording due opportunity of hearing as contemplated, order was passed by the competent authority directing the appellant(s) to pay damages as assessed in accordance with Section 14B of the Act 1952.

The Division Bench of Karnataka High Court under the impugned judgment held that once the default in payment of contribution is admitted, the damages as being envisaged under Section 14B of the Act 1952 are consequential and the employer is under an obligation to pay the damages for delay in payment of contribution of EPF under Section 14B of the Act 1952.

The Supreme Court was, hence, called upon what will be the effect and implementation of Section 14B of the Act 1952 and as to whether the breach of civil obligations or liabilities committed by the employer is a sine qua non for imposition of penalty/damages or the element of mens rea or actus reus is one of the essential elements has a role to play and the authority is under an obligation to examine the justification, if any, being tendered while passing the order imposing damages under the provisions of the Act 1952.

The Court relied on the three-Judge Bench ruling in Union of India v. Dharmendra Textile Processors, (2008) 13 SCC 369 while examining the scope and ambit of Section 271(1)(c) of the Income Tax Act, 1961 held that as far as the penalty inflicted under the provisions is a civil liability is concerned, mens rea or actus reus is not an essential element for imposing civil penalties

“18. The Explanations appended to Section 271(1)(c) of the IT Act entirely indicates the element of strict liability on the assessee for concealment or for giving inaccurate particulars while filing return. … Object behind enactment of Section 271(1)(c) read with Explanations indicate that the said section has been enacted to provide for a remedy for loss of revenue. The penalty under that provision is a civil liability. Wilful concealment is not an essential ingredient for attracting civil liability as is the case in the matter of prosecution under Section 276-C of the IT Act.”

Bound by the ruling in the aforementioned judgment, the Court upheld the verdict of the High Court.

[Horticulture Experiment Station Gonikoppal, Coorg v. Regional Provident Fund Organization, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 223, 23.02.2022]


*Judgment by: Justice Ajay Rastogi

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: The bench of UU Lalit and Ajay Rastogi, JJ has referred the question as to whether there would be a cut-off date under paragraph 11(3) of the Employees’ Pension Scheme to a larger bench. The larger bench will also decide whether the decision in R.C. Gupta v. Regional Provident Fund Commissioner Employees Provident Fund Organization, (2018) 4 SCC 809 would be the governing principle on the basis of which all these matters must be disposed of.

What was held in RC Gupta case?

In R.C. Gupta v. Regional Provident Fund Commissioner Employees Provident Fund Organization, (2018) 4 SCC 809, the Court had held that

“… the reference to the date of commencement of the Scheme or the date on which the salary exceeds the ceiling limit are dates from which the option exercised are to be reckoned with for calculation of pensionable salary. The said dates are not cut-off dates to determine the eligibility of the employer-employee to indicate their option under the proviso to Clause 11(3) of the Pension Scheme.

In RC Gupta case, the Court was dealing with a matter where the employer had deposited 12% of the actual salary and not 12% of the ceiling limit of Rs 5000 or Rs 6500 per month, as the case may be. In such a case, the Court held that a beneficial scheme, in our considered view, ought not to be allowed to be defeated by reference to a cut-off date.

“We do not see how exercise of option under Para 26 of the Provident Fund Scheme can be construed to estop the employees from exercising a similar option under Para 11(3). If both the employer and the employee opt for deposit against the actual salary and not the ceiling amount, exercise of option under Para 26 of the Provident Scheme is inevitable. Exercise of the option under Para 26(6) is a necessary precursor to the exercise of option under Clause 11(3). Exercise of such option, therefore, would not foreclose the exercise of a further option under Clause 11(3) of the Pension Scheme unless the circumstances warranting such foreclosure are clearly indicated.”

The Court had explained that if both the employer and the employee opt for deposit against the actual salary and not the ceiling amount, exercise of option under Para 26 of the Provident Scheme s inevitable. Exercise of the option under Para 26(6) is a necessary precursor to the exercise of option under Clause 11(3). Exercise of such option, therefore, would not foreclose the exercise of a further option under Clause 11(3) of the Pension Scheme unless the circumstances warranting such foreclosure are clearly indicated.

It was, hence, noticed that all that the Provident Fund Commissioner is required to do is an adjustment of accounts which in turn would have benefited some of the employees. At best what the Provident Commissioner could do was to seek a return of all such amounts that the employees concerned may have taken or withdrawn from their provident fund account before granting them the benefit of the proviso to Clause 11(3) of the Pension Scheme. Once such a return is made in whichever cases such return is due, consequential benefits in terms of this order will be granted to the said employees.

Why is the decision required to be re-visited?

Senior Advocate C.A. Sundaram invited the Court’s attention towards the difference between the Provident Fund Scheme and the Pension Scheme.

Under Provident Fund scheme, the contributions made by the employer and the employees during the employment of the employee would be made over to the employee along with interest accrued thereon at the time of his retirement. Thus, the obligation on the part of the operators of the Provident Fund Scheme would come to an end, after the retirement of the employee; whereas the obligation under the Pension Scheme would begin when the employee retired. The liability was only to pay interest on the amount deposited and to make over the entire amount at the time of his retirement.

Under Pension scheme, it would be for the operators of the Pension Scheme to invest amount deposited in such a way that after the retirement of the concerned employee the invested amount would keep on giving sufficient returns so that the pension would be paid to the concerned employee not only during his life time but even to his family members after his death. If the option under paragraph 11(3) of the Scheme, was to be afforded well after the cut-off date, it would create great imbalance and would amount to cross-subsidization by those who were regularly contributing to the Pension Scheme in favour of those who come at a later point in time and walk away with all the advantages.

Hence, it was submitted that the emphasis on investment of the amount in both the funds would qualitatively be of different dimension.

This difference was enunciated in Krishena Kumar Vs. Union of India, (1990) 4 SCC 207 and was not noted in the subsequent decision in R.C. Gupta. Submitting that it would not be a mere adjustment of amount to transfer from one fund to another as stated in R.C. Gupta case, it was submitted before the Court that the decision in R.C. Gupta was required to be re-visited.

The Court, hence, noted that

“These, and the other submissions touching upon the applicability of the principle laid down in the decision in R.C. Gupta1 go to the very root of the matter. Sitting in a Bench of two Judges it would not be appropriate for us to deal with said submissions. The logical course would be to refer all these matters to a Bench of at least three Judges so that appropriate decision can be arrived at.”

The matter has hence, been referred to a larger bench.

[Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation v. Sunil Kumar B., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 630, decided on 24.08.2021]

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: In a case where a company provided trained and efficient security guards to clients, claimed that security guards were the employees of the client, the was bench of Navin Sinha* and Surya Kant, JJ has held that merely because the client pays money under a contract to the appellant and in turn the appellant pays the wages of such security guards from such contractual amount received by it, it does not make the client the employer of the security guard nor do the security guards constitute employees of the client.

Background

By Notification dated 17.05.1971[1] issued under Section 1(3)(b) of the EPF Act, the provisions of the EPF Act were made applicable to specified establishment rendering expert services and employing twenty or more persons.

The appellant contended that it was not covered by the said Notification since it was not engaged in rendering any expert services and merely facilitated in providing Chowkidars to its clients at the request of the latter. The salary was paid to the Chowkidars by the client who engaged their services and that the appellant had only 5 persons on its rolls.

The Assistant Provident Fund Commissioner on basis of balance sheets seized during a raid opined that

  • the appellant had more than twenty employees on its rolls and stood covered by the term “expert services” such as providing of personnel under the Notification.
  • wages were not paid directly by the clients to the security guards deployed by the appellant but that the payments were made by the clients to the appellant, who in turn disbursed wages to the security guards.
  • the remedy of an appeal before the Tribunal under Section 7-I was bypassed by the appellant instituting the writ petition directly.

The Allahabad High Court declined interference with the conclusion of expert services being rendered by the appellant. A review petition contending that the appellant stood duly registered under the Private Security Agencies (Regulation) Act, 2005 was also rejected.

Analysis

Private Security Agencies (Regulation) Act, 2005

The Act of 2005 defines a private security agency under Section 2(g) as an organization engaged in the business of providing security services including training to private security guards and providing such guards to any industrial or business undertakings or a company or any other person or property.  A licence is mandatory under Section 4 and those security agencies existing since earlier were mandated to obtain such licence within one year of coming into force of the Act.

A complete procedure is provided with regard to making of an application for grant of a licence under Section 7, renewal under Section 8 of the Act.The eligibility for appointment as a security guard with such security agency is provided under Section 10 of the Act.

Section 11 provides for the condition of the licence and the licence can be cancelled under Section 13. A private security agency under Section 15 is required to maintain a register inter alia with the names, addresses, photographs and salaries of the private security guards and supervisors under its control.

Private Security Agencies Central Model Rules, 2006

The 2006 Rules framed under the Act of 2005, requires verification by the security agency before employing any person as a security guard or supervisor in the manner prescribed. Proper security training of the person employed is the responsibility of the security agency under Rule 5, and Rule 6 prescribes the standard of physical fitness for security guards.

Under Rule 14 the security agency is required to maintain a Register in Form VIII, Part-I of which contains details of the management, Part¬II contains the name of guard, his parentage, address, photograph, badge no. and the salary with the date of commencement.

Part III contains the name of the customer, address, the number of guards deployed, date of commencement of duty and date of discontinuance.

Part IV contains the name of the security guard/supervisor, address of the place of duty, if accompanied by arms, date and time of commencement of duty and date and time of end of duty.

Conclusion

Considering the aforementioned analysis, the Court concluded that the appellant is engaged in the specialised and expert services of providing trained and efficient security guards to its clients on payment basis. The provisions of the Act of 2005 make it manifest that the appellant is the employer of such security guards and who are its employees and are paid wages by the appellant.

Merely because the client pays money under a contract to the appellant and in turn the appellant pays the wages of such security guards from such contractual amount received by it, it does not make the client the employer of the security guard nor do the security guards constitute employees of the client. The appellant therefore is squarely covered by the Notification dated 17.05.1971.

The Court further noticed that the appellant refused to show the statutory registers under the Act of 2005 to the authorities under the EPF Act.  It also took note of the letter dated 03.04.2001 written by the appellant, with the appellant’s balance sheet seized for the financial years 2003¬04, 2004-05,   2005¬06 and 2006¬07 showing payment of wages running into lacs.

The Court, hence, concluded that the appellant has more than 20 employees on its roles and hence, provisions of the Act therefore necessarily apply to it.

[Panther Security Services Pvt. Ltd. v. Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 981, decided on 02.12.2020]


*Justice Navin Sinha has penned this judgment. Read more about him here

For appellant: Advocate S. Sunil

For Respondent: Advocate Divya Roy

[1] “G.S.R. No. 805 : In exercise of the powers conferred by clause   (b)   of   sub-section   (3)   of   Section   1   of   the Employees’ Provident Funds and Family Pension Fund Act, 1952 (19 of 1952), the Central Government hereby specifies that with effect from the  31st May, 1971, the said Act shall apply to every establishment rendering expert services such as supplying of personnel, advice on domestic or departmental enquiries, special services in rectifying pilferage, thefts and payroll, irregularities to factories   and   establishments   on   certain   terms   and conditions   as   may   be   agreed   upon   between   the establishment and the establishment rendering expert services and employing twenty or more persons.”
COVID 19Fact ChecksNews

An official looking circular has become viral on social media which states that the government has announced a package to employers under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, wherein the the government will contribute 24% of the employee and employer provident fund share per month for three months to PF accounts of employees earning less than Rs 15,000 to tide over the impact of Covid-19 on small establishments having less than 100 employees. The circular was signed by the regional PF Commissioner of Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. The details of the circular being circulated widely on social media are given below:

EMPLOYEES’ PROVIDENT FUND ORGANISATION

(Ministry of Labour & Employment, Government of India)

Regional Office: 3rd Lane, Krishna Nagar, Guntur-522006. A.P.

No. AP/RO/GNT/LOCK DOWN ECR/2020

DT. 01.04.2020

IMPORTANT  NOTICE

As you may be aware the Central Government has announced a package to employers under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana wherein “Payment of 24% of wages of workers in their EPF Accounts by Government in respect of the establishments which have employed less than 100 employees and 90% of employees working in such establishments are drawing less than Rs. 15000 wages” is also included.

In this confection it is informed that,

(i) The benefit of crediting of 24% of wages to the PF Accounts of workers will only be given to such establishments where 100% KYC is completed,

(ii) Where salaries have been paid to the workers by the employers for the lock down period duly filing ECR for the same period and where a declaration is given about number of excluded employees and

(iii) The declaration of excluded employees is optional till now but to avail the said benefit it is now mandatory.

(iv) A provision is also made for sanction of advances under Para 68 (L) of EPF Scheme – wherein any member of this Scheme employed in any establishment or factory located in an area declared as affected by outbreak of any epidemic or pandemic by the appropriate Government, can apply for a non-refundable advance from the provident fund account of such member not exceeding the basic wages and dearness allowances of that member for three months or up to seventy-five per cent of the amount standing to his credit in the Fund, whichever is less.

Hence, you are requested to note the above information and also intimate all the employees’ engaged in your establishment to take advantage of the above provisions.

(KUNDAN ALOK )

REGIONAL P.F. COMMISSIONER

GUNTUR

The circular draws its authority from a scheme announced by the Central Government under the Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO). On checking the official website of the EPFO (epfindia.gov.in), under the tab of COVID 19, there are three pdfs which confirm that what is mentioned in the circular viral on social media is indeed true.

The first circular is a press release dated 26th March, 2020 confirming that the government will contribute 24% of the employee and employer provident fund share per month for three months to PF accounts of employees earning less than Rs 15,000 to tide over the impact of Covid-19 on small establishments which have less than 100 employees and where 90% of the employees earn upto Rs 15,000 per month.

The second pdf is a set of frequently asked questions about the new scheme which includes questions such as what is the objective of the scheme and the quantum of relief under the scheme. The final pdf deals with the procedure of availing benefit under this scheme.

Therefore, we can safely conclude that viral circular on social media is not fake. It flows from the parent circular released by the government of India on its official website. The regional commissioner of Guntur has notified the same provisions for the beneficiaries in his region with relevant details regarding eligibility.