Extreme language no offence under sexual harassment: HC

Intemperate language no offence under sexual harassment Act: Madras High Court

Madras High Court. (DH Photo)

The Madras High Court has observed a solitary allegation of intemperate language against a woman employee does not constitute an offence under the law on sexual harassment at work place and the act cannot be allowed to be misused with exaggerated or non-existent charges.

Granting relief to a senior central government official who was accused of sexual harassment by a woman officer, it also said the Administrative Head or the Chief has every right to extract work and he or she has his or her own discretion and prerogatives.

Allowing a petition by V Natarajan, Deputy Registrar of Trade Marks and GI, Intellectual Property of India, Chennai, a bench of Justices M Sathyanarayanan and R Hemalatha quashed orders of the Central Administrative Tribunal and the district Local Complaints Committee (LCC) against him.

"The complainant, it appears, made a futile attempt to settle her personal score with the petitioner. Every office has to maintain certain decorum and women employees cannot be allowed to go scot-free without completing their assignments," the bench said in a lengthy order on Saturday.

If a woman employee was discriminated against due to her inefficiency or for any other official reasons, the recourse for her is not the one taken by this complainant, it said. "Though the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 is intended to have an equal standing for women in the work place and to have a cordial workplace in which their dignity and self- respect are protected, it cannot be allowed to be misused by women to harass someone with an exaggerated or nonexistent allegations", the bench added.

The woman officer had lodged a complaint on December 2, 2013, against the petitioner with the Registrar and Controller General of Trade Marks and GI and Patents and Design, accusing him of high-handed and arrogant behavior, causing hurt to her self-respect. The Registrar and Controller General set up an internal complaints committee (ICC) as per the act. Subsequently, she made another complaint narrating many incidents about the "rude behavior" of Natarajan, in which she mentioned the word "sexual harassment" at several places.

Later, she wrote to the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women expressing apprehension the ICC would not render justice as her complaint was against the head of the department.

Subsequently, based on an enquiry by the District Social Welfare Officer who found prima facie case, the LCC had recommended a detailed departmental enquiry against Natarajan. Meanwhile, the CAT allowed a plea by the complainant challenging the constitution of the ICC. The petitioner's appeal was dismissed by the tribunal, following which he moved the high court.

The court said the woman's first complaint in 2013 was generic and its essence was "intemperate" language used by the officer and 'bias' shown against her. But the February 17, 2016 complaint before the LCC smacked of 'tutoring' and talked about "physical advances" and "lewd remarks" though it did not mention any date or sequence of events in support. "This also appears to be an afterthought.

Therefore, a solitary allegation of intemperate language against a female employee does not constitute an offence" under the act, the bench said. "It gives an appearance that instructing a woman employee to do something officially or even scolding a woman employee itself is sexual harassment, it said. It held the CAT erred in concluding that the petitioner was the employer as defined under the act and therefore the ICC would not have any relevance while the LCC gave an erroneous decision with a non-speaking order which was also ex-parte.

The court also faulted the woman officer for "defiant attitude" in not attending the ICC hearing and for approaching the state commission for women.

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