Threat of detrimental treatment and creating an intimidating, offensive, and hostile work environment have nexus to sexual harassment.- Calcutta High Court

Threat Of Detrimental Treatment And Creating An Intimidating, Offensive, And Hostile Work Environment Have Nexus To Sexual Harassment.- Calcutta High Court

Introduction

The Calcutta High Court has ordered the 24-Parganas (North) local committee, which was formed in accordance with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“POSH Committee”) (Internal Committee (IC)), to take another look at a sexual harassment complaint that a NUJS Kolkata professor filed against the vice-chancellor of the university. Following the POSH Committee’s initial dismissal of the complaint on the grounds that it was barred by limitation, the court issued this order.

Facts of the Case

In 2023, the petitioner—an associate professor at NUJS Kolkata—formally filed a complaint alleging sexual harassment against the Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the university. Her complaint included a long list of alleged sexual harassment incidents that she claimed happened between 2019 and 2023, a span of four years. The petitioner claimed that these incidents had a negative and frightening effect on her professional life and mental health by creating a hostile and intimidating work environment.

Anticipating possible procedural problems regarding the timing of her complaint, the professor submitted a request for a delay forgiveness in 2024. Despite the fact that her complaint was submitted beyond the deadline stipulated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, this application was a formal request for the POSH Committee to accept and consider it. In order to allow the complaint to be considered on its merits, the application sought to both explain the reasons for the delay and request leniency with regard to the strict observance of the limitation period.

After reviewing her application, the POSH Committee (IC) which is responsible for handling and resolving such complaints decided to reject it. The complaint was filed too late to be taken into consideration within the legal timeframes set by the POSH Act, according to the committee’s opinion, which was based on the theory that it was barred by limitation. In particular, the committee found that the events detailed in the complaint occurred beyond the acceptable time frame for filing such cases, and they did not believe the Petitioner’s explanations for the postponement were adequate to overcome this legal restriction.

This rejection effectively dismissed her complaint on procedural grounds without addressing the substantive allegations, as it meant that the committee would not look into it further or take any further action. The petitioner sought judicial intervention because she could not persuade the committee to accept the delay and her claims went unanswered.

The associate professor filed a challenge against the POSH Committee’s ruling in the Calcutta High Court in response to this procedural dismissal. She requested the court’s intervention to make sure that her complaint was reexamined and assessed on its merits, claiming that the committee had misinterpreted and applied the limitation rules.

Petitioner’s Argument

Counsel for the petitioner argued that the POSH Committee had misinterpreted the complaint and wrongly concluded it was barred by limitation. They contended that the committee had only considered the definition of “sexual harassment” under Section 2(n) of the Act of 2013, neglecting the broader definition under Section 3(2). The petitioner claimed that her complaint, when read in its entirety, clearly outlined numerous incidents of implied or explicit threats of detrimental treatment.

Respondent’s Argument

The VC and university counsel backed the POSH Committee’s conclusions. They contended that the period of limitation was not extended because the complaint did not mention any instances of sexual harassment that happened after April 2023. The committee, they stressed, had examined the complaint, the respondent-VC’s reply, and the accompanying documentation, and had come to the conclusion that there had been no instances of sexual harassment after April 2023. Furthermore, they justified the dismissal of the complaint as time-barred by claiming that the petitioner had applied for a condonation of delay and that the committee was not satisfied with her justification.

Observation of the Court

The Court noted that the limitation issue is a complex legal and factual matter. The POSH Committee should not have decided on the question of limitation at the threshold stage without considering the evidence. It underlined that the committee ought to have taken the complaints’ accusations at face value without first questioning their accuracy.

The POSH Committee did not classify events that supposedly happened after April 2023 as sexual harassment, the court found. It made clear that the initial acts of sexual harassment from 2019 to April 2023 were connected to the claimed victimization and unfavorable treatment between April 2023 and December 2023.

The Judge observed “In my view, the incidents alleged to have taken place between April, 2023 and December 21, 2023, suggest that the petitioner has been subjected to threat of detrimental treatment in her employment and respondent no.7 has created an intimidating, offensive and hostile work environment for her. In the present case, the allegations made in the complaint clearly suggest that the circumstances of victimization and detrimental treatment allegedly taken place between April 2023 till December 2023 have a nexus with the alleged sexual harassment of the petitioner between September, 2019 to April, 2023. Therefore, if the complaint is read as a whole, would lead to a conclusion that the same was within the period of limitation in terms of Section 9 (1) of the Act of 2013.”

Court’s Decision

The court determined that it was not possible to uphold the POSH Committee’s decision to dismiss the complaint due to limitation. It decided that the complaints fell within the statute of limitations under Section 9(1) of the Act of 2013 because the allegations, taken as a whole, implied a connection between the alleged sexual harassment and the victimization incidents.

As a result, the Calcutta High Court granted the plea and instructed the Committee to give a reasoned order after reexamining the petitioner’s complaint on its merits.

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