sexual harassment and defamation

High Court of Delhi on Sexual Harassment and Defamation

For those of us who handle inquiries into complaints of sexual harassment at workplace, it is very common to hear a party say that they desire to file a defamation suit before a Court. One also often reads about defamation cases being filed before, during and / or after a complaint of sexual harassment. Recently, we came across the following news articles:

Newsclick reported on 10th July, 2018: “Delhi HC Exempts Journalist Swati Chaturvedi from Personal Appearance in Defamation Case.” It reported that, When Mr. Bagga was appointed as the ruling party’s Delhi spokesperson in March 2017, Ms. Chaturvedi tweeted: “Now the man who beat up @pbhushan1 was arrested in a sexual harassment case speaks for @BJP4India. Good job.” Reacting to this, Bagga filed a criminal defamation complaint against her with Patiala House Court, New Delhi. Full article here…

Times of India reported on 21st May, 2018:“Sexual harassment plaint: Dept starts probe against teacher.” It reported that a group of students filed an anonymous letter stating that this teacher was sexually harassing them. The teacher said that “The secretary (education) called up the school principal. As the letter is being circulated on social media, I will lodge a defamation complaint with the crime branch. It appears to be the handiwork of some staff members.” Full article here…

Times of India also reported way back on 17th August, 2016: “Officer accused of sexual harassment to file defamation caseFull article here…The trend appears to be similar internationally as well. On 25th June, 2018, All India Roundup reported, “Ali Zafar Takes Action Against Meesha Shafi Files PKR 1 billion Defamation Suit.” It said that Ali Zafar’s fellow musician Meesha Shafi had filed complaint of sexual harassment against him. Ali Zafar took the complaint very seriously and took quick action against her. He filed a defamation suit against Meesha Ali in district court. Full article here…

While several news reports are available regarding defamation cases being filed, we hardly get to know the outcome of these cases. Defamation cases can be filed both, under civil law as well as under criminal law. Recently on 11th April, 2018, the High Court of Delhi has decided on a complaint of defamation (civil suit) filed by Exide Life Insurance Company Limited (“Company”) against two employees of the Company, Mr. Mitun Garg (“Mitun”) and another employee (“X”). Lets look at the facts of the case and the defamatory statements (in view of the Company) that led the Company to file the civil suit.

Below are the facts and allegations as stated by the Company in its suit:

  • X had filed a complaint with the Police (FIR) for offences under sections 354, 509 & 34 of IPC against three employees of the Company. X had also escalated a complaint to the Human Resource Department of the Company sometime in April, 2015 relating to an alleged act of sexual harassment.
  • The Company formed a Committee to inquire into the allegation and X actively participated in the meetings of the Committee. The Committee could not gather any evidence of sexual advances or humiliating remarks.
  • X was placed under another Manager but did not appear to be satisfied and in August, 2015 raised some concerns pertaining to work-allocation and achieving business targets. The Reporting Manager of X also complained against X of not bringing any business and creating unhealthy situation in the office.
  • On 24 September, 2015, a meeting was called to discuss the issues being faced by X in relation to her work (X, in her FIR, alleged that individuals present at the meeting used abusive language against her and held her hand in order to drag her out/push her out of the chamber in which the meeting was taking place).
  • The Company also called the Police on 24th September, 2015 and filed a complaint against X.
  • On 28th September, 2015 the Company suspended X pending inquiry.
  • Around 28 November, 2015, Mitun started publishing posts on his Facebook profile stating that one “deceased girl in Delhi working with one of the reputed life insurance company” needed justice. Then he posted an audio which appeared to be in the voice of X. Then on 30 November, 2015, Mitun threatened to reveal the name of the Company on his Facebook page and on 1 December, 2015, published it posting as under “Avoid 16 Dec 2012 Now time to disclose the name of the company where this incident happened in Delhi. There is no fault of company in this act but company should fire the employees who don’t respect women but this company supported that culprit employees and punished that girl who is sexually harassed by these employees of esteemed organization Exide Life Insurance, kanchanchenga building, Barakhamba Road, New Delhi. Girls are safe in Delhi or not???? Kya fir 16 Dec 2012 repeat hotarahega Delhi mein… Very soon I will share the copy of FIR which was logged after 24 days of incident… Great Delhi Police...”  (emphasis supplied) Thereafter, Mitun in connivance with X posted a voice clip on 9 December, 2015 and on 2 December, 2015, as under: “Avoid Dec 2012 Today I will post one video of the deceased girl who molested by 2 Big people in Exide Life Insurance, barakhamba, new Delhi on 24 Dec 2015 but all molesters are still free with Delhi Police help and companys support… But that girl is in trauma and depressed. If justice of our country is that slow and heartless then she should commit suicide and create a example for all the companys who recruited molesters in their company…. Watch this space for these molesters name and phone number…. IF you love your sister and respect rakshabandhan then send one must to them...” (emphasis supplied)
  • Then he also posted the photographs of FIR lodged by X.
  • On another occasion he posted stating: “To all the girls. Pls dont join exide life insurance company…. This company dont respect women and all the high post GM and DGMs are women eater and the beauty is if u complaint against them then they will punish girls…” and “Avoid 16 Dec 2012… simple message to Exide Life Insurance Management…. STOP DOING SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND STOP SPREADING RUMORS OF GIRLS CHARACTER… U ALL ARE ALSO BROTHERS, FATHER AND HUSBAND OF ANY GIRL. Ladies who are supporting this kind of guys in molestation of girls should change their identity from women to any…Just for money…Shittt… I hate myself that I spent 2 years in this kind of money where people respect money but disrespect women… I think they didnt born by mother but bought by money… SO SAD… THIS IS THE ONLY REASON WHY 23 RAPE HAPPENDED EVERY HOUR IN INDIA…(sic) Avoid 16 Dec 2012. Great thinking of Esteemed Organization Exide Life Insurance In this Company, people feel that all female employees are of a loose character, and that such women can be harassed or bought. They should be behind bars. I have started a war against such violators in order to save such working women. Please support me in this war. Out of 14 years of working experience in corporate, I realized corporate people dont have heart and emotions. They just become machines and use their down line as per their requirement (Legal or illegal) Will give you some facts and proofs experienced and collected in one of the corporate Exide Life Insurance is now known as girl molester training and execution institute in India. Lets see the truth of what is happening in Exide Life Insurance…”
  • Company also stated that it is engaged in life insurance business and enjoys tremendous goodwill and stellar reputation; employs over 5,500 persons; 990 of whom are female employees. It is an ISO Standard 9001:2008 Company and that these innuendos are false.
  • On 27th September, 2017, the Company arrived at a settlement with X and agreed that the Company shall withdraw the suit against X only, that officials accused in FIR shall file a petition for quashing the FIR and X shall co-operate, that Company shall issue a fresh relieving letter to X at the time of quashing FIR and that any proceedings before any court / forum initiated by either of them against each other shall be deemed to have been withdrawn in view of the settlement.

Mitun pleaded that he left the services because the Company was trying to force him to indulge in unethical and wrong activities like sexual harassment of female employee by seniors. He said that in October, 2015, the Company transferred him to Mumbai because he was witness to sexual harassment, that he was also offered money to change his statement, that he did not post anything and on learning of same had complained to Facebook and also deleted his account. Mitun also said that the Company, upon Mitun’s resignation, had seized the laptop provided to him by the Company and all the passwords had been saved in the laptop. The laptop was used by the Company to post such material and he had no connection with the posts on the Facebook page.

The reliefs sought by the Company were for:

  • Recovery of compensation of Rs. 2,50,00,000/- for loss sustained by the Company for loss of reputation caused by defamatory statements published by Mitun and X
  • Permanent injunction restraining Mitun and X from publishing
  • Mandatory injunction directing Mitun and X to make a public apology in a newspaper with national circulation
  • Mandatory injunction directing Mitun to remove all such defamatory posts, statements or pictures published on social media and
  • For recovery of costs of the suit from Mitun and X

By way of an ex-parte ad-interim order Mitun was directed to remove the postings made by him on his Facebook profile and restrained from similarly defaming the Company. Eventually, the Court held that:

  • The alleged defamatory statements imputed to Mitun were in support of the grievances of X against the Company and its officials and which grievances X was canvassing by way of FIR. None of the statements were in any other context or relating to anything else.
  • Mitun was nothing but a supporter or mouthpiece of X and allowing the Company to claim damages from him will have an adverse effect on society in general. It further said that, “in future colleagues and other persons at a workplace will hesitate to come out in support of victims of sexual and other harassment under fear of the management, while buying peace with the victim, to prevent their name from being sullied further, turning its ire towards such supporters, literally leaving them high and dry” and it is the duty of the Court to ensure that its process is not used to do what will adversely affect society in general.
  • The compensation amount was sought from both Mitun and X and the Company did not segregate it even though it had come to a settlement with X and did not seek to recover anything from her. The settlement arrived at by Company and X has left Mitun in a situation in which it will be highly inequitable to permit Company to proceed with damages against Mitun as the statements by Mitun were nothing but making public the grievances/FIR of X.
  • Though Company was not the accused in the FIR but from the settlement it is evident that the settlement had full support from the Company and was with their consent.
  • The Court also referred to the case of Mahadev I. Todale vs. Frankfinn Aviation Services Pvt. Ltd., (2017) 242 DLT 273 where it was held that the contents of an FIR are in public domain, with the Police itself being required to publish it; that a complainant pursuing due process of law, even if his/her complaint is defamatory, is entitled to protection from a suit for defamation and this protection is the absolute privilege accorded in the public interest to those who make statements to the Court in the course and in relation to judicial proceedings. Referring to this case, the Court held that all that Mitun was doing was publishing the complaint of X. However, without getting into details of whether Mitun posted any defamatory material on Facebook, the Court said that the permanent injunction against Mitun (to not post alleged defamatory postings) would still stand.

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