show-cause notice

Madras High Court on quashing of show-cause notice issued to a professor facing sexual harassment charges

Recently, in a judgment dated 13th August, 2019, the Madras High Court in the case of Samuel Tennyson v. The Principal & Secretary, Madras Christian College and Ors. refused to quash a show-cause notice issued to a professor facing an inquiry of sexual harassment as per Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“Law”).

Facts: Samuel Tennyson (“Petitioner”) filed the writ petition to quash the “Finding of Fact” report of the Committee of Enquiry (Internal Complaints Committee), of Madras Christian College – Tambaram (“2nd Respondent” or “IC”) and the consequential second show cause notice issued by Madras Christian College (“1st Respondent” or “College”).

The Petitioner was an Assistant Professor in the Zoology Department of the College. In the month of January, 2019, 42 students accompanied by seven faculty members went on a study tour. After the tour, an anonymous communication was received by the College, levelling certain allegations against the Petitioner and Dr. Raveen, pursuant to which an inquiry was conducted by the IC. Thereafter, the Petitioner was issued a warning and not assigned the work of paper-evaluation and internal examinership with further condition to not accompany students on tours for three years.

The Petitioner stated that the complaint given by 34 students was against Dr. Raveen and him, but all the allegations were raised only as against Dr. Raveen and his name was added in the capacity of supportive behaviour. He claimed he had given a detailed reply to the notice issued by the IC in connection with the complaints and the IC being not satisfied with his explanation, conducted an inquiry, in which eight girls appeared before the IC. At the time of examination of eight girls, he was asked to sit outside and after recording their evidence, he was called inside. He was also stated that his request for production of statement was not granted and before the IC, three other Professors, had given statement in his and Dr. Raveen’s favour to the effect that no such sexual harassment had taken place. Even though he sought for copies of statements of complaints and statements by staff escorts/female faculty, the same were furnished to him, after the inquiry was completed, instead of providing at the initial stage. The Petitioner immediately responded to the unfair act of the IC by way of a reply stating that the procedure adopted was in violation of the principles of natural justice and contrary to Section 13 of the Law.

Arguments: According to the Petitioner, in terms of Section 13 of the Law, the proceedings initiated by the IC were only recommendatory in nature and as he was a Government Servant, action needed to be taken only under Rule 17(b) of T.N. Civil Services (Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 1973 (“Rules”). The Counsel further emphasised the word ‘recommend’ in Section 13 of the Law to contend that the IC appointed by the College can after all submit/recommend its decision/report to the College, on the basis of which, suitable action has to be initiated under the relevant provisions of law applicable to the College. Even before appointment of an IC, the Petitioner was issued with a warning, which showed the predetermined mind of the College in taking action against him. The documents sought for by the Petitioner were furnished to him in piecemeal which was a clear case of violation of principles of natural justice and the Law.

The College contended that after appointment of a committee (IC) to look into the complaints levelled against the Petitioner and other staff members, the College had no other option, but to adopt the recommendations of the IC. Due opportunity was afforded to the Petitioner to submit his explanation, due to which, he submitted his explanation denying the allegations levelled against him. The Petitioner did not ask for reopening of the inquiry, rather it was his case that required documents were not furnished in time, despite receipt of the same at a later point of time. The Petitioner and Dr. Raveen were permitted to have the assistance of advocates to defend their case in the inquiry. In the inquiry, the Petitioner had stated that since he was strict in the class, such false complaint has been given against him. Both the Petitioner and Dr. Raveen were allowed to cross examine the witnesses during the inquiry, thereby the principles of natural justice were completely followed by the IC, in letter and spirit.

Learned Counsel for the IC contended that the principles applied to a normal inquiry may not be applicable to the present inquiry. He strongly refuted the contention of the Petitioner that the inquiry was conducted behind the back of the Petitioner, as the Petitioner was represented by his Lawyer. There were 34 complaints received from 34 students against the Petitioner and one Dr. Raveen and after a thorough inquiry, the IC had come to the conclusion that the provisions of Section 2(n) would get attracted and the conduct of the Petitioner fell within the ambit of sexual harassment. It was also contended that the IC, dealt with the sensitive matter of sexual harassment, by obtaining advice from an expert advocate at every stage and followed all the procedures contemplated under various connected enactments, thus the findings rendered by the IC were cogent and based on the oral evidence recorded in the inquiry.

Held: The Court stated that the Petitioner was charged for the supportive behaviour extended by him to Dr. Raveen in respect of his sexual harassment to female students and though his act cannot be said to be so serious as that of Dr. Raveen, it was evident that, the Petitioner was also involved in certain acts, which is construed as an unbecoming conduct of the Petitioner, attracting the provisions of the Law. The Court thus observed,

The main whack of the Petitioner on the issuance of the second show cause notice was that there was an utter and a gross violation of principles of natural justice, as he was not permitted to stay in the hall during enquiry of girl students. The said contention was highly repudiated by the 2nd Respondent stating that Advocates of the Petitioner and Dr. Raveen’s choice were allowed to represent them in the enquiry and whatever they wanted to convey to the IC were passed on through their Advocates. This Court finds justification in the act of the IC, on the reasoning that as soon as the students, who lodged complaints against the Petitioner, notice the personal appearance of the Petitioner in the very same hall, there are chances of their getting panic out of fear and threat and as a result, the entire truth will not come out of their mouth, thereby, leaving allegations levelled against the Petitioner and Dr. Raveen unnoticed by the IC. Hence, in the considered opinion of this Court, there is no violation of the principles of natural justice by the IC in the conduct of the inquiry and this Court finds no infirmity with the report of the IC. 

It further said that “The second attack on the impugned show cause notice was that when the service rules are available for the College, initiation of action against the Petitioner on the basis of the report of the IC is arbitrary in nature, for which, it was replied by the  College that the report of the IC was referred to by the College in support of issuance of show cause notice only for unearthing the fact that there are prima facie case made out against the petitioner in respect of allegations of sexual harassment and not otherwise. A reading of the impugned show cause notice discloses the fact that there is a Board of Directors in the College to look into all these issues and they not only considered the report of the IC, but also verified the past records of the Petitioner and found that there was no extenuating circumstances in favour of him. From this, an inference can be drawn that the Petitioner may be a habitual offender of involving himself in such activities along with Dr. Raveen. The next march of the College after issuance of the show cause notice was restrained by the Petitioner by way of filing the present writ petition and it cannot be said that the action taken by the College was purely on the basis of the report of the Committee.”

“It is not disputed that the Petitioner did not seek for reopening of the inquiry and even assuming that the right of the petitioner is deprived by the IC, as he was forced to be dependent on his Advocate to defend himself, considering the fact that the allegations were raised by female students and it is not fair to call upon the girls in the garb of enquiry on several occasions to give evidence, that too before the person, against whom complaint was submitted. That apart, the evidence of one Tanushree, who has narrated the entire incident, is sufficient to corroborate the version of other similarly affected girls and there is no need to obtain statements in public from all girls and in such an event, their future will be at stake.”

PAW Comment: While the Law clearly states that legal practitioners will not be allowed to represent parties in an inquiry, the inquiry conducted by the IC in the above case allowed a lawyer to represent the Respondent. The High Court, without getting into any discussion around it, has held that there was no justifiable ground to interfere with the Finding of Fact report as well as the second show cause notice and dismissed the Writ Petition as devoid of merits. It appears that this was not argued by any party before the court (perhaps because the service rules allowed for this) and in future, if this point is argued, it will be interesting to see how courts deal with such scenarios in which parties are represented by lawyers.

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