SC orders reinstatement of harassment complainant


The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered reinstatement of a former woman judicial officer who quit in 2014 alleging sexual harassment by a high court judge in Madhya Pradesh, concluding that her resignation was forced by an “arbitrary” decision to transfer her.

“We have no hesitation in holding that the petitioner has established that her transfer order was in contravention of the transfer policy and that the rejection of her two representations, in addition of being contrary to the transfer policy, were also arbitrary,” held a bench of justices L Nageswara Rao and BR Gavai.

Following an inquiry in 2017, the high court judge was given a clean chit in the sexual harassment case but the judicial officer’s sudden transfer was held to be unjustified, prompting her to seek her job back by filing a petition in the top court in 2018. The high court judge, who has since retired, is currently practising as a senior lawyer in the top court.

Senior advocate Indira Jaising and advocate Astha Sharma, appearing for the woman judicial officer, argued that the petitioner’s transfer order was a result of the sexual harassment she was subjected to, which compelled her to quit out of disappointment and inability to look after her daughter’s studies.

The court, accepting submissions, held that the resignation by the judicial officer in July 2014 was “on account of exasperation and frustration actuated by a thought that injustice was being meted out to her by the very institution of judiciary.”

It said she was not only transferred in violation of the transfer policy but her representation for delaying the transfer by eight months in view of her daughter’s impending final year board examination was also rejected without any application of mind.

“The petitioner was entitled for a consideration of her case on the ground that her daughter was to appear in the final year of Board Examination… Though, it may not be possible to observe that the petitioner was forced to resign, the circumstances would clearly reveal that they were such that out of frustration, the petitioner was left with no other alternative,” it said.

The court further noted that her transfer order and rejection of two representations by an administrative committee comprising high court judges happened within a week, which “gives rise to a suspicion that there is something more than which meets the eye.”

“The petitioner was a judicial officer and a mother too. The judicial officer in her must have been battling with the mother in her. On one hand, was her career as a judicial officer; on the other, was the possibility of her daughter’s educational prospects…It appears that in a gruesome battle between a mother and a judicial officer, the judicial officer lost the battle,” said the bench.

It ruled that her resignation “cannot be construed to be voluntary” and therefore, the decision of the high court administration accepting her resignation must be set aside.

The court directed that she would be reinstated with all job-related benefits with effect from July 2014 but would not be entitled to wages for the period she has not worked.

The bench clarified that it has not examined the decision of the full court of the Madhya Pradesh high court, which had, on three different occasions in the past, turned down the Supreme Court’s suggestion to consider taking her back.

Following a complaint by the judicial officer in August 2015, the inquiry panel was set up as 58 members of the Rajya Sabha gave a notice to move a motion to impeach the high court judge.

The report by the committee, comprising Supreme Court judge justice R Banumathi (now retired), the then chief justice of the Bombay high court Manjula Chellur, and senior advocate KK Venugopal (now Attorney General), was tabled in the Rajya Sabha in December 2017.

The report concluded that the allegations of sexual harassment could not be “proved beyond reasonable doubt”.

The panel, however, added that the decision to transfer the woman judge “mid-session” was “not justified’. Seeking her job back, the judicial officer’s petition cited the findings of this report on the circumstances that made her quit.

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