Mahima* was sacked from her job at a multinational company in 2007 allegedly for protesting her boss's sexual advances.

Chennai womans 12-yr-old battle against sexual harassment ends with Rs 50k compensationRepresentative image
news Sexual harassment Thursday, September 05, 2019 - 10:47

After 12 years of running from pillar to post, a Chennai woman who alleged that she was sexually harassed by her boss was given Rs 50,000 as compensation by the Madras High Court.

Mahima*, who worked at a multinational company in Chennai, was fired from her job in March 2007 allegedly after she refused to give in to the advances made by her CEO Rajesh. After she was fired, she filed a case of sexual harassment against him and after a long-drawn battle across several courts and over many years, a Madras High Court order dated August 8, 2019, gave her Rs 50,000 as compensation.

While a previous Madras High Court order had granted her Rs 1.86 crore as severance pay and an additional Rs 1.86 crore as compensation for sexual harassment, a division bench hearing an appeal by the company reduced the second amount to Rs 50,000, calling the earlier order 'excessive and onerous.'

‘Sexually harassed, then fired’

The Madras High Court order also outlines the complaint filed and charges made by Mahima. In 2006, Mahima started working as a Vice President at the company. Within a few months of her joining the company, she noticed that there was a change in the behaviour of the Chief Executive Officer of the company.

The CEO would allegedly make sexist and derogatory remarks about her physique and dress sense and sent her three inappropriate SMSes. Unable to tolerate his behaviour, Mahima sent in her resignation letter. Rajesh immediately apologised and she agreed to take back her resignation after the company promised a safe working environment.  

However, after she withdrew her resignation, Rajesh’s behaviour worsened, Mahima's petition had said. He stopped giving her work and reduced the number of opportunities, allegedly as punishment for not responding to his sexual advances. In March 2007, the company revised her salary and reduced it. During that time, a new Vice President was appointed in the company and Mahima allegedly received several e-mails containing derogatory and indecent remarks from Rajesh and the new VP. Though she raised the matter with senior executives of the company, no action was taken. 

Finally, she was fired for ‘breach of contract,’ allegedly without any specification as to what the breach of contract was. Mahima says in her petition that instead of responding to her mails asking about the termination of her employment, the management denied her admission to her into the office on December 21, 2007, and escorted her out of the office in full view of her co-workers.

Mahima then filed a police complaint against Rajesh for sexual harassment, cheating, criminal breach of trust, misappropriation of company funds and criminal intimidation, and demanded proper compensation.

The company sided with Rajesh and filed an extortion case against Mahima in New Delhi.

After five years of running from one court to another in this manner, she finally agreed to an arbitration.

Arbitration says 'no proof of harassment'

By this time, the extortion and harassment case had reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in 2011, recommended a settlement of all disputes via an arbitration. The arbitration order concluded that there was no case of sexual harassment and gave her a compensation of Rs 2 crore as severance pay.

The arbitrator had come to the conclusion that “Mahima lodged the complaint relating to sexual harassment only after she left the employment even though she was subjected to harassment soon after her employment in the company.” The arbitrator also concluded that Mahima had prosecuted the Directors and other officers of the company “only to extract a higher amount.”

The arbitrator stated that there was no proof that Mahima had resigned when Rajesh allegedly made those sexual advances and added, “had she resigned, she would not have been eligible for any compensation at all. In all probability, that was the reason why she had withdrawn the resignation as she was willing to leave the company with some compensation particularly because she was not sent to USA.”  

Mahima then challenged the arbitration order in the Madras High Court. In 2015, a single-judge bench of the Madras High Court ordered that she be given a compensation of Rs 1.86 crore in addition to the employment dues she was to be paid. The court stated that the non-constitution of a committee by the company, as directed by the Supreme Court in Vishaka case, had prejudiced the appellant. “It was further concluded that had it been constituted, the appellant could have ventilated her grievance before such committee,” the Madras High Court order said.  

Unhappy with the order, the company then approached a division bench of the Madras High Court. On August 8, 2019, 12 years after the sexual harassment complaint was first filed, the Madras High Court reduced the compensation for sexual harassment to Rs 50,000. Calling the earlier compensation amount ‘excessive and onerous’, the High Court observed that the company’s only fault was that it did not have a Vishaka committee.

“It is needless to mention that the appellant is entitled for a just and reasonable compensation for non-constitution of a committee as held by the Honourable Supreme Court in Vishaka case. However, such compensation cannot be a windfall or bounty and it should have reasonable nexus to the breach,” the Madras High Court order stated, adding that in its opinion, it will be a fair and reasonable compensation which Mahima is entitled to.

Sources tell TNM that Mahima is now planning to approach the Supreme Court against the High Court order.

(*names changed to protect identity) 

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