A High Court is not a disciplinary authority and it is not its job to impose a punishment even if an employer hands down a “shockingly disproportionate” penalty to an errant employee, the Supreme Court has said. Holding that the power of awarding a particular penalty rested with the disciplinary authority, a bench headed by Justice A K Sikri said, “it is not the function of the High Court to impose a particular punishment even in those cases where it was found that penalty awarded by the employer is shockingly disproportionate.”
“Decision qua the nature and quantum is the prerogative of the disciplinary authority. It is not the function of the High Court to decide the same,” the bench, also comprising Justice A M Sapre, said.
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The observation came in a judgement which set aside an order of a division bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court altering the penalty of dismissal from service awarded to a supervisor of a cooperative bank by the disciplinary authority and modified it and said the employee would be denied two increments for a period of three years.
The apex court said the courts below, while exercising their power of judicial review in such matters, “should not sit as the appellate authority.”
The disciplinary authority of Krishna District Cooperative Central Bank had found K Hanumantha Rao, a supervisor of five Primary Agricultural Cooperative Societies (PACS), guilty of dereliction of duty.
Rao’s failure to discharge his duties in supervising had allegedly led to cheating by members of Nidamanuru Primary Agricultural Cooperative Society (PACS), resulting in misappropriation of society funds leading to disciplinary action against him and subsequent dismissal from service.
Rao challenged his sacking in the High Court. The single bench had upheld the punishment given to him, while the division bench altered it.
The apex court set aside the HC verdict saying that the decision on the nature and quantum of punishment falls under the domain of the disciplinary authority.
“It is not the function of the High Court to decide the same,” it said, adding “it is only in exceptional circumstances, where it is found that the punishment/penalty awarded by the disciplinary authority/employer is wholly disproportionate, that too to an extent that it shakes the conscience of the Court, that the Court steps in and interferes”.
The apex court further said if the penalty appears to be “shockingly disproportionate”, the High Court at best can remand the matter back to the disciplinary authority for imposition of lesser punishment leaving it to such authority to consider as to which lesser penalty needs to be inflicted upon the delinquent employee.
It, however said that the administrative authority has to exercise its powers reasonably. The apex court bench in its verdict said it found that the punishment imposed on him was not “shockingly disproportionate” and therefore there is no question of remitting the case to the disciplinary authority arises.
It said the court must not usurp the discretion of the public authority and must strive to apply an objective standard which leaves to the deciding authority the full range of choice. The apex court said the award of punishment, which is grossly in excess to the allegations, cannot claim immunity and remains open for interference under a limited scope for judicial review.