In a notable judgment, the Delhi High Court has quashed the decision of a private college to refuse renewal of service contract of an ad-hoc Professor who had opted to take maternity leave.
In the case Manisha Priyadarsini vs Aurobindo College-Evening and others, the Court observed that maternity leave cannot be a legitimate ground for denying extension of tenure to the petitioner.
"The only reason that stares in the face is the fact that knowing that she was an ad-hoc teacher, the appellant/petitioner had applied for maternity leave. Without commenting on the rule position regarding her entitlement to maternity leave, which is the subject matter of a pending writ petition, we decline to accept that as a legitimate ground for denying extension of tenure to the appellant/petitioner", observed the Court.
The Court added that such denial would amount to penalizing a woman for electing to become a mother :
"Such a justification offered by the respondents for declining to grant an extension to the appellant/petitioner as she had highlighted her need for leave due to her pregnancy and confinement would tantamount to penalizing a woman for electing to become a mother while still employed and thus pushing her into a choiceless situation as motherhood would be equated with loss of employment.
This is violative of the basic principle of equality in the eyes of law. It would also tantamount to depriving her of the protection assured under Article 21 of the Constitution of India of her right to employment and protection of her reproductive rights as a woman. Such a consequence is therefore absolutely unacceptable and goes against the very grain of the equality principles enshrined in Articles 14 and 16".
While directing the College to reinstate the Appellant Professor within one week, the Division Bench of Justice Hima Kohli and Justice Asha Menon imposed a cost of ₹50,000 on the Respondents for giving arbitrary and unmerited reasons for not renewing the term of the Appellant.
The Appellant was a contractual Assistant Professor at the Respondent College, and her term was coming to an end on 18/03/19. It has been a practice to renew the term of contractual teachers for 120 days after giving them a nominal break of one day between the two terms.
On 22.02.2019, she had requested the Respondent College for grant of maternity leave alongwith all other eligible benefits under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 and had specifically sought leave from 14.01.2019 till 24.05.2019, particularly, in view of the complications of pregnancy. However, she received no reply from the Respondent College despite making multiple representations.
After reiterating he request for maternity leave, she received a communication from the Respondent College on 27/03/19, stating that the college had not "forced" her to join duty and that she should also inform the college of the date when she "intended" to join, thus, indicating that she was still on their rolls.
However, later she received a communication from the College stating that the Delhi University doesn't extend maternity benefits to contractual teachers, thus, rejecting her request for maternity leave.
On 24/05/19 she reported to College to continue with her duties. However, five days later it was informed to her that her tenure had ended on 18.03.2019, she was no longer on the rolls of the college and therefore, there was no question of her joining back on duty or being assigned any work.
Arguments Advanced by Appellant
Senior Advocate Darpan Wadhwa, who appeared for the Appellant, submitted that the Appellant was the seniormost ad-hoc Assistant Professor working in the English Department of the Respondent College and that after her service was terminated illegally and unlawfully, those who were junior to her, were given extensions throughout the same academic year, right from May, 2019 till date.
He further submitted that if there was a need for fewer ad-hoc teachers, then the last come had to go first and not the seniormost teacher particularly when she had disclosed her availability.
It was also argued by Mr Wadhwa that it was only because the Appellant had insisted on maternity benefits that, out of sheer vengeance, her ad-hoc appointment was not extended and therefore, the termination letter was liable to be quashed.
Arguments Advanced by the Respondents
Appearing for the Delhi University, Mr Mohinder JS Rupal submitted that submitted that no ad-hoc teacher was entitled to maternity leave as the Rules did not provide for the same and the Appellant could not seek any such benefit or claim
extension of her tenure on the plea that when her tenure had ended on 18.03.2019.
He also submitted that there is no vested right in ad-hoc teachers to claim extension of tenure.
Senior Advocate Sudhir Nandrajog, who appeared for the Respondent College, argued that the Appellant had not disclosed that she was ever willing or readily available for teaching in the following semesters and therefore, it cannot be stated that the Respondents had violated any law while appointing other teachers on an ad-hoc basis who were available to attend to the semester classes, even if they were junior to the Appellant.
Mr Nandrajog further submitted that it was well within the Respondent's right to terminate the appointment of the Appellant as her appointment letter itself contained such a clause.
While calling the arguments advanced by the Respondents as 'unmerited', the court observed that when the Appellant had expressed her availability for engagement on 24.05.2019 and when on the following day, the others were actually
appointed as ad-hoc employees, there was no good reason for the Respondent College to have refused to engage her either on 26.05.2019 alongwith the others, or at the very least from 20.07.2019, when the others were reappointed.
While highlighting that the validity of a termination order is subject to judicial review, the court noted that the Appellant had a right to be considered and could not be subjected to the whimsical and arbitrary decisions of the respondents when fundamentally, there was a need for the appointment of ad-hoc Assistant Professors and her performance has remained blemishless throughout.
In light of these observations, the court quashed the termination letter dated 29/05/19 and directed the Respondent College to send the appointment letter to the Appellant within one week.
The court has also imposed costs of Rs 50,000 on the college.
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