28 Aug 2023 6:36 AM GMT
The Supreme Court recently held that the burden of proof in disciplinary proceedings depends on the specific nature of the charge leveled against the respondent and the explanation they provide.It observed “It is well settled that, in a disciplinary proceeding, the question of burden of proof would depend upon the nature of the charge and the nature of the explanation put forward by...
The Supreme Court recently held that the burden of proof in disciplinary proceedings depends on the specific nature of the charge leveled against the respondent and the explanation they provide.
It observed “It is well settled that, in a disciplinary proceeding, the question of burden of proof would depend upon the nature of the charge and the nature of the explanation put forward by the respondent. In a given case, the burden may be shifted to the respondent depending upon the explanation”.
The Court also reaffirmed the limited scope of judicial review in departmental enquiry proceedings. The purpose of judicial review is not to re-evaluate the merits of a decision but rather focuses on ensuring the legitimacy of the decision-making process and verifying the presence of evidence to support the findings.
The Court ruled that the decision by the Single Judge and Division Bench of the High Court to set aside the enquiry proceedings and the associated punishment exceeded the boundaries of judicial review.
The bench comprising Justices J.K. Maheshwari and K.V. Vishwanathan was hearing an appeal against a judgment of the Division Bench of Karnataka HC which affirmed the single bench decision to quash an order penalizing the respondent in the aftermath of a disciplinary proceeding.
Disciplinary proceedings were initiated against the respondent for certain acts of misconduct allegedly committed by him when he was working as Field Officer of the Mahadevapura Branch of the State Bank of India. The case at hand involved allegations related to the failure to carry out periodical inspections for a series of named units. The respondent requested inspection records for the units. Subsequently, the Presenting Officer submitted the inspection register. The respondent said he would respond after reviewing the documents. However, during the course of the proceedings, no response was provided.
The penalty imposed in this case is “reduction in basic pay to the lowest stage in Scale-I” as envisaged under Rule 49 (e) of the State Bank of India (Supervising Staff) Service Rules and further, to treat the period spent by the delinquent officer under suspension from 18.08.1990 till the date of his reinstatement as suspension only.
The Court noted that neither the records nor the proceedings demonstrated how the respondent countered the charge of failure to conduct inspections. The Court highlighted that the moment the records were made available for examination, the burden of proof shifted to the respondent to demonstrate that the charge was baseless or untenable.
The next charge related to the omission of a stipulation for an equitable mortgage as collateral security for a loan provided to M/s Saraswathi Fabricators. The Supreme Court noted that while the party had offered immovable property as equitable collateral security, no stipulation regarding equitable mortgage was included. Based on the evidence, the Court highlighted the role of the Field Officer and the Branch Manager in fixing the credit limit and stipulations for collateral security.
The Court therefore held “In the light of the above, the finding of the Enquiry Officer that the respondent, by his negligence, did not stipulate this in his recommendation to the Branch Manager and, as such, the advance could not be collaterally secured by creation of equitable mortgage cannot be said to be perverse or based on no evidence.”
Taking into account these findings, the Court further observed “it constrains us to conclude that there was material on record for the appellant to pass the order of penalty. “
Moving on to the question as to whether the order of penalty imposed call for any interference, the Court relying on the case of State of Orissa v. Bidyabhushan Mohapatra (1963), held that even if some charges are severed due to lack of proof, as long as the penalty aligns with the proven charges, it remains justifiable.
The Court observed “No doubt, on the facts of the present case, on some aspects of the charge, the proof may have been found wanting since the law laid down by this Court is that unless punishment imposed is only co-relatable to any of those charges found not proved, the penalty cannot be set aside. In this case, the punishment can be sustained even if the charges held not proved are severed.
Moreover, the Court opined that since charges against the respondent were supported by evidence, the penalty imposed in this case is a “reduction in basic pay to the lowest stage in Scale-I” as envisaged under Rule 49 (e) of the State Bank of India (Supervising Staff) Service Rules did not shock the conscience of the court.
Case title: State Bank of India v. A.G.D. Reddy
Citation: 2023 LiveLaw (SC) 719
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