Chandigarh, March 2, 2022: While setting aside the order of removal of the petitioner, Senior Principal Scientist with Scientist at the Institute of Microbial Technology, Chandigarh (IMTECH), from his service owing to misconduct imputed to him, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has held that no finding was averred by the authorities below in proving that the default/ misconduct wilful on the part of the petitioner.
While inviting reference to the judgment of the Supreme Court in Inspector Prem Chand vs. Govt. of NCT of Delhi, (2007) 4 SCC 566, the Court opined that wilful misconduct and negligence simplicitor are not interchangeable terms and have different connotations in law.
Also, while observing that other employees of IMTECH who were accused of the same misconduct as the petitioner, were not proceeded against, the Bench of Justice G. S. Sandhawalia and Justice Vikas Suri added,“… it is also very hard for us to digest the gross variance in choosing not to departmentally proceed against some employees and on the other hand awarding extreme punishment to others, holding similar posts, involving the discharge of similar duties, in somewhat similar circumstances imputed, in view of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.”
In this case, the petitioner was serving as the Senior Principal Scientist at IMTECH when a total of 8 authors combined in smaller groups published 6 papers with Dr F. Khan being the first author in all of them. One day, the IMTECH Director received a mail from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, USA alleging that the papers published with Dr F. Khan as the lead author,constituted potential academic misconduct. The mail alleged that the papers had ideas of students from the Georgia Institute of Technology and also that the papers gave impossible results which were not supported with actual data.
The petitioner being the Project Lead applied for retraction of these papers from the publishing house and the same was allowed. However, a charge sheet accusing the petitioner of misconduct and of using fake and fabricated data while publishing the afore-mentioned scientific papers was served upon him.
In his reply, the petitioner submitted that he was only supervising the research programme and was not the lead author and that the raw data was wrongly supplied by Dr F. Khan. He also submitted that there were other co-authors also against whom no action was taken and he was being made a scapegoat by the department.
This reply was rejected and pursuant to an inquiry, the Ad-hoc Disciplinary Authority inflicted the penalty of removal from service upon the petitioner. The Authority opined that Dr F. Khan was working on a temporary basis while the petitioner was the Project Incharge and as such, it was his responsibility to ensure that the experiments shown in the manuscripts were not only performed but reproducible and reliable. Also, the retraction of the papers by the petitioner was taken against the petitioner as an admission of the fact that the raw data referred to in the publications, was incorrect.
Aggrieved, the petitioner filed an appeal but the same was dismissed. Then the matter went before the Central Administrative Tribunal, Chandigarh which again affirmed the decision taken by earlier authorities. Hence, the present Writ Petition was filed.
It was argued by the petitioner’s counsel that for similar imputation of misconduct against the other co-authors of Dr F Khan, the Disciplinary Authority took a different view depending upon who was the delinquent officer and as such, the action against the petitioner was urged to be discriminatory in nature and thus, was argued to be set aside.
Per contra, the Respondent’s counsel opposed the case of the petitioner, while contending that the petitioner was the Project Leader and no other regular employee of IMTECH was involved in the retracted publications.
Firstly, addressing the argument of the respondents that the petitioner was only co-author of Dr F. Khan who was a regular employee of IMTECH, the Court opined that it was incorrect as three other co-authors were also regular employees of the institute.
Further, on the scope of interference of a Writ Court in the quantum of punishment inflicted by a Disciplinary Authority or Tribunal, the Court made reference to the Supreme Court in Coimbatore District Central Cooperative Bank vs. Coimbatore District Central Cooperative Bank Employees Assn. and another, (2007) 4 SCC 669, wherein it was held that the quantum of punishment in disciplinary matters is something that rests primarily with the disciplinary authority and the jurisdiction of a writ Court or Administrative Tribunal is limited to find out whether the punishment is so outrageously disproportionate as to the suggestive of lack of good faith.
Reference was also made to the judgment of the Supreme Court in Delhi Police, through Commissioner of Police and others vs. Sat Narayan Kaushik, (2016) 6 SCC 303, wherein the Top Court laid down the requirements to be considered before interfering in the quantum of the punishment in an appropriate case.
Coming to the factual aspects of this case, the Court opined that none of the authorities below considered the past service record of the petitioner or the law settled by the Apex Court while adjudicating upon the proportionality aspect of the penalty inflicted. The Court noted that the petitioner had a career spanning three decades and the misconduct involving these papers was the only act of misconduct imputed to him.
Further, the Court opined that the penalty imposed on the petitioner was disproportionate to the misconduct imputed against him as it happened at the fag end of the petitioner’s career when he was about to be awarded pensionary benefits, on which his family members were dependent. The disproportionality aspect was taken note of by the Court particularly, in view of the fact that the Disciplinary Authority of the same respondent-institute, adopted a different yard-stick for other regular employees in a somewhat similar situation. The retraction of the paper by the petitioner and by another scientist (mentioned above) and the difference in their treatment, was also taken note of, by the Court.
Also, regarding the respondent’s claim about the petitioner admitting the incorrectness of raw data by retracting the paper, the Court opined that no such admission or any other material in that regard could be pointed out from the record and that admission of a fact, especially of misconduct imputed has serious consequences and as such, the same cannot be inferred or assumed from attending circumstances. An admission necessarily has to be conscious and categoric, more particularly if it is to form the basis for penal action, the Bench added.
The Court also observed that the authorities and tribunal failed to make a specific averment that the imputed misconduct on part of the petitioner was an act of wilful design or that the petitioner had the intention (mens rea) to do so and that it was not a case of negligence.
Given above, the Court concluded, “…in view of the peculiar facts and in the manner proceedings have been conducted by the respondent-Institute, it would be extremely harsh and would rather cause injustice to the petitioner in wiping out his entire retiral benefits, which have accrued to him over a span of 3 decades. As such, the punishment imposed upon the petitioner is disproportionate to the misconduct imputed in the absence of a categoric finding that the misconduct was wilful in character and is sufficient to shock the conscience of the Court.”
Thus, the impugned order/ decisions were set aside and the penalty imposed was modified to that of “compulsory retirement” w.e.f. the date from which punishment was inflicted by the Adhoc Disciplinary Authority.