19 Oct 2010

Termination for unsatisfactory service not stigmatic: Supreme Court

In a recent decision [Rajesh Kohli v. High Court of Jammu & Kashmir] the Supreme Court has declared that even if a person is removed from service on ground of unsatisfactory performance, the same cannot be contended as being stigmatic against the discharged employee. The Supreme Court was dealing with the challenge to an administrative order of the Jammu & Kashmir High Court in discharging (and thus not confirming) the services of a probationary judge in lower courts where the High Court had discharged the probationer noting unsatisfactory conduct. Not only the Supreme Court turned down the challenge as the noting being not stigmatic, the role of the High Court in ensuring that the lower judiciary was working well was also lauded.

The Court inter alia observed as under;
17. In the present case, two orders are challenged, one, which was the order of the High Court based on the basis of the resolution of the full court and the other one issued by the Government of Jammu & Kashmir on the ground that they were stigmatic orders.
18. In our considered opinion, none of the aforesaid two orders could be said to be a stigmatic order as no stigma is attached. Of course, aforesaid letters were issued in view of the resolution of the full court meeting where the full court of the High Court held that the service of the petitioner is unsatisfactory. Whether or not the probation period could be or should be extended or his service should be confirmed is required to be considered by the full court of the High Court and while doing so necessarily the service records of the petitioner are required to be considered and if from the service records it is disclosed that the service of the petitioner is not satisfactory it is open for the respondents to record such satisfaction regarding his unsatisfactory service and even mentioning the same in the order would not amount to casting any aspersion on the petitioner nor it could be said that stating in the order that his service is unsatisfactory amounts to a stigmatic order.
19.This position is no longer res integra and it is well settled that even if an order of termination refers to unsatisfactory service of the person concerned, the same cannot be said to be stigmatic. In Pavanendra Narayan Verma v. Sanjay Gandhi PGI Of Medical Sciences reported in (2002) 1 SCC 520, this Court has explained at length the tests that would apply to determine if an order terminating the services of a probationer is stigmatic. On the facts of that case it was held that the opinion expressed in the termination order that the probationer’s “work and conduct has not been found satisfactory” was not ex facie stigmatic and in such circumstances the question of having to comply with the principles of natural justice do not arise. In this case court had the occasion to determine as to whether the impugned order therein was a letter of termination of services simpliciter or stigmatic termination. After considering various earlier decisions of this Court in para 21 of the aforesaid decision it was stated by this Court thus: (SCC p. 528)
“21. One of the judicially evolved tests to determine whether in substance an order of termination is punitive is to see whether prior to the termination there was (a) a full-scale formal enquiry (b) into allegations involving moral turpitude or misconduct which (c) culminated in a finding of guilt. If all three factors are present the termination has been held to be punitive irrespective of the form of the termination order. Conversely if anyone of the three factors is missing, the termination has been upheld.” 
In para 29 of the judgment, it further held thus: (SCC, p.529)
“29. Before considering the facts of the case before us one further, seemingly intractable, area relating to the first test needs to be cleared viz. what language in a termination order would amount to a stigma? Generally speaking when a probationer’s appointment is terminated it means that the probationer is unfit for the job, whether by reason of misconduct or ineptitude, whatever the language used in the termination order may be. Although strictly speaking, the stigma is implicit in the termination, a simple termination is not stigmatic. A termination order which explicitly states what is implicit in every order of termination of a probationer’s appointment, is also not stigmatic. The decisions cited by the parties and noted by us earlier, also do not hold so. In order to amount to a stigma, the order must be in a language which imputes something over and above mere unsuitability for the job.”
20. In the case of Krishnadevaraya Education Trust v. L.A. Balakrishna reported in (2001) 9 SCC 319, the services of respondent-Assistant Professor were terminated on the ground that his on the job proficiency was not upto the mark. This Court held that merely a mention in the order by the employer that the services of the employee are not found to be satisfactory would not tantamount to the order being a stigmatic one. This Court held in para 5 thus: -
“5. There can be no manner of doubt that the employer is entitled to engage the services of a person on probation. During the period of probation, the suitability of the recruit/appointee has to be seen. If his services are not satisfactory which means that he is not suitable for the job, then the employer has a right to terminate the services as a reason thereof. If the termination during probationary period is without any reason, perhaps such an order would be sought to be challenged on the ground of being arbitrary. Therefore, normally services of an employee on probation would be terminated, when he is found not to be suitable for the job for which he was engaged, without assigning any reason. If the order on the face of it states that his services are being terminated because his performance is not satisfactory, the employer runs the risk of the allegation being made that the order itself casts a stigma. We do not say that such a contention will succeed. Normally, therefore, it is preferred that the order itself does not mention the reason why the services are being terminated.”
6. If such an order is challenged, the employer will have to indicate the grounds on which the services of a probationer were terminated. Mere fact that in response to the challenge the employer states that the services were not satisfactory would not ipso facto mean that the services of the probationer were being terminated by way of punishment. The probationer is on test and if the services are found not to be satisfactory, the employer has, in terms of the letter of appointment, the right to terminate the services.”
21. In the case of Chaitanya Prakash v. H. Omkarappa reported in (2010) 2 SCC 623, the services of respondent were terminated by the appellant company. During the period of probation, his services were not found to be satisfactory and he was also given letters for improvement of his services and his period of service was also extended and ultimately company terminated him. Court after referring to a series of cases held that the impugned order of termination of respondent is not stigmatic.
22. In the case of State of Punjab v. Bhagwan Singh reported in (2002) 9 SCC 636 this Court at paragraphs 4 & 5 held as follows: -
“4. ……………………….. In our view, when a probationer is discharged during the period of probation and if for the purpose of discharge, a particular assessment of his work is to be made, and the authorities referred to such an assessment of his work, while passing the order of discharge, that cannot be held to amount to stigma.
5. The other sentence in the impugned order is, that the performance of the officer on the whole was “not satisfactory”. Even that does not amount to any stigma.”
23. In the present case, the order of termination is a fall out of his unsatisfactory service adjudged on the basis of his overall performance and the manner in which he conducted himself. Such satisfaction even if recorded that his service is unsatisfactory would not make the order stigmatic or punitive as sought to be submitted by the petitioner. On the basis of the aforesaid resolution, the matter was referred to the State Government for issuing necessary orders.
24. One of the issues that were raised by the petitioner was that he was granted two increments during the period of two and a half years of his service. Therefore the stand taken by the respondents that his service was unsatisfactory is belied according to the petitioner because of the aforesaid action even on the part of the respondents impliedly accepting the position that his service was satisfactory.
25. The aforesaid submission of the petitioner is devoid of any merit in view of the fact that since the petitioner was continuing in service, therefore, the case for granting increment was required to be considered which was so granted. The mere granting of yearly increments would not in any manner indicate that after completion of the probation period the full court of the High Court was not competent to scrutinize his records and on the basis thereof take a decision as to whether or  not his service should be confirmed or dispensed with or whether his probation period should be extended. The High Court has a solemn duty to consider and appreciate the service of a judicial officer before confirming him in service. The district judiciary is the bedrock of our judicial system and is positioned at the primary level of entry to the doors of justice. In providing the opportunity of access to justice to the people of the country, the judicial officers who are entrusted with the task of adjudication must officiate in a manner that is becoming of their position and responsibility towards society.
26. Upright and honest judicial officers are needed not only to bolster the image of the judiciary in the eyes of litigants, but also to sustain the culture of integrity, virtue and ethics among judges. The public’s perception of the judiciary matters just as much as its role in dispute resolution. The credibility of the entire judiciary is often undermined by isolated acts of transgression by a few members of the Bench, and therefore it is imperative to maintain a high benchmark of honesty, accountability and good conduct.

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