Webster v. Chesterfield Cnty. Sch. Bd.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Citation38 F.4th 404
Docket Number21-1545
Parties Regina WEBSTER, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. CHESTERFIELD COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, d/b/a Chesterfield County Public Schools, Defendant - Appellee.
Decision Date28 June 2022

38 F.4th 404

Regina WEBSTER, Plaintiff - Appellant,
CHESTERFIELD COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, d/b/a Chesterfield County Public Schools, Defendant - Appellee.

No. 21-1545

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

Argued: March 8, 2022
Decided: June 28, 2022

ARGUED: Richard F. Hawkins, III, THE HAWKINS LAW FIRM, PC, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant. Emily Claire Russell, COUNTY ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR THE COUNTY OF CHESTERFIELD, Chesterfield, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Jeffrey L. Mincks, COUNTY ATTORNEY'S OFFICE FOR THE COUNTY OF CHESTERFIELD, Chesterfield, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, THACKER, and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Chief Judge Gregory wrote the opinion, in which Judge Thacker and Judge Harris joined.

GREGORY, Chief Judge:

This appeal arises out of an employee's allegations of sexual harassment by one of her special education students. It brings to light the difficult balance that schools must find between ensuring that all students have access to a public school education while simultaneously maintaining a nonhostile work environment for all employees—the impact of which is felt by special education educators serving at the intersection of these two rights. Regina Webster ("Webster") appeals the district court's entry of summary judgment in favor of her current employer, Chesterfield County School Board ("School Board"), on a claim of a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000(e), et seq.1 Because the record does not support a prima facie case for hostile work environment sexual harassment, we affirm.


The School Board has employed Webster as an Instructional Assistant in Special Education at Providence Elementary since 2006. As an instructional assistant, Webster works with "special education students to implement behavior management programs and improve social, vocational, and community skills." J.A. 402. In 2018, the Principal of Providence Elementary, Dr. Sharon Rucker ("Dr. Rucker"), transferred Webster from a class where she instructed emotionally disturbed ("ED") children to Ms. Kesha Ellerbee's ("Ellerbee") class, where Webster worked with children with moderate intellectual disabilities. J.A. 416. Webster alleges that one of her students sexually harassed her between fall 2018 through mid-March 2019. This student, S.M., was an eight-year-old boy diagnosed with Down's Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"). J.A. 39.2

As alleged by Webster, S.M. sexually harassed her on an "almost daily basis."

38 F.4th 408

J.A. 11. Specifically, S.M. touched her "by putting his hands up her dress and touching her private parts." Id. Webster first responded by scolding him and telling Ellerbee, "He needs to be told not to do that!" Id. This behavior did not cease, however, but continued as S.M. would, or would attempt, to put "his hands up [her] dress or skirt" and often "touch[ed] [her] front private parts" or "grab[ed her] front private crotch area and her bottom over the outside of her clothes." Id. According to Webster, this conduct extended beyond the classroom doors and also occurred when she would accompany S.M. to his general education courses. "[A]lmost every time," Webster alleged, S.M. would "reach up [her] dress" specifically. Id. This conduct began in September 2018 and Webster decided to stop wearing dresses to work in November 2018. S.M.'s "groping, grabbing, and touching of [her] private areas on the outside of her clothing [however] continued even after [she] stopped wearing dresses." J.A. 11–12.

Webster informed Ellerbee of S.M.'s conduct. Although Ellerbee recorded the incidents in her notes, or "point sheets,"3 where she detailed each student's daily behavior, Webster claims Ellerbee was generally dismissive of her concerns and "tried to defend it by saying that it was just [S.M.'s] personality." J.A. 12; see J.A. 479. Webster also complained of S.M.'s conduct to Dr. Rucker and Assistant Principal Peter Johnson ("Johnson"). As relief, Webster requested to be transferred back to her previous ED classroom. Dr. Rucker denied those requests. See J.A. 418, 494, 589. On November 14, however, Ellerbee sent Webster an email informing her that another educator would exchange roles with Webster and instead work with S.M. J.A. 528. Webster did not appear to welcome this change and responded that she was sorry Ellerbee felt as though she could not manage her assigned group of students. Explaining that she had "struggled with the past events from last year," Webster maintained that she was doing her best but that the students "treat all of us the same way." Id. She then shared her plan to contact human resources to seek additional options and apologized that it was "not working with [her] in the room." Id. Webster then forwarded this email to Dr. Rucker and Johnson with a message explaining that she was being "moved to work with the bigger kids" because Ellerbee did not believe she could "handle" her current group. J.A. 527. She also commented that change was difficult for her and while she "loved [her] job in the ED room," this new room was a "big struggle." Id. Dr. Rucker insisted on meeting with Webster, but she declined the offers, stating that she felt "no need to meet" because "it wouldn't fix the problem." J.A. 531. Later, in her complaint, Webster characterized Ellerbee's decision to separate her from S.M. as a "brief reprieve" that she experienced before being "forced to continue accompanying [S.M.]" and, thus, subjected to "his harassing behavior" once more. J.A. 13. Her separation from S.M. was only temporary because Webster claims that her replacement "refused to continue to accompany [S.M.], her non-assigned student" after two weeks and Webster was reassigned to work with S.M. Id.

38 F.4th 409

On January 30, 2019, Webster requested to return to her previous classroom and Dr. Rucker responded that while that was not currently a possibility, staffing would be assessed at the end of the year. J.A. 57–58. Around that time, Webster also began filing injury reports and documenting bruises that she incurred from "some of the harassing instances." J.A. 496. She did not, however, report the daily incidents of S.M.'s inappropriate touching because Webster contends that her Chesterfield Education Association representative did not instruct her to do so.4

Webster's final allegation of sexual harassment by S.M. occurred on March 13, 2019. While in a general education computer class, S.M. attempted to put his fingers in an electrical outlet, prompting Webster to move and block him. S.M. reacted by "grabbing [her] crotch area over and over and trying to twist his fingers in [her] vagina." J.A. 496. When Webster tried to stop him, "S.M. began grabbing [her] bottom and grabbing [her] from front to back." Id. After informing Ellerbee of the incident, both Webster and a witnessing teacher emailed Dr. Rucker. J.A. 397–98. Following this incident, Dr. Rucker: (1) altered Webster's bus assignment to ensure she did not ride the bus with S.M.; (2) shifted Webster's schedule so she no longer accompanied S.M. alone; and (3) increased monitoring to reduce Webster's time spent alone with S.M. J.A. 513.5 Later that spring, Dr. Rucker also proposed transferring Webster to a new classroom. See J.A. 64. Acknowledging that these measures terminated her exposure to S.M.'s conduct, Webster's hostile work environment claim spans from September 2018 through March 13, 2019. See Appellant's Reply Br. at 20–21.

After exhausting her remedies with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Webster filed suit alleging that she was subjected to a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. See J.A. 8–18. Describing this case as "delicate," the district court underscored the difficulty of Webster's claim as it demonstrates the daily challenges special education teachers face. Webster v. Chesterfield Cnty. Sch. Bd. , 534 F. Supp. 3d 537, 546 (E.D. Va. 2021). The district court held oral argument and the School Board introduced expert testimony. Two of the School Board's experts were professionals working in the special education field who explained that S.M.'s behavior was common for a child his age with his disabilities. Id. at 541. Expert testimony demonstrated that S.M. was incapable of distinguishing between sexes and that a reasonable instructional assistant would not view S.M.'s conduct as sexual harassment. See id. at 546–49. The district court found that Webster's failure to rebut this testimony, as well as her almost exclusive reliance upon her own statements, was detrimental to her prima facie case. Because Webster could only satisfy one of the four elements required to establish a hostile work environment claim, the district court granted the School Board's Motion for Summary Judgment on April 20, 2021. Id. at 551, 546. This timely appeal followed.


The question before us on appeal is whether the district court erred in dismissing

38 F.4th 410

Webster's hostile work environment claim on summary judgment. "We review de novo a district court's award of summary judgment, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleau Corp. , 786 F.3d 264...

To continue reading

Request your trial
6 cases
  • A.G. v. Fattaleh
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Western District of North Carolina
    • 14 Julio 2022
    ...by Pressly staff. (Doc. No. 81-5 100:21-102:7 ("[I]t's not like kicking, hitting.")). See Webster v. Chesterfield Cnty. Sch. Bd. , 38 F.4th 404, 409 (4th Cir. 2022) (finding for the school in an employment dispute alleging a hostile work environment because a student's "groping, grabbing, a......
  • Lambert v. SavaSeniorCare Admin. Servs.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • 29 Julio 2022
    ...offensive utterance; and whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.” Webster v. Chester field Cnty. Sch. Bd., 38 F.4th 404, 414 (4th Cir. 2022) (quoting Mosby-Grant v. City of Hagerstown, 630 F.3d 326, 335 (4th Cir. 2010)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The......
  • Hicks v. City of Kinston
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • 31 Agosto 2022
    ...the nonmovant, fails to “point to significant probative evidence” that raises a factual dispute, Webster v. Chesterfield Cnty. Sch. Bd., 38 F.4th 404, 412 (4th Cir. 2022), as to what defendant Wells perceived or what an officer in his position would have perceived: the “unanimous[] testi[mo......
  • Young v. Hous. Auth. of Balt. City
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
    • 27 Septiembre 2022
    ...of employment and create an abusive work environment; and (4) imputable to the employer.” Webster v. Chesterfield Cnty. Sch. Bd., 38 F.4th 404,410 (4th Cir. 2022). The Court agrees with Plaintiff that Mr. Reaves' harassing conduct was sufficiently “severe” to create an abusive working envir......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT