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Atkins v. Smyth County Virginia School Board

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division

May 29, 2019

JUDY A. ATKINS, Plaintiff,

          Mary Lynn Tate, Tate Law PC, Abingdon, Virginia, for Plaintiff

          Jennifer D. Royer, Royer Law Firm, P.C., Roanoke, Virginia, for Defendants.


          James P. Jones United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Judy A. Atkins brings this action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that her former employer, defendant Smyth County Virginia School Board, and her former coworker, defendant Kevin Leonard, discriminated against her by creating a hostile work environment and constructively discharging her because of her sex. Atkins also brings a claim of assault under state law. The defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint. For the reasons that follow, I will grant the Motion to Dismiss in part, and deny it in part.


         The Complaint alleges the following facts, which I must accept as true for the purpose of deciding the Motion to Dismiss.

         Plaintiff Judy A. Atkins began working for defendant Smyth County Virginia School Board (“School Board”) as a substitute teacher, and she later became a full-time cook in the cafeteria at Atkins Elementary School in Atkins, Virginia. In 2008, she became the school's Cafeteria Manager. In this role, she was responsible for preparing menus; ordering, storing, and preparing food; supervising cafeteria employees; and the accounting and reporting of the cafeteria's operations.

         After Atkins became the Cafeteria Manager, defendant Kevin Leonard, a custodian employed by the School Board at Atkins Elementary School and Atkins' estranged brother-in-law, began a pattern of stopping what he was doing whenever he saw her and staring, leering, and gawking at her. He would also snarl, grimace, and mumble in a menacing tone at her. This conduct disturbed and frightened Atkins and interfered with her ability to work. Leonard also behaved this way towards other women who worked in the cafeteria, as well as female teachers and staff.

         Atkins reported this conduct to her supervisor, Phillip Griffin, and the school principal, Gary Roberts. Atkins alleges that they responded that “boys will be boys, ” “he's harmless, ” and “that's just how he is, ” and they did not take any action to stop Leonard's conduct. Compl. ¶ 19, ECF No. 1. Another cafeteria employee, identified by Atkins as “Employee Buck, ” told Griffin that Leonard's conduct frightened her, and Griffin responded that “that's how he is, ” and took no action. Compl. ¶ 20, ECF No. 1. Leonard's conduct continued, and Buck resigned.

         When Leonard would move garbage cans from the dining area to the back of the kitchen, he would routinely and intentionally bump the garbage can against Atkins' chair or desk while she was seated at it, although there was space for him to pass without touching her. He also snarled and grimaced at her. This conduct frightened Atkins and interrupted her work. Leonard also set up a table in the kitchen for his meals and breaks, where he stared and gawked at Atkins and other women working in the kitchen. Atkins reported this behavior to Griffin, but he dismissed it as insignificant and took no action.

         Leonard's conduct became more frequent and intimidating to Atkins in 2016 and 2017. During this time, Leonard continued to stare, gawk, and snarl at her. In addition, the following events occurred between September and November 2017. Leonard forcefully pushed a garbage can into Atkins from behind her, almost knocking her off her feet, while snarling and scowling. Leonard also regularly used a leaf blower to blow trash and gravel onto Atkins' and other cafeteria workers' vehicles. He also placed trash and paper under the windshield wipers of Atkins' and other women's vehicles.

         On a day when the cafeteria was using disposable dishes and utensils, Leonard demanded that Atkins “get her rear end over at the dishwasher and wash dishes.” Compl. ¶ 24(c), ECF No. 1. Leonard always became angry and abusive towards Atkins when the school used disposable products in the cafeteria because it increased his workload. Atkins reported this incident to Griffin, who did not address Leonard's conduct.

         When Atkins was giving Halloween candy to students, Leonard forcefully grabbed the cart in her hands and jerked her out of the cafeteria doorway, yelling, “get your hindend out of the way and go do your job.” Compl. ¶ 24(d), ECF No. 1. Atkins suffered strained tendons as a result of this incident. When Atkins was moving a garbage can to clean under it, Leonard rushed at her and threw the garbage can towards her, almost knocking her over. He also made a fist and threatened to punch her, but stopped before hitting her. Atkins reported these encounters, along with Leonard's continued bullying and gawking, to Griffin and Roberts, but they did not take any action.

         One day when Atkins arrived at work, she found that her computer was not working. The school's technical support determined that the power cords and inputs had been switched. Another day, Atkins discovered that a tray of strawberries that she had left in the refrigerator had been dumped on the floor.

         Atkins suspected that Leonard had interfered with her computer and the strawberries.

         In late October 2017, Atkins and two other female cafeteria workers met with Griffin to discuss the school's response to their complaints regarding Leonard's behavior. Griffin told them that the matter had been considered and no changes would be made, and that they could file a written grievance if they were unsatisfied with this result. On the same day, Atkins' husband came to the school to confront Leonard regarding his continued harassment of Atkins. At that time, Atkins was not aware of her husband's actions.

         Atkins filed a written grievance regarding Leonard's behavior, which was denied because the harassment and bullying was not sexual in nature.[1] Because of Leonard's continued employment at the school and the ...

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