Erin K. Corcoran, Esq., Campbell Durrant, P.C. | February 2023
On January 10, 2023, the Fifth Circuit held that inadequate training could establish an adverse employment action in a discrimination lawsuit. To establish a discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a plaintiff must show that he or she suffered an adverse employment action by the employer. An adverse employment action is generally any decision that affects job duties, compensation, or benefits. Adverse employment actions are often tangible events that occur which impact employment (e.g. termination, demotion, or failure to promote) but have been expanded to include less concrete changes in an individual’s terms and conditions in employment. In Rahman v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, 56 F.4th 1041 (5th Cir. 2023), the Fifth Circuit found that inadequate training could also constitute an adverse employment action.
In Rahman, the employer required that its new plant operators pass a two-step training program, or else they would be terminated. The first part of the training consisted of six weeks of classroom instruction followed by written examinations. The second part of the training involved a period of hands-on experience, at the end of which the trainee was required to pass a “final walkthrough.” Omar Rahman was a black male employee who was hired by the employer among a group of other trainees. While Rahman passed the first part of the training program, he failed his final walkthrough during the second part of the training. The employer gave him two (2) additional weeks to study to attempt the walkthrough a second time, however, he failed again and the employer terminated him.
Rahman filed suit against his employer for race discrimination under Title VII, claiming that his employer intentionally inadequately trained him because he was black. He claimed that he only received two (2) days of training on material while a white trainee received fifteen (15) days of training on the same subjects. The employer argued that the employee did not establish a claim of discrimination because only an outright denial of training, not inadequate training, could constitute an adverse employment action under Title VII. However, the Fifth Circuit disagreed, finding that inadequate training could constitute an adverse employment action if the training was directly tied to the employee’s job duties, compensation, or benefits. The Court clarified that an inadequate training claim must be based on a failure to provide comparable training. Thus, it stated that an employer may defeat an inadequate training claim by showing that it offered the employee “an equal opportunity to access the necessary components of the training program.”
While the Court found that inadequate training could constitute an adverse employment action, it nevertheless found that Rahman could not rely on such a theory because he was provided with an equal opportunity to access the same training as his classmates. The employer showed that it provided Rahman with a trainer, gave him extra time to study, allowed him to work overtime to complete studying, and provided him a second opportunity to take the test. Furthermore, the Court found that while Rahman produced a document indicating that he received fewer days of training than a white trainee, he admitted that he went through the same training as his white classmate and that he received four (4) months of extensive training. Therefore, the Court found that because the employer gave Rahman access to the same training as his classmate, his claim did not meet the inadequate training standard.
This case should serve as a lesson that inadequate training can be a viable basis for asserting a discrimination claim under Title VII. Employers may avoid liability by ensuring that they offer all employees the same opportunities to access training for their position, regardless of any protected class.