On January 10th, 2023, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (Fifth Circuit) held that a lack of proper employee training could constitute an adverse employment action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Generally, an adverse employment action is any employment decision that negatively affects an employee’s job duties, employment status, compensation, or benefits. The law considers whether an adverse employment action occurred when ruling in an employment discrimination claim. For example, adverse actions may include illegal termination. This was the case in an earlier race discrimination and retaliation suit that cost a company $250,000 in penalties.

Background of the Case

The employer hired a black male employee, Omar Rahman, to work as a plant operator at a plant in Louisiana. The job required Rahman to complete a two-step training program, pass two tests, and perform a final walkthrough. However, Rahman failed 14 tests in the program’s first step before passing and moving on to the second step along with a white candidate. The final test constituted a walkthrough of the plant. After being granted overtime to train for the test, Rahman failed the test on both his first and second tries. Subsequently, the employer terminated him. The white candidate passed.

Rahman sued the employer for racial discrimination. According to Rahman, the employer only gave him two days of training for the walkthrough. Meanwhile, the employer gave the white candidate 15 days of training to prepare. Rahman claimed that his race was the basis for intentionally inadequate training and that the supervisors were biased against him. The company was initially granted a summary judgment in a district court that held that inadequate training was not an adverse employment action under Title VII in this case.

Is Inadequate Training an Adverse Employment Action?

In Rahman v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, filed in the Fifth Circuit, which has jurisdiction in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, the employer argued that an adverse employment action could only apply if they had denied Rahman any training at all. However, the Fifth Circuit disagreed. In the Fifth Circuit’s opinion, if inadequate training was significantly tied to, or resulted in, a termination decision, it could qualify as an adverse employment action. Ultimately, there would have to be a significant connection between an employee’s training and their job.

Despite the Fifth Circuit’s interpretation of an adverse employment action under Title VII, it ultimately affirmed the district court’s summary judgment for the employer. The Fifth Circuit stated that while inadequate training that leads to termination can be an adverse employment action, it must be based on the employer’s failure to provide comparable training. In other words, the employee would have to show that the employer did not offer equal access to the components of the training program. In Rahman’s case, the Fifth Circuit found that Rahman’s training opportunities mirrored that given to the white candidate. The employer was able to show that it gave Rahman the following:

  • time to prepare with a trainer,
  • overtime to finish studying,
  • opportunities to work with other employees, and
  • two weeks to study after failing the first walkthrough.

In the end, while the Fifth Circuit did lay the groundwork for inadequate training to constitute an adverse employment action in specific circumstances, a plaintiff must prove that an employer did not provide comparable training or equal opportunity to access sufficient training.

Employer Takeaways

Ultimately, employers may avoid discrimination claims by ensuring that all employees have access to sufficient training for their position. Likewise, before making an ultimate employment decision, like termination, employers should ensure that the applicant or employee was given equal and adequate training. The same training opportunities should be available to all applicants or employees, regardless of any protected class. Therefore, employers should examine their training programs and communicate them clearly and equally to all applicants and employees.