Race bias claims can be based on inadequate training, a new ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit says. In this case, however, the employee lost his race bias claim because he did not prove his claim that he was provided inferior training based on his race.
Omar Rahman, who is Black, was hired by Exxon in 2017 as a trainee to work as an operator at a polyolefins plant in Louisiana.
Like others hired for the same position, Rahman had to complete a two-step training program that involved classroom instruction and field training. After months of training, trainees must pass a final walkthrough to make sure that they can safely run a unit. If they don’t pass, Exxon fires them.
Rahman barely passed the first part of training but was unable to successfully complete his walkthrough despite being given two chances to do so.
Race bias suit alleges inadequate training
He sued Exxon for race discrimination, saying it violated Title VII by inadequately training him because he is Black. He said a fellow trainee who is white passed his final walkthrough even though he did not have “greater knowledge or ability or education.” He also said he got just two days of training on subjects that the white trainee got 15 days to learn.
A lower court ruled for Exxon. It said Rahman was unable to show that his alleged inadequate training was an adverse employment action. It also said he did not prove that Exxon’s staff discriminated against him in the walkthrough or that he was qualified for the operator position. Rahman appealed.
By a 2-1 vote, a panel of the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
Rahman argued to the panel that inadequate training can be an adverse employment action if it is “directly tied to [the] decision to terminate.” He said there was adverse action because there was a strong connection between the alleged lack of training and the termination decision.
Good news, bad news
The appeals court agreed with Rahman that inadequate training can be an adverse job action sufficient to support a claim of race discrimination.
“[W]e plainly hold now that an inadequate training theory can satisfy the adverse action prong of McDonnell Douglas if the training is directly tied to the worker’s job duties, compensation, or benefits,” the court said. (Emphasis in original.)
In other words, inadequate training can qualify as an adverse job action for purposes of helping to prove a discrimination allegation.
An inadequate training claim must be based on a failure to provide comparable training, the court explained.
There must be a roughly similar opportunity to access the necessary parts of a training program, it added. Training programs can vary in inconsequential ways and do not have to be exactly the same for everyone, it said.
In this case, Exxon gave Rahman a handbook and time each workweek to study. It also assigned him an experienced trainer to go over the handbook with him, and Rahman also learned from at least five other operators in his unit. In addition, it allowed him to work overtime so he could finish studying his handbook, and it pushed his test back for him.
Because his training paralleled the training that Exxon provide to Rahman’s white counterpart, Rahman’s training program could not have been inadequate, the appeals court decided.
“Rahman’s inadequate training theory fails under the weight of the undisputed facts,” the court decided.
Rahman received ample training opportunities, the court said. As a result, he could not rely on an alleged failure to provide adequate training based on race discrimination.
Takeaway: Be aware that discrimination allegations can be based on a broad range of conduct that can occur anywhere on the spectrum of the employer-employee relationship.
Rahman v. Exxon Mobil Corp., No. 21-30669, 2023 WL 142560 (5th Cir. 1/10/23).