A Rocky IV lesson on training and discrimination


In 1985, Rocky Balboa single-handedly ended the Cold War with the USSR after defeating Ivan Drago.

Leading up to the big fight, Rocky trained hard. The conditions were grueling and clearly unequal. Ultimately, however, Rocky overcame those long odds and prevailed.

The plaintiff in the Fifth Circuit decision I read last night, not so much.

He applied for a job at the production plant of a multinational oil and gas company. The get the job, the plaintiff needed to pass an extensive, multi-pronged training program. But he didn’t, and the defendant let him go.

So, the plaintiff sued for race discrimination, specifically disparate treatment.

To establish a disparate treatment claim, a plaintiff must show, among other things, that he suffered some adverse employment action. That usually applies only to ultimate employment decisions such as hiring, granting leave, discharging, promoting, or compensating.

As a rule of thumb, it is not an adverse employment action if the decision does not affect job duties, compensation, or benefits.

So, the plaintiff theorized that because the defendant provided him with inadequate training, the inadequate training itself may constitute an adverse employment action if it was directly tied to the decision to terminate.

Put simply, get trained or get fired.

The Fifth Circuit agreed:

[A] training decision—particularly a failure to train—may constitute an adverse action if it has some effect on an employee’s “status or benefits.” … [A]n 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.

That said, not all inadequate “training” cases are created equally:

[W]e hold now that an inadequate training claim must be based on, in essence, a failure to provide comparable training. So, offering a plaintiff an equal opportunity to access the necessary components of the training program is enough to defeat an inadequate training allegation. Of course, “equality” shouldn’t be taken literally. We aren’t in the business of evaluating trainers, and training programs may vary in inconsequential ways between trainees. Instead, we ask whether there was a roughly similar opportunity to access the necessary parts of the training program.

In this particular case, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff got basically the same training opportunities as employees outside of his protected class:

[The defendant] gave him access to the “same” robust training as his classmate. Per the standard, providing people with a similar opportunity to access a training program cannot be discrimination. So, intentionally “giv[ing] one race X amount of training and another race only half that”—and other instances of dissimilar or unequal training—remains actionable. But, because we cannot say [the plaintiff] wasn’t given a similar opportunity to train or that [the defendant] never gave him a chance, we cannot hold that his inadequate training claim passes muster.

So, the plaintiff’s race discrimination claim failed. And that’s all well and good for this blog post.

But it’s no Rocky IV.

Now, Rocky V, on the other hand…

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”
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