Employment Law News Update

by | Mar 27, 2024 | News

Tenth Circuit Qualifies Hostile Work Environment Claim Arising from Mandatory Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Training

A politically contentious topic, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) training has been the source of disagreement among policymakers and legislators both nationally and on the local level. Only recently has the issue begun to appear judicially, and to mixed effects. However, recently, the Tenth Circuit has provided that, for the Department of Corrections, mandatory training in those concepts alone do not create a hostile work environment.

 

In Young v. Colorado Department of Corrections, 94 F.4th 1242 (10th Cir. 2024), a former Colorado Department of Corrections employee, Young, alleged that being subjected to mandatory equity, diversity, and inclusion training constituted a hostile work environment. Because the training was mandatory, Young resigned from his position, then sued, asserting claims under Title VII (hostile work environment) and Equal Protection (promoting race-based policies). In particular, “he alleged the training demeaned him because of his race and promoted divisive racial and political theories that would harm his interaction with other corrections’ personnel and inmates.” Id. at 1244.

From the outset, the Tenth Circuit acknowledged that Young’s claims were not unreasonable, stating “the racial subject matter and ideological messaging in the training is troubling on many levels. As other courts have recognized, race-based training programs can create hostile workplaces when official policy is combined with ongoing stereotyping and explicit or implicit expectations of discriminatory treatment.” Id.

Plaintiff argued that that the training created a racially hostile environment, stating that “the training advises trainees to be careful of exclusionary ‘white norms’, and critiques ‘white exceptionalism’, a ‘fakequity’ belief that ‘white allies’ are ‘an exception to white racism’ that ‘perpetuates white supremacy.’” Id. (internal quotations omitted). While the Court stated that “if not already at the destination, this type of race-based rhetoric is well on the way to arriving at objectively and subjectively harassing messaging.” Id. As a result, the Court found that Plaintiff subjectively perceived the conduct to be severe or pervasive. However, the Court also qualified that Plaintiff must “show that a rational jury could find that the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult.” Id., quoting Throupe v. Univ. of Denver, 988 F.3d 1243, 1252 (10th Cir. 2021). The Court, after considering Plaintiff’s claims, found that the training alone, even if mandatory, did not create an environment that “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult.” Rather, Plaintiffs claims were largely speculative that the effect of such training would create such injuries. “…The lack of racial animus manifesting itself in Mr. Young’s day-to-day work environment distinguishes his case from those that have ratified a racially-hostile workplace claim.” Id. As a result, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court.

While this case was resolved favorably for the Defendant officials, the Tenth Circuit, in dicta, did suggest that trainings of this nature could be successfully challenged in the future on the same grounds. Employers should take caution and ensure that these trainings do not have the unintended effect of creating a hostile environment for employees.

You can read the full opinion at: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCOURTS-ca10-23-01063/pdf/USCOURTS-ca10-23-01063-0.pdf.