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Former USC Football Coach Sues after Being Fired for Alcoholism; Was It Disability Discrimination?

December 10, 2015 Americans with Disabilities Act Claims

Steve Sarkisian claims that his employer encouraged him not to go to rehab

No one (including me) is surprised that former University of Southern California football coach Steve Sarkisian is suing his former employer.

You may remember that several months ago, Sarkisian was terminated after he allegedly displayed some less-than-professional behavior on the job. (For those of you who don’t follow college football or employment law, check out our earlier blog on the topic if you’d like a rundown of what led to Sark’s firing.)

But now Sarkisian is fighting back. He’s suing, claiming wrongful termination, disability discrimination, and breach of contract.

Putting aside the likely inherent contractual dispute involved here, Sarkisian’s case spotlights an interesting dilemma: What responsibilities do employers have to staffers who are suffering from alcoholism?

Sark Says He Wasn’t Drunk

Sarkisian claims that he was fired because of his disability of alcoholism. California law, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), prohibits employers from discriminating against employees with qualifying disabilities. Alcoholism has generally been considered a disability under the ADA.

However, regardless of someone’s status as an alcoholic, employers are generally not expected to put up with any form of substance abuse on the job. Therefore, an employer would be permitted to discipline an employee for an alcohol-related infraction while the employee is working. According to various news reports, Sarkisian was fired after several public missteps in which he allegedly appeared to be intoxicated.

But there are two sides to every story. In his lawsuit, Sarkisian states he was not drunk during at least one of the events that led to his termination. Rather, he claims that he had drunk two beers before the event, which had a negative interaction with his anti-anxiety medication and caused him to appear intoxicated.

He also claims that the top brass at USC’s athletic department were aware of his issues and had referred him for treatment with a USC sports psychologist. That person, who has a Ph.D. but is not a medical doctor, prescribed medication for Sarkisian. In his lawsuit, Sarkisian alleges that as his condition worsened, he began to believe that he needed to attend in-patient rehab. He states that the sport psychologist suggested he take a few days off instead.

Sarkisian claims that this is evidence that USC acted unreasonably with respect to his disability. He also points out in his complaint that USC had no issues regarding his job performance prior to his need for a leave of absence.

It will be interesting to see how USC responds to Sarkisian’s allegations. Chances are, USC will paint a very different picture.

This Lawyer’s Humble Opinion

In a high-profile case like this, which the media will likely scrutinize, my guess is that the case won’t make it to trial. I am sure some sort of resolution will be reached, the details of which will likely be kept completely confidential.

But that doesn’t resolve the question we asked earlier: What responsibilities do employers have to staffers who are suffering from alcoholism?

Under the ADA, employers are expected to reasonably accommodate an individual’s known disabilities, as long as those accommodations do not impose an undue hardship. Obviously, tolerating a drunken worker on the job would be considered an unreasonable accommodation. However, allowing leave for treatment is often considered a reasonable accommodation. Here, we have conflicting stories over whether or not USC was going to grant Sarkisian leave for treatment.

As I mentioned in my last blog post on this case, situations like this one often depend heavily on timing. USC is going to have to explain why it terminated an employee who was on his way to rehab. In my view, this is going to be a difficult task, considering that the school terminated Sarkisian WHILE he was allegedly traveling to rehab. The timing of this seems to suggest that USC was very unhappy about Sarkisian’s request for leave and his inability to coach the football team (which also raises additional issues under the Family and Medical Leave Act). From a timing perspective, this could indicate that USC was unwilling to accommodate his condition.

What Employees Need to Know

If you feel that you’ve been treated unfairly because of alcoholism or any other disability, it’s a good idea to speak to an attorney.

Email us at or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation to find out more about your rights.