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Is Alcoholism a Disability Under the ADA? What We Can Learn From Steve Sarkisian’s Termination

November 4, 2015 Americans with Disabilities Act Claims

When the ADA does and doesn’t apply to employees suffering from alcoholism

Whether or not you’re a college football fan, the recent termination of Steve Sarkisian, the former head football coach at the University of Southern California (USC), raises a lot of interesting questions for employees and employers alike.

Armchair quarterbacks everywhere have been sharing their opinions about whether or not Sarkisian could sue USC. “Alcoholism is covered by the ADA!” Sarkisian’s defenders declare. “Showing up for work drunk is always grounds for termination,” retort those who think USC did the right thing.

So who got it right: Team Sarkisian or Team USC?

This armchair quarterback will give you his humble opinion below.

But first, let’s do a quick recap of what led up to Sarkisian’s termination for those of you who haven’t been following the story.

Drunk on the Job

Tales of Sarkisian’s drinking had been circulating for quite some time, but things escalated late this past summer.

Sarkisian appeared to be intoxicated at a high-profile USC event, where he slurred his way through a speech, used profanity, and finally ended up being pulled off the stage by the school’s athletic director. Video of the event went viral.

USC claims that it allowed Sarkisian to retain his position after that on the condition that he seek treatment.

However, not long after that, players and coaching staff suspected that Sarkisian was intoxicated at work on multiple occasions, including at least one game and a team meeting that was held on a Sunday morning.

Sarkisian was finally asked to take an indefinite leave of absence. He was terminated the next day. Allegedly, he got the news while he was traveling to rehab.

Team Sarkisian: Alcoholism is a Disease

The people on Team Sarkisian are partially correct about one thing: alcoholism may be covered by the ADA.

However, the operative word is may.

The ADA calls for a case-by-case evaluation for each individual seeking ADA protection, including those individuals suffering from alcoholism.

The main determining question is this: Does the person’s condition substantially limit a major life activity?

“Major life activities” may include a wide array of things. For example, the person may suffer a physical impairment, such as the ability to see, walk, or use the restroom. Mental impairments, such as the ability to concentrate, stay awake, or deal with stress, may also be considered major life activities.

In cases where alcoholism is covered by the ADA, employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to those employees.  Examples of accommodations include allowing leave for treatment, or providing a modified work schedule so the person can attend counseling or support meetings. An employee could also be excused from attending events where alcohol may be served.

Since we can’t know the state of Sarkisian’s physical and mental health as it related to his alleged alcoholism, we can’t say for sure whether he would or wouldn’t be eligible for ADA protection on that count.

Team USC: Being Drunk at Work is a Flagrant Personal Foul

Does ADA protection mean that employers have to look the other way if an alcoholic is intoxicated on the job?

Here, Team USC scores a point. Employers are generally allowed to discipline alcoholic workers in the same manner that they would discipline other staffers — even if the problem is related to the person’s disability.

In fact, the ADA explicitly states that alcoholism is not a hall pass for employees to break company rules, perform their job duties inadequately, or behave inappropriately.

Remember, when it comes to the ADA accommodations, the watch word is “reasonable.” Tolerating subpar performance or misconduct are generally not considered reasonable accommodations.

But What About Rehab?

The rumor is that Sarkisian was on his way to rehab when he was terminated. Was it unlawful for USC to fire him if he was about to seek help?

To answer that question, we’d need to know the terms of the agreement that USC made with Sarkisian after he was reprimanded the first time. It’s possible that it contained language that Sarkisian would be terminated if he was found to be inebriated during work hours again. Of course, that’s just speculation.

In general, if an employee is in violation of a company rule regarding drugs or alcohol, the employer is not required to give the person the option of going to rehab before terminating him or her. However, a staffer may request leave for treatment as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA before his or her job is on the line.

Finally, it’s important to note that some employees may also be eligible to take leave to attend rehab under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  We’ll address that issue in a blog at a later date.

This Lawyer’s Humble Opinion

Based on what’s been reported, it’s this lawyer’s humble opinion that USC may (I stress MAY, as I do not have all the facts) have violated the ADA with respect to its termination of Sarkisian’s employment.

Timing in ADA cases is very important – and the timing of when and how USC terminated Sarkisian’s employment appears to indicate that Sarkisian’s alcoholism and his need to attend rehab played a role in USC’s decision to terminate his employment.

I certainly don’t have all the facts and I am only aware of what’s been reported, but the timing of what occurred looks very suspicious.  Perception and appearance sometimes equal reality and that may be the case here.

Finally, putting aside the legal aspects of this case, in this lawyer’s humble opinion, all employers should treat each and every employee with fairness, compassion and humanity, especially in a time of need.  By all accounts, Sarkisian was in a very, very bad place when he was terminated. He was attempting to face his problems and address his condition by entering rehab.  USC apparently missed the memo on fairness, compassion and humanity since it abandoned Sarkisian at a moment when he probably needed USC’s support the most.

USC is certainly not the first employer to treat an employee this way, and it certainly won’t be the last. The good news, however, is that there are employers who lend a helping hand to employees when they need it most.

I have and will continue to fight for employees who receive unfair and unlawful treatment whenever there is legal basis to do so.

Call Us for a Free Consultation

If you’ve struggled with alcoholism or substance abuse problems that have affected your employment, it’s important to know your rights under the ADA and the FMLA.

Email us at, or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.