Back in October, University of Southern California head football coach, Steve Sarkisian was fired due to an incident where he appeared drunk during a preseason speech. And now, Sarkisian is suing his former employer claiming that USC violated both his contract and California employment law.

Sarkisian’s 14-count complaint filed in California Superior Court on December 7, 2015, includes claims such as disability (alcoholism) discrimination, failure to provide reasonable accommodation, employer retaliation, and wrongful termination.

Back in October, University of Southern California head football coach, Steve Sarkisian was fired due to an incident where he appeared drunk during a preseason speech. And now, Sarkisian is suing his former employer claiming that USC violated both his contract and California employment law.

Sarkisian’s 14-count complaint filed in California Superior Court on December 7, 2015, includes claims such as disability (alcoholism) discrimination, failure to provide reasonable accommodation, employer retaliation, and wrongful termination.

Disability laws in the workplace can be complicated – especially when they pertain to alcohol or drug abuse. And Sarkisian’s lawsuit has many people wondering if USC actually violated the law by terminating the former football coach for his alcohol-related problems.

Is Alcoholism a Disability Under the ADA?

Alcoholism is considered a disability under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that employers are lawfully obligated to provide reasonable accommodations to individuals with alcoholism – just as they would for other qualified individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would create undue hardship for the employer.

But while the ADA defines alcoholism as a disability, alcoholic employees must still meet all performance and behavior criteria against which all other employees are measured. Under the ADA, poor job performance related to alcoholism need not be tolerated if similar performance or conduct would not be acceptable for other employees. In fact, employers have no legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodation and may take appropriate disciplinary actions they would impose on other employees who fail to meet performance standards. That said, an employer may not make adverse employment decisions (such as termination) solely based on an employee’s alcoholism.

In addition to that, if an employee mentions alcoholism and their need for accommodation, the employer must begin an “interactive process” to determine what to do in order to correct the problem. An example of a reasonable accommodation for an alcoholic could include a modified work schedule so the employee can attend AA meetings or a rehabilitation program.

What is Considered a Disability Under FEHA?

While California employees are protected under the ADA’s disability definitions, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) also prohibits workplace discrimination and harassment due to mental and physical disability, if the disability merely limits participation at work. Each type of disability contains its own unique definitions, plus “medical conditions” are also entitled to accommodations under California law.

What Does This Mean for Sarkisian and USC?

In Sarkisian’s case, his complaint alleges that he was under a lot of pressure due to job demands, plus his wife’s request for a divorce. These stressful factors ultimately led to Sarkisian’s unstable mental state and his alcohol dependency- both of which are considered disabilities under FEHA and ADA.

According to the suit, Sarkisian claims that he eventually “came to grips” with his alcohol problem which prompted him to ask for reasonable accommodation from USC. But rather than helping Sarkisian with his problem and engaging in interactive process, the suit claims that USC denied Sarkisian’s leave of absence for treatment needed to regain stability of his mental health, and ultimately fired him due to his alcoholism.

If Sarkisian’s claims about alcoholism discrimination and wrongful termination are found to be true, USC could have potentially made an adverse employment decision based upon a disability, which is considered unlawful on both state and federal levels.

Additional Information on the Sarkisian Lawsuit

  • Did USC’s alcohol-related firing of its former head football coach violate the law? via The Employer Handbook
  • USC calls Sarkisian lawsuit claims ‘patently untrue’ via LATimes.com
  • Alcoholism in the workplace fact sheet via EEOC.gov

If you’ve been subjected to wrongful termination due to a disability, our expert California employment law attorneys are here to help you file a claim. Contact us today for your free consultation.