Rarely does my interest in sports intersect with my work as an employment lawyer. That changed a few weeks ago with the news that former University of Southern California (“USC”) head football coach Steve Sarkisian has sued the school for wrongful termination. Sarkisian’s claim against USC raises an interesting issue regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”): how do employers handle employees with substance abuse problems?
USC fired Sarkisian on October 12, 2015, one day after being removed from the sidelines for allegedly being intoxicated during a game. Sarkisian was immediately placed upon a leave of absence, and allegedly found out about his termination on his way to a treatment facility. Earlier in the year, Sarkisian appeared intoxicated at a USC athletic booster event and issued a public apology.
Sarkisian’s lawsuit alleges that USC failed to accommodate his disability (alcoholism) and terminated his job because of that disability. Although the suit alleges violation of California’s state law on disability discrimination law, that law is very similar to the ADA. The ADA does recognize alcoholism as a disability – so does Coach Sarkisian’s suit have merit? Let’s examine.
Sarkisian’s first argument is that USC and its AD Pat Haden failed to accommodate his disability by refusing to allow him time off to get help and return to coaching. The ADA requires employers to grant “reasonable accommodations” to employees with an ADA-defined disability, absent a showing of undue hardship. Sarkisian is going to argue that his request was reasonable because an assistant head coach could have easily stepped in for him.
USC is likely to argue that granting leave to their head football coach to seek treatment for alcoholism is not reasonable because Sarkisian cannot perform the essential functions of his job (although they are being performed by the interim coach). Not only would he not be able to coach but he could not recruit, attend booster events, etc. The high-profile nature of the job and extreme demands of the job should help USC’s argument.
Sarkisian’s second argument is that he was fired because of his disability. USC will argue that his on-the-job conduct – even if caused by alcoholism – was the reason for his termination. You cannot legally fire an employee because he or she is an alcoholic. But, if alcohol abuse interferes with your work, then the employer has grounds for termination. For instance, if USC can demonstrate that Sarkisian was intoxicated on the sidelines or that his alcohol abuse otherwise interfered with his work, then the firing would be justified.
What lesson can be learned from the news of this lawsuit? If you have an employee who has shown up to work intoxicated or that you have heard may be an alcoholic, be aware that ADA issues are implicated. Remember, this means “reasonable accommodations” must be considered and/or granted, and careful consideration must be given to the circumstances before any adverse employment action is taken against that employee.
 You can read the complaint here: http://documents.latimes.com/sarkisians-complaint-damages/.