Wrongful Termination & Disability Discrimination: Sarkisian Goes Head to Head With USC

Lewitt Hackman
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After a much publicized struggle with alcoholism and public firing by the University of Southern California, former head coach for the football team, Steve Sarkisian, has filed a lawsuit against the university.

According to several media outlets, one of the incidents that led to Sarkisian’s termination was the coach’s inability to speak properly at a USC pep rally in August.

The coach was slurring, and used an expletive while speaking onstage. In contrast, Sarkisian claims he had a few beers and took some anti-anxiety medication before the event. Allegedly, USC’s athletic director, Pat Haden, demanded Sarkisian sign a letter requiring the coach apologize to the team and the media, and to obtain counseling with a school therapist.

Sarkisian’s lawsuit against USC asserts claims for, among other things, breach of contract, disability discrimination, medical confidentiality violations, and wrongful termination. Sarkisian is seeking $12.6 million in contract damages as well as additional sums for “extreme mental anguish as a result of not only his wrongful termination, but also the manner in which he was terminated and the statements made about that termination by USC.”

The complaint also states that:

“Instead of supporting its Head Coach, Steve Sarkisian, when he needed its help the most, USC kicked him to the curb. Instead of honoring the contract it made with Steve Sarkisian, USC kicked him to the curb.”

Sarkisian and his attorneys further allege that Haden repeatedly and derisively said “Unbelievable” during a phone call in which Sarkisian asked for time off to get help for alcohol addiction, placed the coach on indefinite leave, and subsequently wrongfully terminated him.

Both state and federal law provide protections for disabled employees. California’s law is the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  The federal law is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Both FEHA and the ADA recognize that alcoholism is a form of disability. As noted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers must make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees if the accommodation will not result in an undue hardship on the employer.

Also, under California Labor Code Sections 1025-1028, certain employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees who ask for time off to enter rehab. And, the employer must maintain the employees’ privacy.

What Should Employers Do To Keep Workplaces Running Safely and Efficiently?

Employers should remember that alcoholism is a disease recognized by the American Medical Association, and that this disease may entitle an employee to take time off from work. Not only may employees have leave rights under the ADA and FEHA, but also under other leave laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act (for employers with more than 50 employees).

Employers who must terminate an alcoholic should do so with caution. They should consider all of the circumstances of the employee, including work history, performance records and other factors. Documentation of misconduct is key to helping prove that the termination was due to performance and not to a disability.

Employers should also establish policies and ensure all employees are aware of such policies prohibiting the use of alcohol or controlled substances while working.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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