Did USC’s alcohol-related firing of its former head football coach violate the law?


Back in October, the University of Southern California fired Steve Sarkisian, its head football coach. The Daily Beast, among others, reported that USC fired Mr. Sarkisian after an incident where he appeared drunk during a speech at a USC event.

Yesterday, Mr. Sarkisian fired back with a 14-count lawsuit in California Superior Court. The lawsuit includes claims for disability (alcoholism) discrimination and failure to accommodate his disability.

Nathan Fenno at the LA Times recaps Mr. Sarkisian’s claims here. Here is a statement from USC’s General Counsel, in which the school denies Mr. Sarkisian’s claims:

The record will show that Mr. Sarkisian repeatedly denied to university officials that he had a problem with alcohol, never asked for time off to get help and resisted university efforts to provide him with help. The university made clear in writing that further incidents would result in termination, as it did.

What should employers know alcoholism and the Americans with Disabilities Act?

All of Mr. Sarkisian’s claims are based on violations of California state law. But, the Americans with Disabilities Act covers alcoholism as well. Here are a few basics for employers:

  1. Alcoholism is an ADA disability.
  2. Much like it would do for any other qualified individual with a disability (i.e., someone who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation), an employer must accommodate an alcoholic, unless doing so would create undue hardship for the employer. An example of a reasonable accommodation would be a flexible work schedule to allow a recovering alcoholic to attend AA meetings.
  3. An alcoholic employee must meet all performance and behavior criteria against which all other employees are measured. According to this EEOC fact sheet, this means that “poor job performance or unsatisfactory behavior – such as absenteeism, tardiness, insubordination, or on-the-job accidents – related to an employee’s alcoholism or illegal use of drugs need not be tolerated if similar performance or conduct would not be acceptable for other employees.”
  4. Employers can prohibit the use of alcohol at work. However, if that rule is applied unfairly; e.g., only against known alcoholics, then that would be discriminatory.

For more on alcoholism in the workplace, check out the rest of the EEOC’s fact sheet, as well as a number of my prior posts on the subject.

Image Credit: By Bobak Ha’Eri (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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