Last week, former University of Southern California Head Football Coach Steve Sarkisian filed a 31-page lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against his former employer. The lawsuit alleges that Coach Sarkisian’s employment was unlawfully terminated. Furthermore, Coach Sakisian alleges that USC discriminated against him by not making a reasonable accommodation to address his disability – alcoholism. The former USC coach is seeking damages in excess of $30,000,000, plus the reinstatement of his employment.
Coach Sarkisian’s employment with USC was terminated on October 12, 2015, after taking an indefinite leave of absence. Coach Sarkisian took this leave of absence in order to seek treatment for alcoholism.
Alcoholism is a recognized disability under both California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHH) and the federal American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees with disabilities that limit a major life activity. Employers are required to make “reasonable” accommodations in order to help the disabled employee overcome their recognized disability. Often Courts find that an accommodation is unreasonable if it substantially disrupts the employer’s business practice or requires an alteration to any essential job responsibilities.
Although Coach Sarkisian’s disability is recognized by California law, I suspect it will be harder for him to prevail in the lawsuit if the USC can prove his drinking interfered with his responsibilities as the head football coach on multiple instances.
I would expect that USC will counter and attest that they made a reasonable accommodation when they first gave Coach Sarkisian a leave of absence to get help for his alcoholism. I also suspect USC will try to demonstrate that Coach Sarkisian’s ongoing drinking issues made it impossible for him to coach and therefore complete his essential job responsibilities.
Based upon my prior experience working for the Ohio State football team and witnessing just how much time and effort is devoted to coaching at the highest levels of intercollegiate athletics, I believe it would be impossible for an individual suffering from untreated alcoholism to perform all of the necessary and essential job functions.