USC’S EX-FOOTBALL COACH SUES THE SCHOOL FOR FAILING TO ACCOMODATE HIS ALCOHOLISM: DOES HE HAVE A CASE?

Yesterday, ex-USC Trojan football coach Steve Sarkasian sued the University, claiming that it discriminated against him because he is an alcoholic.

Does Coach Sarkasian have a case?  Are alcoholics protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?  Should employers, therefore, proceed with caution when discharging alcoholic employees?  Read on for the answers.

BIG TROUBLE AT ‘SC

Problems surfaced in August of this year when Coach Sarkasian appeared intoxicated and used inappropriate language at a pep rally.  Here is a clip of  him at the event:

Subsequently, reports surfaced that Sarkasian was drunk on the sidelines of USC’s September 26 game against Arizona State University.

On October 11, Sarkasian was placed on “indefinite leave” by USC’s Athletic Director, Pat Haden.  Less than 24 hours later he was fired:

“After careful consideration of what is in the best interest of the university and our student-athletes, I have made the decision to terminate Steve Sarkisian, effective immediately,” USC athletic director Pat Haden said in a statement.

SARKASIAN SUES USC FOR WRONGFUL TERMINATION BASED ON HIS ALCOHOLISM

Sarkasian’s lawsuit claims that USC knew he was an alcoholic and, therefore, had a duty to accommodate him:

“California law imposes a duty on USC to make reasonable accommodations for a disability, such as alcoholism, unless USC could demonstrate that doing so would have imposed an undue hardship.  Furthermore, California law imposes a duty on USC to engage in a timely, good faith, interactive process with Steve Sarkisian to determine effective and reasonable accommodations for his disability. This is particularly true since Mr. Sarkisian requested an
accommodation. USC also was required under California law to seek input from Mr. Sarkisian as to what accommodations may be needed.

USC also cannot credibly argue that Helton was incompetent to handle the team’s head coaching duties while Steve Sarkisian was on leave given that USC has now hired Helton to be the permanent Head Coach for at least the next five years.

USC also failed to engage in a timely, good-faith interactive process with Steve Sarkisian to determine an effective and reasonable accommodation. Instead, USC fired Steve Sarkisian by email less than 24 hours after placing him on leave. Had USC not withdrawn its decision, less than 24 hours after announcing it, to place Mr. Sarkisian on leave, he would have been able to obtain the treatment he needed and then return to successfully perform his essential job functions as Head Coach.”

The California law upon which Sarkasian relies mirrors the ADA.  It requires an employer to make a reasonable accommodation for a disability unless such accommodation would place an undue hardship on the employer.

ARE ALCOHOLICS PROTECTED UNDER THE ADA?

Alcoholics are indeed protected under the ADA.  The US Department of Justice provides this Q&A on the issue:

Q. Are alcoholics covered by the ADA?

A.
Yes.  While a current illegal user of drugs is not protected by the ADA if an employer acts on the basis of such use, a person who currently uses alcohol is not automatically denied protection. An alcoholic is a person with a disability and is protected by the ADA if s/he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job. An employer may be required to provide an accommodation to an alcoholic. However, an employer can discipline, discharge or deny employment to an alcoholic whose use of alcohol adversely affects job performance or conduct. An employer also may prohibit the use of alcohol in the workplace and can require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) Technical Assistance Manual provides: “A person who currently uses alcohol is not automatically denied protection simply because of the alcohol use. An alcoholic is a person with a disability under the ADA and may be entitled to consideration of accommodation, if s/he is qualified to perform the essential functions of a job. However, an employer may discipline, discharge or deny employment to an alcoholic whose use of alcohol adversely affects job performance or conduct to the extent that s/he is not ‘qualified.’ ”

CONCLUSION

Does the Sarkasian case instruct us that employers cannot terminate alcoholics?  No.

Employers may prohibit the use or possession of drugs and alcohol in the workplace and require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs in the workplace.  Thus, if an alcoholic or non-alcoholic employee is violating work rules relating to the use or possession of alcohol, that employee may be terminated.

What an employer cannot do is terminate an alcoholic employee on the basis of his/her disease or fail to reasonably accommodate an alcoholic, when such accommodation does not impose an undue burden on the employer.

How will the Sarkasian case play out?  It will most likely settle.  There is a lot at stake, bad publicity all the way around, and Trojan Nation will likely want to move on.  For the time being, USC has issued this statement:

“Much of what is stated in the lawsuit … is patently untrue … 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.”

Art Bourque has guided businesses and individuals in various HR matters, including alcohol and substance abuse incidents.  Contact Mr. Bourque with any questions regarding these or other employment issues.

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