Alcoholism and how USC may have violated ADA by firing Steve Sarkisian
On October 12, 2015, Steve Sarkisian was fired as head coach of the University of Southern California (USC) football team. While USC contends Sarkisian was fired for “cause,” there is no question that his alcohol-related behavior led to his termination. Whether the termination was or was not properly for “cause” is relevant, in part, because it would likely determine whether USC would have to pay the remaining three years of his five-year contract. Whether the termination was lawful under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or analogous state law statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, is another question. And due to the high public profiles of the institution and the individual involved, this may be a question that is never entirely answered.
Back in August, video emerged of a clearly intoxicated Sarkisian at a USC pep rally, slurring during his speech and using profanity. The coach publicly apologized, contending that his behavior was the result of mixing alcohol and certain undisclosed medication. While Sarkisian denied having a drinking problem, he contended he would go to “treatment” to seek help. It appears Sarkisian neither sought help nor ceased his alcohol consumption. Reports last week emerged from sources that the coach “showed up lit to meetings again” and was told to leave the premises on Sunday. That same day, it was announced by USC Athletic Director Pat Haden that Sarkisian was asked and had agreed to take an indefinite leave of absence for his condition. On the next day, he was officially fired.
Well, that leave of absence turned into a termination real quick, huh?
Since Sarkisian’s termination, further reports have leaked suggesting that this has been an ongoing issue with Sarkisian, not only at USC, but that there was evidence of alcohol-related abuse during his prior head-coaching stint at the University of Washington. Therefore, it’s possible that the coach has had a prolonged alcohol abuse problem and one that has been known by USC officials for some time.
Alcoholism is considered a disability under the federal ADA and analogous state disability laws. Therefore, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of someone’s alcohol-related disability and must engage in the interactive process and provide a reasonable accommodation if necessary. Obviously, employees cannot simply come to work drunk and avoid disciplinary action by claiming reliance upon alcohol. And employers are permitted to have policies expressly prohibiting alcohol in the workplace or else employees will face harsh disciplinary action up to and including termination.
In addition, an individual who suffers from alcohol dependency still must be able to perform the essential job functions, and those include but are not limited to adhering to the company’s attendance policy and work performance standards. The hardest part really comes down to what type of accommodation the employer can offer that is reasonable, which is based in great part on the situation at hand, particularly the employee’s position and applicable duties. One common form of accommodation with respect to alcohol dependency is an unpaid leave of absence while the employee seeks treatment or other counseling. Frankly, it would be a red flag if an employer that grants an individual a leave of absence (for any reason, let alone a disability) then decides to terminate that same individual shortly after the leave was given. But that’s exactly what USC did.
Therefore, it will be interesting to see what Sarkisian does going forward, either during or once he has completed his rehabilitation treatment. He could choose to fight and contend that his termination while on a leave of absence for a disability was unlawful. Of course, he would have to address every single detail regarding his alcoholism in a public lawsuit, potentially scare off colleges who may wish to hire him for a coaching job in the future, and risk the fact that a lawsuit could take years and he recovers nothing. He could simply move on with his life, which would be forfeiting potentially large sums of money either in the form of damages (or pursuant to what may be owed under him by contract), seek treatment, and hope that another coaching opportunity presents itself at some point. Of course, he also could reach a private settlement with USC as well. It’s a tough decision for Sarkisian, particularly because of his high-profile occupation, and I would surmise some sort of private agreement will be achieved to spare both parties further public embarrassment.
Most employees, however, don’t have the public concerns that someone in Sarkisian’s position has, and would likely file a lawsuit if terminated in the same manner as the coach. Therefore, employers should tread carefully with respect to issues related to alcohol dependency and understand that while inappropriate behavior or failure to perform the essential job functions isn’t excused by an employee’s alcoholism, the employer still must evaluate whether a reasonable accommodation is appropriate and can be provided.