Former USC Football Coach Steve Sarkisian, recently fired due to his alcoholism, filed a discrimination lawsuit against his former employer December 7, arguing that the school was required to reasonably accommodate him for his disability.
“Alcoholism is a recognized disability under California law. So firing somebody because of that disability is against the law,” Sarkisian’s attorney, Alan Loewinsohn, told TMZ, referring to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, which largely mirrors the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As detailed in the 33-page complaint, Sarkisian’s alcoholism first received media attention when he appeared intoxicated at school’s annual “Salute of Troy” pep rally in August. Sarkisian, whose past alcohol use at the University of Washington has since been widely reported, later said he only had two drinks at the event, but that the alcohol improperly mixed with his prescribed medications for anxiety.
After the incident, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden ordered Sarkisian to begin seeing the team’s psychologist. During the next month, Sarkisian underwent a divorce and increased stress after the football team was upset by UW on October 7, falling to 3-2.
Sarkisian met with Haden on October 11 and disclosed his alcoholism and asked for time off so he could receive treatment. According to the complaint, Haden was largely dismissive and instead kept repeating the word “Unbelievable!”
That evening, it was reported that he had been placed on an indefinite leave of absence. The next day, Sarkisian boarded a plane to attend an inpatient treatment facility to cure his addiction. When the plane landed, he was informed via email that his employment was terminated. He was two years into his five-year contract.
Under California law, employers may not fire “qualified” employees on the basis of their disability, meaning they are capable of performing the essential functions of the job. Depending on the circumstance, a temporary leave of absence to seek treatment normally qualifies as a reasonable accommodation under the law.
Sarkisian, who is now sober after 30 days and treatment, says his alcoholism had not impacted his job performance and that temporarily replacing him with assistant coach Clay Helton, who has since been awarded with a five-year contract, would have constituted a reasonable accommodation.
Moreover, Sarkisian asserts that USC was aware of his alcoholism, at least since the Salute of Troy incident, and failed to provide him assistance. In particular, he points to the university’s decision to send him to a psychologist, rather than a doctor or addiction expert, as well as its refusal to approve a temporary leave of absence.
USC released a statement denying the allegations, calling them “patently untrue.”
“While the university does not as a matter of practice comment on personnel matters or litigation, 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,” USC General Counsel Carol Mauch Amir wrote in the statement. “The university made clear in writing that further incidents would result in termination, as it did.”
The lawsuit, filed in the in the Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Los Angeles, also alleges a range of breach of contract and medical privacy violations. Sarkisian asserts he is owed more than $30 million, from the $12.6 million remaining on his contract and damages.