United States: Employment Law Commentary - Volume 28, Issue 1 - January 2016

Last Updated: February 7 2016
Article by Tom E. Wilson and Caroline Stakim

ALCOHOLISM AND DISABILITY DISCRIMINATION: LESSONS FROM THE USC COACH'S CASE

INTRODUCTION

If you have never dealt with an employee who is an alcoholic, rest assured, you will. Alcoholism has been described as the single largest, most destructive addiction in the United States, with an estimated seventeen million Americans struggling with some form of alcohol addiction. According to a recent study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 7 percent of adults ages 18 and older have an "alcohol use disorder."1 By his own admission, one of these individuals was Steve Sarkisian, who prior to his termination on October 12, 2015, was the head coach of the University of Southern California's football team. Less than two months after he was fired, Sarkisian filed a lawsuit against USC alleging that his termination was the result of disability-based discrimination and that, rather than attempting to reasonably accommodate his alcoholism as required by law, the University fired him and "kicked him to the curb."2 In fact, in his complaint Sarkisian alleges that USC fired him a day after placing him on an indefinite leave of absence and that he first learned of his termination while traveling to an out-of-state treatment facility. In addition, Sarkisian claims that USC did not have cause to terminate his employment contract and, consequently, owes him roughly $15 million in severance. In response to Sarkisian's complaint, USC filed a motion to compel arbitration earlier this month in which it denies firing the coach because he was an alcoholic and asserts that Sarkisian was let go because he could not perform basic job responsibilities, including showing up for practices and speaking events.3

While it is quite unlikely that any of us will have any involvement in a decision to terminate the employment of a potentially disabled NCAA Division 1 football head coach, the Sarkisian case does provide a useful framework to re-examine what obligations an employer faces in managing an employee who is an alcoholic. Before undertaking that analysis, we need to briefly review the circumstances of Coach Sarkisian's USC employment that culminated in his termination from one of the most prestigious head coaching positions in the country.

THE RISE AND FALL OF STEVE SARKISIAN

When he was hired as head coach by USC in December 2013, USC's Athletic Director, Pat Haden, announced: "We are delighted to welcome Steve Sarkisian back to the Trojan family. We conducted an exhaustive and thorough search. We kept coming back to Sark."4 Sarkisian's status as part of "the Trojan family" was earned by his prior service on the USC coaching staff under head coach Pete Carroll in a variety of positions, including offensive assistant, quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator and assistant head coach from 2001 to 2008. From 2008 until 2013, Sarkisian was the head football coach for the University of Washington, where he was credited for taking a winless Husky team to four consecutive bowl appearances. After the "exhaustive and thorough search" referenced by AD Haden, on December 3, 2013, USC and Sarkisian entered into a 5-year contract,5 which made the then 39-year-old Sarkisian the highest paid coach in the Pac. 12.6

In Sarkisian's first season at USC, the Trojans in 2014 posted a respectable 9-4 record. However, the 2015 football season began badly for Sarkisian. At the school's annual "Salute to Troy" pep rally in August, Sarkisian was "apparently intoxicated, slurring his words, uttering an expletive and acting so unsteady that he left the stage before his remarks were complete."7 Sarkisian later apologized and based his conduct on an unexpected interaction between anti anxiety medications and two beers he had consumed prior to the pep rally. The 2015 football season had begun with high expectations—the Associated Press poll ranked USC as the 8th best team in the nation8—but after winning its first 3 games, USC was defeated by Stanford9 and on October 8, USC suffered an upset loss to the University of Washington (a game USC was favored to win by 17 points.) Three days later, on October 11, Sarkisian was too ill (supposedly, he was hungover) to attend a team practice. In telephone conversations later that day with AD Haden, Sarkisian told Haden that he needed time off because he was not well, and Haden responded by putting the coach on an indefinite leave of absence. The following day, on October 12, the Los Angeles Times published an article claiming that Sarkisian had drinking problems during his tenure as Washington's head coach.10 The same day, USC decided to fire Sarkisian. According to Sarkisian, he learned of USC's decision through an email he received from Haden while he was in transit to an out-of-state inpatient rehabilitation program. During the press conference in which he announced Sarkisian's termination, Haden stated that he knew Sarkisian "was not healthy."11 Less than two months later in December, Sarkisian filed his lawsuit against USC in a complaint containing 14 separate causes of action in which he chiefly asserted USC's decision to terminate his employment violated his contract and was the product of disability based discrimination.12 Among the non-contractual causes of action Sarkisian alleges in his complaint against USC are failure to engage in the interactive process, failure to accommodate, discrimination of the basis of disability and retaliation. He seeks contractual damages in excess of $15 million.

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Footnotes

1 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Table 5.8A. Available at: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-DetTabs2014.htm#5-8A.

2. Complt., Sarkisian v. University of Southern California, No. BC603337 (Super Ct. L.A. County, Dec. 7, 2015).

3. Nathan Fenno, USC says Steve Sarkisian's suit is 'full of half-truths' and 'outright lies', LOS ANGELES TIMES, (Jan. 9, 2016), http://latimes.com/sports/usc/la-sp-uscsarkasian-lawsuit/20160109.html.

4. USC hires Steve Sarkisian as coach, ESPN (Dec.3, 2013), http://espn.go.com/los-angeles/college-football/story/_/id/10068739/usc-trojans-hire-steve-sarkisianwashington-huskies-new-football-coach.

5. Actually USC and Sarkisian entered into two contracts. The first was a head coaching contract; the second was a contract between USC and "Sark Enterprises, Inc." The latter contract covered "marketing services" provided by Sarkisian. Both contracts ran concurrently.

6. Salaries and Contracts, COACHES HOT SEAT, http://www.coacheshotseat.com/SalariesContracts.htm.

7. Bill Plaschke, If Steve Sarkisian's issues run deeper than one night, that's an issue for USC, LOS ANGELES TIMES (Aug. 23, 2015, 10:23 PM), http://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/la-sp-0824-sarkisian-usc-plaschke-20150824-column.html.

8. D. Ferguson, Preseason College Football Rankings 2015: Winners and Losers from AP Poll, http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2553744-preseason-college-football-rankings-2015-winners-and-losers-from-ap-poll.

9. Both the author and the editor of this publication are graduates of the Stanford Class of 1972.

10. Nathan Fenno & Lindsey Thiry, Documents, former players point to Steve Sarkisian's alcohol use at Washington, LOS ANGELES TIMES (Oct. 12, 2015, 3:00 AM), http://www.latimes.com/sports/usc/la-sp-usc-sarkisian-washington-20151012-story.html.

Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Morrison & Foerster LLP. All rights reserved

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