When the 2015 college football season started, Steve Sarkisian was a rising star in the coaching firmament. He had led the University of Washington Huskies and his current team, the University of Southern California Trojans, to winning records and bowl games.
In late August, however, reports surfaced that Sarkisian had behaved inappropriately at a booster event, the Salute to Troy. And by mid-October, USC had terminated Sarkisian “for cause,” with athletic director Pat Haden explaining that Sarkisian’s use of alcohol had impaired his performance of his job.
This week, Sarkisian struck back, filing a 14-count complaint against USC in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Sarkisian claims that USC breached his contract by firing him because, he says, USC did not have cause to terminate him and deprive him of over $11 million that he would otherwise have been owed.
A number of Sarkisian’s claims hinge on his admission in his complaint that he suffered from alcoholism, a medical disability under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Sarkisian alleges that USC discriminated against him based on that disability.
He says that he asked USC to accommodate his disability and that USC failed to do so, or even to engage in a “good-faith interactive process” to discuss the issue. He also says that USC retaliated against him for his request for accommodation.
USC hasn’t filed a response to Sarkisian in court. But USC’s general counsel said in a written statement that Sarkisian’s allegations are “patently untrue,” and that Sarkisian never admitted that he had a problem with alcohol or requested an accommodation.
We’ll see how the evidence develops, but this case might come down to the credibility of the witnesses.
Based on the complaint and the general counsel’s statement, Sarkisian and Haden may tell different stories about the events of the critical weekend of October 8, when Sarkisian’s problems with alcohol reportedly reached the breaking point for him and for USC. Resolving whether Sarkisian was properly terminated “for cause” could also be difficult, especially if there is no definition of the term in Sarkisian’s agreement.
Regardless, Sarkisian’s lawsuit serves as an important reminder for employers.
Under federal and California law, alcoholism is treated as a disability and should be addressed as such. Thus, employers have to be cautious not to discriminate against alcoholics based solely on their disease.
And although an alcoholic employee’s misconduct can still serve as grounds for termination, when that misconduct is the “direct result” of the disability—such as job absenteeism caused by alcoholism—some courts are less forgiving of terminations based on the misconduct.