Steve Sarkisian’s Firing From USC Highlights Legal Issue Of Workplace Alcoholism

By May Wilkerson 01/21/16

Sarkisian filed a wrongful termination suit after trying to seek treatment for alcohol abuse.


Workers with alcoholism have job protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But the exact legalities are complicated, as in the recent case of former football coach Steve Sarkisian who says he was fired from the University of Southern California allegedly because of his drinking. Sarkisian has sued the school for $12.6 million alleging wrongful termination after he says he was “kicked to the curb” last October when he sought in-patient treatment for alcoholism.

Employers are not required by law to keep on an employee whose alcoholic behavior could hurt their business, but they must follow federal and state discrimination guidelines, reports Business Insurance. According to most U.S. courts, alcoholism qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A “disability” is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The ADA protects employees from being fired directly due to their alcoholism; however, it does not protect them from being fired over alcoholism-related misconduct. This means employers can prohibit employees from drinking or being drunk at work. They can also terminate an employee who fails to meet the employer's workplace performance or conduct standards, even if this behavior was the result of alcoholism.

Sarkisian's termination reportedly followed an incident at a USC pep rally during which he appeared drunk and used foul language with the audience. Also, after losing a game in October, the former coach allegedly drank so much that he missed practice the next day. USC will likely cite these incidents in court to justify Sarkisian’s termination.

But in Sarkisian’s defense, when an employee is legitimately an alcoholic, the employer must make “reasonable accommodations,” such as allowing the employee to take time off work to seek treatment. Sarkisian's lawsuit claims that USC violated this law by firing him when he went to rehab.

So what would be an ideal course of action for an employer in this situation? Try not to act too quickly, suggests Lara C. de Leon, of Ogletree, Deakins, Smoak & Stewart P.C. in Costa Mesa, Calif. Instead, employers “need to hit the pause button and evaluate the situation,” she says. “Is the alcoholism creating a safety issue? Is it creating a performance issue? Is it creating a customer issue? You kind of need to think through the situation.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.