The University of Southern California (USC) fired head football coach Steve Sarkisian on October 12th, 2015. The firing came a day after athletic director Pat Haden declared it was “clear to [Haden] that Steve was not well.” The official statement released USC’s athletic department stated USC remains concerned for Steve’s well-being and hopes his termination will give him the opportunity to focus on his personal problems. On December 7th, 2015, Sarkisian filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against USC. Sarkisian wants his job back, in addition to $30 million in damages.

So what exactly was Sarkisian fired for, if he was “not well?” Sarkisian apologized for his “behavior” and “inappropriate language” at USC’s kick-off event in August. At that event, Sarkisian slurred words, said several opposing teams “suck,” and uttered expletives before the rallying phrase according to boosters and video clips. It was widely believed Sarkisian was intoxicated through the entire event. On September 27th, multiple media outlets reported Sarkisian was drunk during USC’s game against Arizona State. Anonymous players and coaches also alleged he showed up to team meetings and events drunk on multiple occasions. Sarkisian’s subsequent suit charges USC with violating multiple areas of the law, including USC’s failure to help him deal with his disability.

What is Sarkisian’s disability, and does he have a meritorious claim? Sarkisian’s struggles with alcohol abuse can be recognized as a disability under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). FEHA provides that employers cannot discriminate against employees with disabilities that limit a major life activity, which includes day-to-day activities like walking and working a job. Employees with such disabilities are entitled to “reasonable” accommodations from their employers. Provided qualified employees are able to perform the essential functions of a job, and so long as those employees are not currently abusing drugs or alcohol, the law protects alcoholics from employer discrimination. If an employee is actively abusing alcohol or drugs, employers may typically fire that employee without recourse. Therefore, the more it can be shown that alcohol interfered with Sarkisian’s coaching duties, the harder it will be for his suit to prevail.

Sarkisian at the time of his firing was going through a divorce. He claims he merely appeared intoxicated at the pep rally due to the consumption of two beers mixed with his prescription medication for anxiety, and Sarkisian has yet to admit to being intoxicated in his official coaching capacity. Further, his complaint also charges that efforts by USC to help him address his problems with anxiety, depression, and alcohol were insufficient. The school had him meet with a sports psychologist (who is not a medical doctor), and the school did not recommend he seek extensive rehabilitation. However, the school contends the meeting with the psychologist was merely to suggest different avenues of help.

On January 9th, USC fired back by stating it is absolutely false that Sarkisian ever admitted to having a drinking problem or needing treatment. In fact, the school argues Sarkisian denied ever having a drinking problem. Furthermore, in a formal response USC pointed out that Sarkisian’s suit violates an arbitration agreement the former coach had with the school. The arbitration agreement specifically includes claims for discrimination or harassment related to a medical condition or a disability. The arbitration agreement, and the strong incentives for both parties to settle, makes it appear unlikely this case will ever actually be litigated. However, Sarkisian does have a potential claim and this topic will continue to be monitored by football fans in the coming months. How strong his claim is, remains to be seen.

Peter Martin

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