Alcoholism and how USC may have violated ADA by firing Steve Sarkisian

October 19, 2015 - by: David Kim 8 COMMENTS

On October 12, 2015, Steve Sarkisian was fired as  head coach of the University of Southern California (USC) football team. While USC contends Sarkisian was fired for “cause,” there is no question that his alcohol-related behavior led to his termination. Whether the termination was or was not properly for “cause” is relevant, in part, because it would likely determine whether USC would have to pay the remaining three years of his five-year contract. Whether the termination was lawful under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or analogous state law statutes alcoholismprohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, is another question. And due to the high public profiles of the institution and the individual involved, this may be a question that is never entirely answered.

Back in August, video emerged of a clearly intoxicated Sarkisian at a USC pep rally, slurring during his speech and using profanity. The coach publicly apologized, contending that his behavior was the result of mixing alcohol and certain undisclosed medication. While Sarkisian denied having a drinking problem, he contended he would go to “treatment” to seek help. It appears Sarkisian neither sought help nor ceased his alcohol consumption. Reports last week emerged from sources that the coach “showed up lit to meetings again” and was told to leave the premises on Sunday. That same day, it was announced by USC Athletic Director Pat Haden that Sarkisian was asked and had agreed to take an indefinite leave of absence for his condition. On the next day, he was officially fired.

Well, that leave of absence turned into a termination real quick, huh?

Since Sarkisian’s termination, further reports have leaked suggesting that this has been an ongoing issue with Sarkisian, not only at USC, but that there was evidence of alcohol-related abuse during his prior head-coaching stint at the University of Washington. Therefore, it’s possible that the coach has had a prolonged alcohol abuse problem and one that has been known by USC officials for some time.

Alcoholism is considered a disability under the federal ADA and analogous state disability laws. Therefore, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of someone’s alcohol-related disability and must engage in the interactive process and provide a reasonable accommodation if necessary. Obviously, employees cannot simply come to work drunk and avoid disciplinary action by claiming reliance upon alcohol. And employers are permitted to have policies expressly prohibiting alcohol in the workplace or else employees will face harsh disciplinary action up to and including termination.

In addition, an individual who suffers from alcohol dependency still must be able to perform the essential job functions, and those include but are not limited to adhering to the company’s attendance policy and work performance standards. The hardest part really comes down to what type of accommodation the employer can offer that is reasonable, which is based in great part on the situation at hand, particularly the employee’s position and applicable duties. One common form of accommodation with respect to alcohol dependency is an unpaid leave of absence while the employee seeks treatment or other counseling. Frankly, it would be a red flag if an employer that grants an individual a leave of absence (for any reason, let alone a disability) then decides to terminate that same individual shortly after the leave was given. But that’s exactly what USC did.

Therefore, it will be interesting to see what Sarkisian does going forward, either during or once he has completed his rehabilitation treatment. He could choose to fight and contend that his termination while on a leave of absence for a disability was unlawful. Of course, he would have to address every single detail regarding his alcoholism in a public lawsuit, potentially scare off colleges who may wish to hire him for a coaching job in the future, and risk the fact that a lawsuit could take years and he recovers nothing. He could simply move on with his life, which would be forfeiting potentially large sums of money either in the form of damages (or pursuant to what may be owed under him by contract), seek treatment, and hope that another coaching opportunity presents itself at some point. Of course, he also could reach a private settlement with USC as well. It’s a tough decision for Sarkisian, particularly because of his high-profile occupation, and I would surmise some sort of private agreement will be achieved to spare both parties further public embarrassment.

Most employees, however, don’t have the public concerns that someone in Sarkisian’s position has, and would likely file a lawsuit if terminated in the same manner as the coach. Therefore, employers should tread carefully with respect to issues related to alcohol dependency and understand that while inappropriate behavior or failure to perform the essential job functions isn’t excused by an employee’s alcoholism, the employer still must evaluate whether a reasonable accommodation is appropriate and can be provided.


Need to learn more about hot to implement a legally sound and enforceable workplace drug and alcohol policy? Drugs and alcohol are an ongoing and serious concern for safety managers and HR, as substance use and abuse can impair safe work performance and descrease productivity. Prescription pain killers present serious challenges, even when used according to a doctor’s direction.  And in places where marijuana use has been legalized, employers must figure out how to balance workplace safety against workers’ rights. Do your supervisors know how to evaluate employees who may be under the influence? Do your policies and programs take into account laws like the ADA and FMLA? Join us on November 9 for the 90-minute BLR webinar Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace: Effective and Legal Ways to Reduce Workplace Safety Risks for an in-depth look at how to develop and implement a fair and effective program to reduce the impact and associated costs of prescription and illegal drugs and alcohol in the workplace. For more information or to sign up for the webinar, go to

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1 Roger
13:05:33, 19/10/15

Good discussion, except for Sarkesian’s choices. Based on his experiences at USC as an assistant – no problem reported – and Washington and USC as a head coach, one would wonder if being a head coach is too much for him to handle psychologically. That is, being an assistant is about the most responsibility he can handle without going under. In that context, getting another job eventually should be somewhat easier, once the problem(s) is gotten under control. He’s got a lot of work to do; hope he has the sense to know what to do.

That aside, he wasn’t all that great of an offensive (assistant) coach at USC. Very predictable, lacking nerve in key moments.

2 Ned
15:07:08, 19/10/15

So being a drunk is now a disability. It’s like being fat. You didn
‘t start out that way until you shoved it in your mouth. Thats right, it’s somebody else’s fault. Stupid me. Give them a check.

3 Daniel C. Garcia, BFA, CMI, MAM
17:44:13, 19/10/15

Steve Sarkisian was hired to manage the USC Trojan football program based on his qualifications. He was entrusted to lead, instruct, inspire and continue the traditions of one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in America. He was expected to serve as a role model for the young men under his coaching umbrella. Unfortunately as it turned out and unbeknown by USC, Sarkisian had developed the propensity for drinking at the University of Washington and it surfaced on August 22nd at an official USC function.
He was put on notice that type of behavior was unacceptable and to seek medical intervention. Sarkisian was given a second opportunity to right his wrong but the lasting effects of an alcohol addiction prevented that from happening. During the latest episode of drinking that caused him to miss a schedule practice, Pat Haden put him on extended leave until it became obvious Sarkisian has a deep rooted alcohol dependency and he then fired.
The aftermath has been the drinking tabs disclosures obtained by the LA Times from Sarkisian’s Washington tenure as their head football coach. Not addressed by the LA Times was the lack of any corrective measures taken by the University of Washington since it had knowledge of his drinking problems or they ignored them all together.
AD Pat Haden took the correct action in removing Steve Sarkisian from his coveted coaching position.
It is doubtful Steve Sarkisian will sue the University of Southern California for his dismissal, unless some ambulance chasing type attorney looking to make a name for himself convinces Sarkisian to sue.

4 Brian Bennett
00:05:09, 20/10/15

Nice article; however, I don’t believe alcoholism is a disease. It’s a choice. When will people be faced with having to deal with consequences of their choices? Society is always willing to take the blame and turn issues into diseases.

5 RM
00:13:20, 20/10/15

We’re really living in a victim based society. Ok, so let’s take the victim approach for the sake of the minors(SC players) who really need the protection. USC.along with the parents of the players, can go after Sarkesian for exposing minors to a drunk who is a position of authority over these minors. If Sarkesian was a professor, would it be ok to be drunk in class as well? No one should be allowed to be drunk around minors and we now know he was from players accounts. I think he needs to just ride off into the sunset and just get his life together.

6 David Kim
11:41:29, 20/10/15

Thanks Roger, Ned, Daniel, Brian and RM for your comments. I can certainly understand where you are each coming from and agree with your points of view in many respects. Namely that individuals do have a choice and should be held accountable for their bad decisions, that it is unacceptable for someone in a position that oversees minors/students to be drunk while in their presence, and that USC made the right decision in initially removing him from his role. However, regardless of my (or others’) personal beliefs, the reality is that the law considers alcoholism a disability, and therefore employers have to recognize that fact and make their decisions carefully as a result. I’m not saying USC did not conclusively have the right to fire Sarkisian, simply that his termination only a day after granting him a leave of absence could create legal complications if a dispute arose. Of course, there are many facts that we don’t know yet that could sway the strength of either side’s position. At the end of the day, I do believe the likely scenario is that Sarkisian simply moves on with his life and this simply goes away, though stranger things have happened.

7 vanmusicblues
19:49:00, 29/11/15

The ADA only requires reasonable accommodation by USC. He was offered time off paid to get help. He didn’t go get help so he got fired. The AD is a lawyer, he tried to accommodate followed the law. An employer is not responsible for an employee who refuses help for addiction.

8 Tony Kessler
12:12:01, 08/12/15

On 12/7/15, Sarkisian filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against USC in California Superior Court alleging unlawful termination, failure to accommodate his disability, and other claims. Here is a link to ESPN’s article about the lawsuit:

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