Does the University of Southern California's Ex-Coach Have a Case?

Former football coach Steve Sarkisian is suing the university over discrimination. Is there any merit to his claims?
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Former University of Southern California head football coach Steve Sarkisian. (Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Former University of Southern California head football coach Steve Sarkisian. (Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

On Monday, former University of Southern California head football coach Steve Sarkisian sued his one-time employer on the grounds that his mid-season firing in October constituted a breach of contract and discrimination.

Breach of contract is simple enough to understand. But discrimination? That's because, according to Sarkisian, he was fired as a result of his alcoholism. As the Associated Press reports:

Sarkisian claims he should have been allowed to seek treatment for his alcoholism disability while keeping his job. The lawsuit describes Sarkisian’s descent into alcohol dependency in steady detail, citing the extraordinary stress of the USC job combined with his wife’s decision to file for divorce earlier this year.

As Daniel McGraw reported for Pacific Standard last week, alcoholism actually falls under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and therefore isn't in itself ground for termination. As McGraw wrote:

That means a company cannot deal out punishments and work rules that single out alcoholics for worse discipline than their non-alcoholic co-workers for the same action, even if the transgression involves alcohol. That's not to say the ADA permits alcohol use as an excuse for poor job performance—employers can certainly fire anyone who shows up to work drunk. Rather, employers can't deny employment because of alcoholism, or set up job standards for alcoholics that are not equal to the other non-alcoholic employees.

This is a point of contention in the lawsuit: USC alleges that Sarkisian showed up drunk to a booster event and a pre-season game, and Sarkisian denies having done so. (He says he was only drinking out of work.) Technically, "California law required USC to make the reasonable accommodation of giving Steve Sarkisian time off to get help for his disability and then return to the job," the suit says. In other words, the school couldn’t just fire him for being an alcoholic; it had to give Sarkisian a chance at rehabilitation.

Now, USC maintains Sarkisian was fired not for his drinking, but for his dishonesty. Again, from the Associated Press:

"[T]he record will show that Mr. Sarkisian repeatedly denied to university officials that he had a problem with alcohol, never asked for time off to get help, and resisted university efforts to provide him with help. The university made clear in writing that further incidents would result in termination, as it did. We are profoundly disappointed in how Mr. Sarkisian has mischaracterized the facts and we intend to defend these claims vigorously."

And lying, as McGraw points out in his piece, opens up a whole new can of worms:

That's because in an employment discrimination case, it is sometimes easier for the employer to claim that it was the employee's dishonesty—and nothing else—that led to him being reprimanded. As an example: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes discrimination against persons with criminal records in the U.S. illegal. But employers can still legally fire you, if you lied about, say, your criminal background by not properly listing convictions on a job application.

We'll see how this lawsuit goes, but, either way, we hope Sarkisian has been getting the proper treatment.

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