Former USC Coach Sues for $30 Million Under Alcoholism-Related Disability Discrimination

An interesting recent lawsuit shows the complex world of disability discrimination and the requirements of employers to engage in the interactive process. The lawsuit was brought by USC’s former head coach Steve Sarkisian and alleges that the University fired him instead of accommodating his drinking problem (a disability). In response, USC argued that Mr. Sarkisian did not reveal his alcoholism, hid his drinking problem when USC requested such information, refused USC’s efforts to support him with counseling, and was not able to meet the requirements of the head coaching job even with said accommodations. The case is being carefully monitored by our Los Angeles based employment law attorneys.

Let us first discuss alcoholism as a disability and how, similar to other disabilities, it must be pleaded to garner the best chance at success. First, the employee who experiences the effects of alcoholism must notify his or her employer. Then, as mentioned above, the employer must engage the employee in an interactive way (interactive process) to find out whether a reasonable accommodation is available that will not also create undue hardship for the employer. See these related blogs for more information on discrimination.

California and the federal government have laws that protect employees in this regard. Specifically, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) both regard alcoholism as a protected disability. For example, the ADA categorizes alcoholism as a disability if it “substantially” limits one’s major life activities – which sets the floor for this disability. FEHA goes further than the ADA and uses a broader definition of disability by considering alcoholism a disability if it merely “limits” major life activities. Further, California’s Labor Code Section 1025 requires private employers to accommodate employees who wish to enroll in an alcohol rehabilitation program as long as it does not present an undue hardship on the employer. It will be interesting to see how the Sarkisian case turns out once more facts are disclosed. However, we may not see much else about it since most of these cases end up settling. (FEHA is found at Government Code section 12900 et seq. whereas the ADA is found at 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.)

Another interesting, and related area of this law pertains to what alcohol-related information employers are allowed to ask job applicants. They are permitted to asks if the applicant drinks alcohol or has ever been convicted of a DUI, but they are not allowed to ask questions to determine if the applicant has alcoholism. Instead, the applicant must voluntarily disclose this information and request an accommodation.

If you witnessed any disability discrimination or retaliation against employees for reporting the discrimination to Human Resources or government regulators, prompt action to preserve your rights is vital. Contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Stephen Danz & Associates for a free consultation to discuss your circumstances and legal options.