Southern California Coach Sues University, Claims Termination Constituted Discrimination Against His Disability of Alcoholism

One of the potentially tricky issues an employer can face involves dealing with an employee who is an alcoholic, or otherwise uses drugs or alcohol. Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, alcoholism is a recognized disability, so taking an adverse employment action based solely on the employee’s alcoholism is problematic. In some cases, an employer may, however, discipline or terminate an employee for drug- or alcohol-related misconduct, even if the employee’s alcoholism disability is the underlying cause. The nuances of this area of the law are on center stage in the case of former University of Southern California Trojans football coach Steve Sarkisian, who is suing the school for disability discrimination.

The law regarding alcoholism and disability discrimination under the FEHA is fairly clear in some regards. Alcoholism may, in some situations, qualify as a disability under the statute. If it does, the employer has a legal obligation to engage in an interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation of the employee’s disability. The law does not, though, require an employer to accommodate an employee to the point of continuing to employ an employee who cannot perform the essential functions of his job. The law also does not demand that employers allow their employees to be drunk on the job or engage in excessive consumption at work.

Additionally, California law places another demand upon private employers with more than 25 employees. Those employers must take steps to reasonably accommodate an employee who voluntarily seeks out substance rehabilitation, as long as the employee’s participation in rehab doesn’t create an undue hardship for the employer.

In Sarkisian’s case, several of these concepts may factor into the case. Several reports stated that the coach attended an August donor rally while visibly drunk, slurring his words as he spoke to the event guests and using profanity in his speech. The coach’s Dec. 7 lawsuit stated that he was not drunk but merely appeared so due to an unexpected interaction of prescription anxiety medication and two beers.

By mid-October, additional news reports surfaced that Sarkisian had conducted a meeting with some of his players while drunk. According to his complaint, the coach again did not show up to work drunk but was affected by his prescription medication and having drunk alcohol the night before.

Shortly after this team meeting, the university announced that Sarkisian would be placed on an indefinite leave of absence from his job. At this point, Sarkisian allegedly set off to attend rehab, which he had already informed the university he desired to do. Only one day later, the university terminated the coach.

This, according to the coach, was the crux of the university’s violation. The coach requested a reasonable accommodation in the form of a leave of absence that would allow him to attend rehab. That leave of absence would not create an undue hardship on the school. Once the coach made this request, the university was required to engage in an interactive process with Sarkisian. Instead, it fired him.

The lawsuit also alleged that, by responding to the coach’s request for an accommodation by summarily terminating him rather than engaging in a good-faith interactive process to reach a reasonable accommodation, it committed impermissible retaliation in violation of the FEHA.

Approaching negative employment decisions against any employee can be complicated, especially when a disability is involved. If your employer has discriminated against you based upon your disability or retaliated against you for requesting an accommodation, contact the Oakland employment attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment attorneys can help you navigate the process to pursue an appropriate outcome for you. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Governor Signs New California Law to Expand Definition of Protected Activities under FEHA, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Aug. 17, 2015

Supervisors, Stress, and Your California Disability Discrimination Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, June 30, 2015

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