As an alum of USC Law, I have been particularly interested in the news surrounding USC’s termination of football coach, Steve Sarkisian. In fact, several of my colleagues have already blogged about it here and here.
When the coach was fired, several clients immediately asked me: “Can USC do that?” The general sense was that something felt amiss.
My response was that there must have been some contract provision that allowed for termination in these circumstances, otherwise the termination for someone who appeared to have a drinking problem (a disability) is risky. Turns out I was right – it was risky.
In Sarkisian’s complaint against USC he alleges that “USC kicked him to the curb” instead of supporting him, accommodating him, and honoring his contract.
Having defended many disability and accommodation claims, I know that the facts alleged are generally hotly contested. In fact, USC has already responded that most of the lawsuit is “patently untrue,” and rather than asking for an accommodation the coach denied he had a problem and “resisted attempts” to provide him help. USC’s statement indicates that it will “defend these claims vigorously.”
All of that said, what are the lessons here for California employers?
First, alcoholism is a disability that must be accommodated.
Second, even so, alcoholism does not excuse misconduct at work, especially misconduct that occurs before a request for accommodation is made (or the need for an accommodation becomes apparent).
Third, steps taken to engage in the interactive process matter. In California, there can be a separate claim for failing to engage in the interactive process. It is no surprise that Sarkisian’s complaint includes this claim. This California specific claim makes documentation of the interactive process, and the timing of efforts in relation to finding out about the disability, all the more critical.
Fourth, it appears from the complaint that USC got involved in the coach’s medical treatment. For most employers, that would be an invasion of privacy and is not recommended.
Fifth, the complaint alleges that USC put the coach on a leave of absence so he could get treatment, and then terminated him the next day. If true, this would not be a helpful fact. Timing matters, and a quick switch can be challenging to defend.
Finally, while USC may have had good reasons to move forward with a termination it knew would be contested to preserve its football program, most employers prefer to avoid hotly contested legal battles (and the associated costs). Therefore, before terminating an employee you suspect has a dependency issue, seek legal advice to ensure you are comfortable with the anticipated risks, and have taken whatever steps necessary to mitigate those risks.
USC likely accepted its risks with open eyes. But unless you are ready to have a former employee publicly allege that you “kicked him to the curb” when things got rough, the best advice is to proceed with caution before firing an employee with an addiction issue.