By Lisanne L. Mikula
Steve Sarkisian, once a promising football coach, filed a lawsuit last week against the University of Southern California, alleging that USC discriminated against him on the basis of his disability—alcoholism—when it terminated his employment as head coach of the Trojans.
Sarkisian alleges that at this year’s pre-season pep rally, where USC serves alcohol to adults, he–like other coaches and assistant coaches–spoke to “fire up” the crowd. Sarkisian admits to consuming alcoholic drinks during the event and using foul language during his speech, but claims that his conduct was no different from that of other coaches over the years at the traditionally “loud and raucous” event. While Sarkisian claims that USC’s Athletic Director, Pat Haden, spoke to him following the event, it is not clear whether Sarkisian revealed to USC that he suffered from alcoholism.
According to Sarkisian’s complaint, the stress of his coaching duties, combined with an upset loss to Sarkisian’s former team, caused his drinking to worsen. A few days after the Trojans’ unexpected loss, Sarkisian excused himself from a team meeting and practice due to the effects of heavy drinking the night before, lack of sleep, and anxiety. According to his lawsuit, when Sarkisian told Athletic Director Haden that he needed help for his problems, Haden placed Sarkisian on indefinite leave. Sarkisian alleges that when he left town to enter an inpatient facility for treatment of his alcoholism, Haden terminated him.
Sarkisian’s claims are based on California law, and at this time, USC has not yet had the opportunity to tell its version of events. Sarkisian’s suit, however, raises a number of important issues regarding the workplace rights of the millions of Americans who suffer from alcohol addiction.
Under federal and Pennsylvania law, alcohol addiction is considered a medical disability, and persons who are addicted to alcohol cannot be discriminated against in the terms and conditions of their employment based upon that medical disability.
For example, according to Sarkisian’s lawsuit, while other coaches have been drunk and obnoxious at school events, USC allegedly cared about that only when Sarkisian was drunk and obnoxious, because he was an alcoholic. While it remains to be seen whether USC based its actions on Sarkisian’s alcoholism—or if USC was even aware of Sarkisian’s disability—an employer cannot treat an alcoholic who gets drunk and behaves badly any more harshly than it would treat a non-alcoholic who gets drunk and behaves badly.
Unlike persons with drug addictions—who are not protected as disabled if they are currently using drugs—an alcoholic who is “currently” drinking is still protected from discrimination and may be entitled to reasonable accommodation, such as time off for rehabilitation or to attend AA meetings.
However, employers are still entitled to enforce their normal standards of performance, behavior, and attendance with alcoholic employees, as long as they don’t treat alcoholics differently because of the alcoholism. An employer doesn’t have to “accommodate” an alcoholic employee by, for example, letting the employee violate a no-alcohol-on-premises policy, come to work under the influence, or sleep off a hangover during work time. And, while an employer cannot discipline an employee for seeking treatment for alcoholism, or for having sought such treatment in the past, where an employer bases an employment decision on the employee’s misconduct or poor performance, the employee cannot escape discipline by informing the employer –after the fact—that the employee is an alcoholic and must seek treatment.
Whether you are an employee or an employer trying to navigate the difficult area of disability discrimination, the attorneys at DiOrio & Sereni, LLP can help you answer the tough questions.
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