On December 7, 2015, Steve Sarkisian filed a lawsuit against the University of Southern California claiming he was improperly fired from his role as head coach of the USC football team because his alcoholism was a disability and therefore protected under California state law. This article will explain everything you wanted to know about the lawsuit.
What’s the lawsuit about?
Although there are fourteen separate claims, here are the two major arguments:
First, Sarskisian claims that USC violated his contract by firing
him without cause and by failing to pay him his contractually-agreed severance – in this case, about $12 million.
Basically, in every college football employment contract, the college or University can fire the coach “without cause” or “with cause.” If a college fires a coach without cause, then, based on the contract, the college will owe the coach a severance, often in the millions of dollars (similar to Sarkisian’s situation).
If, on the other hand, the colleges fire the coach with cause, then the college owes the coach nothing – not one penny. In every football coaching contract the definition of “for cause” is defined in the agreement. Generally speaking, “for cause” does not cover bad performance (such as the football team loses all of its games), but is for things like embezzlement, fraud, intentional violation of an NCAA rule, lying to the administration etc.
In his lawsuit, Sarkisian claims that USC did not have grounds to fire him “for cause,” and even if it did, USC did not give him the required 10-day notice for him to cure his issue as required under his contract.
Second, Sarkisian claims that USC discriminated against him due to his disability – that of alcoholism. (Alcoholism may be considered a disability under California law if it limits major life activities.)
When an employee notifies an employer about a disability, the employer has two obligations: first, it must engage in what’s called an “interactive process” – that is, it must start a good-faith “discussion” with the employee about whether the employer can accommodate his disability; second, the employer must provide a “reasonable accommodation” for the disability to the employee, unless doing so would place an undue hardship on the employer. Further, under California Labor Code § 1025, an employer must “reasonably accommodate any employee who wishes to voluntarily enter and participate in an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program,” as long as the “reasonable accommodation does not impose an undue hardship on the employer.”
Sarkisian claims that USC did not meet its obligation of engaging in the interactive process, nor did it grant him the reasonable accommodation of taking time off to participate in in-patient treatment for his alcoholism. Sarkisian asserts this would not have been an undue burden for USC because the interim coach Helton was the bomb, and USC would have been fine if he took some time off.
Wait a second, alcoholism is a disability under California law?
Yes. If your alcoholism limits major life activities (an easy burden to show), then it is a disability, and you are entitled to the protection of the state laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability.
Can USC fire Sarkisian for cause?
Maybe. We need to see how exactly “for cause” is defined in his contract, and the complaint does not specify this.
But what about providing Sarkisian with the 10-day notice?
USC apparently did not provide Sarkisian with the required 10-day notice and opportunity to cure before terminating him. USC, for example, may argue that this is a technical violation (not material), and that the 10-day notice was futile and unnecessary. In other words, that the 10-day notice was not necessary because USC was going to fire Sarkisian anyway.
What about his disability discrimination claims?
There are several issues here.
1. Did Sarkisian’s use of alcohol limit major life activities to constitute a disability under California law such that USC was required to engage with him in the interactive process and provide him with reasonable accommodations such as taking time off for rehab? Likely.
2. Would granting leave to him in the middle of the college football season so Sarkisian could go into residential rehab place an undue burden on USC? I think USC has a good argument here that it would – we all know the stakes are very high in the business of college football and it would be hard to suggest a team sans head coach would perform to its highest potential.
But USC will likely make the argument that even if Sarkisian was disabled by alcoholism, USC fired him not for his disability, i.e. his alcoholism, but because of his poor job performance. Under California law, it seems an employee with alcoholism may be terminated for poor job performance, even if the poor job performance is caused by the alcoholism. Further, USC will argue that current alcohol use as opposed to past-alcohol use is not protected under the law, where Sarkisian’s current alcohol use caused him to act inappropriately at work.
Expect USC to argue that it fired Sarkisian as a result of his actions at the “Salute to Troy” incident and expect a lot of testimony.
But it appears that USC did not even engage in the interactive process with Sarkisian. Isn’t USC liable for that?
Not so fast. USC will argue that Sarkisian never once asked for help, and that USC tried consistently to get Sarkisian help. http://www.usctrojans.com/blog/2015/12/usc-response-to-sarkisian-lawsuit.html. What USC knew, and how it tried to assist Sarkisian, will be very important to the resolution of this case.
Have the parties tried to resolve this out of court?
Almost surely. In cases like this, the parties almost always have discussions pre-litigaiton to see if they can come to a resolution. The parties likely had numerous discussions and could not get to a number that was satisfactory for both sides. Accordingly, dig in, this could go on for awhile.
Anything else interesting from the complaint?
Yes! The complaint cites “Bleacher Report” as evidence of Sarkisian’s strong performance. Regardless of the legality of the actions of Pat Haden (the AD of USC), he does not come across well in this Complaint because Sarkisian portrays him as very insensitive.
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