Former University of Southern California football head coach Steve Sarkisian filed suit against the university, saying the school did not provide reasonable accommodations for his alcoholism, which he claims is a disability. He is seeking $30 million dollars. A skeptical public may react harshly in dismissing the suit as a stunt, but if alcoholism is a disability in California and employers have to accommodate then the outcome of the suit can have serious repercussions on businesses and make it a Golden State for lawyers.
Is Alcoholism a Disability in California?
According to a 2001 self-study article in the California Bar Journal alcoholism is a protected disability according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which applies to employers with five or more employees. A business may not ask if a job applicant is an alcoholic, although, according to the article written at that time, an applicant can be asked if they drink alcohol.
Job performance standards are key, yet employers should avoid “regarding” an employee as an alcoholic. If the employee denies having a drinking problem, the employer should take the employee’s word or risk a disability lawsuit on the grounds that the employee was terminated because the employee was “regarded” as having the disability of alcoholism.
Social Security Disability Resource Center Facts
Alcoholics may claim SSI benefits, though it may be tough to win. A Social Security fact sheet on alcoholism from the SSI states, “Whether or not you qualify for disability and, as a result, are approved for disability benefits will depend entirely on the information obtained from your medical records.” A physician must state the ways in which a person is impaired.
Must California Companies Accommodate Alcoholics?
“Yes,” says the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). In response to a question written in 2012 titled Under California law, are employers required to provide leave time for employees to attend a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program? companies are required but the absence cannot place undo strain on the employer.
The SHRM response also cites California Labor Code 1025-1028 and that accommodations must be made for treatment. An employee, though, must be able to perform required duties of the job.
In Sarkisian’s lawsuit, the university’s initial response was that he never said he was an alcoholic. The 31-page complaint filed Monday, December 7, 2015 in Los Angeles Superior Court claims 14 points among other items Breach of Written Contract, Breach of Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing, Failure to Accommodate, Discrimination on the Basis of Disability and Retaliation. It was filed by Steve Sarkisian and Sark Enterprises, Inc.
Steve Sarkisian is asking for his day in court and the university will certainly be prepared to answer. Those USC boosters who were originally thrilled to see Sark take over the program certainly didn’t anticipate he’d take over this much attention.