A Reminder About the Protected Nature of Alcoholism

You may or may not have seen the sports news in the last few days and weeks but ESPN and other outlets reported that former University of Southern California head football coach, Steve Sarkisian, filed a lawsuit against the school alleging disability discrimination and failure to provide a reasonable accommodation based on the fact the school terminated him near the middle of the 2015 football season.

In December 2013, USC hired Sarkisian as the head football coach and entered into a five-year contract with Sarkisian. In October 2015, USC terminated Sarkisian only 24 hours after it asked him to take an indefinite leave of absence related to his drinking problem and other issues. Sarkisian alleges he was on his way to a rehab facility. Sarkisian sued USC alleging that it failed to provide a reasonable accommodation to him and in fact, failed to engage in the good-faith interactive reasonable accommodation process.

We do not know yet how this lawsuit will turn out but this is a good opportunity to quickly review the law regarding alcoholism and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

First and foremost, alcoholism is a covered disability under the ADA. That means that certain protections exist. Namely, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee’s efforts to seek and obtain treatment. Although the employer may or may not be able to accommodate such efforts, the employer MUST engage in the good faith interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation exists.

It is important to remember, though, that employers still may discipline, discharge or deny employment to alcoholics whose use of alcohol impairs job performance or conduct to the same extent that such conduct would result in disciplinary action for other employees. Furthermore, employees who use alcohol may be required to meet the same standards of performance and conduct set for other employees.

Alcoholism is a sensitive issue in many respects and it can be a minefield for employers. It is important to slow down, examine the situation and determine your responsibilities as an employer in this all-important area.

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