Any college football fan can attest that this has been quite the year for upsets. As interesting as the on-field action has been, we have seen increasing media attention and fan commentary focused on the action off the field—especially on the activities of college football coaches and players.

The University of Southern California (USC)—with the events leading to the dismissal of former head coach Steve Sarkisian—was not immune to the spotlight. There have been numerous reports about his behavior this year, both on and off the field. USC fans and foes alike watched, read, and speculated on the fate of the beleaguered coach. In October, it was reported that USC had fired Sarkisian. 

On Monday, Sarkisian filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court challenging his discharge. Given the publicity surrounding his fall from grace and the amount of money at stake (given college coaches’ salaries) it’s not surprising that he would take such a step.

Among his 14 causes of action, he alleges that USC discriminated against him because of his “disability”—alcoholism—and failed to accommodate him and engage in the interactive process. He claims that the school “kicked him to the curb” by discharging him, ostensibly as he was on his way to enter a rehabilitation program. Although his lawsuit alleges that alcoholism is a disability under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), garnering him protection under that statute, that proposition will no doubt be a hotly contested issue in this case. In a statement issued in response to the complaint, USC’s general counsel said that much of what had been stated in the lawsuit was “patently untrue.”

Almost all employers have grappled with this issue at some point, as they try to strike the balance between regulating workplace conduct, maintaining legal compliance, and establishing a drug and alcohol-free workplace. Oftentimes it can seem like a double-edged sword. 

Alcoholism may be a disability under the FEHA, just as under its federal counterpart, the Americans with Disabilities Act, but as with any medical condition it depends. It depends on whether and how the alcoholism affected the individual’s ability to do his job or otherwise limited a “major life activity.” And, notwithstanding that grey area, employers need not tolerate employees showing up to work drunk or under the influence, or excessive drinking or imbibing while on the job. Employers similarly do not need to turn a blind eye to performance or behavioral problems at work, even if they are allegedly attributable to alcohol use. 

Does it matter if Sarkisian was on his way to an inpatient rehabilitation facility to seek treatment, as he alleges in his complaint? That, too, depends. California law protects employees who are voluntarily enrolled in drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs. Under Labor Code 1025, private employers with more than 25 employees must reasonably accommodate an employee who voluntarily enters and participates in an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program, provided it does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. 

So, where does this leave Sarkisian and his case? It’s clearly too early to tell. It is unfortunate that his personal struggles may have to play out in the public eye—though in our media-crazed society, that seems to be the price of admission to high-profile jobs.

For employers, the lawsuit serves as a potent reminder to review the company “playbook” on this issue: Establish and practice your own workplace accommodation and drug-free workplace policies. Implement a process that enables supervisors and HR to quickly assess and address the unique issues that arise with substance use and abuse at work. Make sure supervisors are trained not only on how to identify the signs that an employee is under the influence, but also on how to escalate concerns so as to mitigate any safety or compliance issues.

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