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EPLI Issue Highlighted As Former USC Coach Sues for Discrimination, Wrongful Termination


 the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not permit an employer to terminate an employee for extended absencesJust recently the University of Southern California (USC) made headline news when it was announced that former head football coach Steve Sarkisian is suing the school for more than $12 million, putting an important employment practices issue front and center. Sarkisian was fired in October for drinking on the job. He claims USC discriminated against him because he has an alcohol problem, which is considered a disability.

Under the American with Disability Acts (ADA), an alcoholic is a person with a disability and is protected by the ADA if he or she is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job. An employer may be required to provide an accommodation to an alcoholic. However, an employer can discipline, discharge or deny employment to an alcoholic whose use of alcohol adversely affects job performance or conduct. An employer also may prohibit the use of alcohol in the workplace and can require that employees not be under the influence of alcohol.
Moreover, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does not permit an employer to terminate an employee for extended absences taken in order to obtain treatment for alcoholism. Although absence from work due to alcoholism is problematic to the employer, if an employee is attempting to access professional help in combating their disease, an employer cannot hold the absence against them.

According to Sarkisian’s lawsuit, instead of accommodating the coach, the university fired him. However, in a written statement, USC general counsel Carol Mauch Amir assailed the lawsuit and said the school would “vigorously” defend itself. “Much of what is stated in the lawsuit … is patently untrue,” the statement said. “The record will show that Mr. Sarkisian repeatedly denied to university officials that he had a problem with alcohol, never asked for time off to get help and resisted university efforts to provide him with help.”

In an interview in the LA Times in the wake of the lawsuit becoming public, Michael Mann, a sports law professor at the University of New Hampshire, discussed the case: “Disability law is a complicated area … and it often doesn’t have easy, predictable outcomes, especially in the context of drugs and alcohol. A key issue will be whether Sarkisian was actively abusing alcohol while on the job.”

In fact, neither federal nor state law protects employees who abuse alcohol while at work, or whose alcohol abuse prevents them from performing any part of their job. If an employee abuses alcohol while on duty, or has some necessary license or authorization (such as a driver’s license) revoked due to their drinking then an employer may terminate them without the accommodations required by law.

What should employers do if they are faced with an alcoholic employee? It’s recommended that both an employer and an alcoholic employee’s best interests be served by the individual obtaining treatment – however time consuming and potentially costly this may be. By providing alcoholic employees with reasonable accommodation to combat their disease, the law encourages treatment and promotes a better work environment. An employer faced with an alcoholic employee must be sure to provide them with the opportunity to seek the help they need, and only upon their refusal or failure to do so can they take action adverse to the alcoholic’s employment. Either party should consult an experienced employment attorney prior to taking any action.

Axis Insurance Services specializes in providing firms with Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI), which is designed to provide employers with coverage in the event of an employee lawsuit alleging wrongful termination, breach of contract, disciplinary issues, sexual harassment, failure to promote, and much more.  Give us a call at (877) 787-5258 to discuss your EPLI policy and how it can be best designed to meet your company’s specific needs.

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Blogged on: December 18, 2015 by Mike Smith
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