LOS ANGELES (CN) – Former head football coach Steven Sarkisian sued USC on Monday, claiming it “kicked him to the curb” when it fired him in October after he sought help for alcoholism.
In his Superior Court complaint, Sarkisian says he completed an “intensive rehabilitation program, is sober and ready to return to coaching,” but “USC has taken away his team, his income, and a job that he loved.”
Sarkisian’s drinking problem became public when he appeared drunk and slurred his speech while addressing an Aug. 22 “Salute to Troy” football team rally attended by coaches, team members and their families, university administrators, fans and donors.
Sarkisian’s appearance caused Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Plaschke to wonder publicly if Sarkisian might have more serious issues that could lead to problems for the university.
Sarkisian said he’d had just two beers, but their effect was intensified by anxiety medication he took that afternoon. “Within days of the event,” he says, USC athletic director Pat Haden made him sign an agreement requiring him to get counseling. Sarkisian claims that proves the university was aware of his alcohol-related disability.
An Oct. 8 loss to the University of Washington in a nationally televised game in which USC was favored to win by 17 points increased pressure from media and alumni to fire him, Sarkisian says, though the team had a winning 3-2 record.
While addressing the team on the morning of Oct. 11, Sarkisian says, he had been drinking the night before, didn’t get any sleep and took more medication before the team meeting, which caused him to “not appear to be normal.” He asked an assistant coach to conduct practice that afternoon.
He claims that media reports indicated, falsely, that USC officials had asked him to leave the team meeting and practice and escorted him off campus; he says he chose to leave and had his assistant drive him home.
When Haden spoke to him on the phone that afternoon, Sarkisian says, he told him, “I’m not right. I need time off to get well.” Haden then “derisively yelled, ‘Unbelievable! Can’t you even go back to the office to finish the day?'”
Sarkisian says alcoholism is a disability recognized by medical experts and California law, and that on Oct. 11 he “pleaded with his boss Pat Haden, the athletic director, to give him time off to get the help he needed,” but Haden placed him on indefinite leave and fired him the next day via email as he was traveling on a plane “to get the help he needed.”
Sarkisian claims state law “required USC to make the reasonable accommodation of giving [him] time off to get help for his disability and then return to his job.”
“Instead, USC ignored both its obligations under California law and the commitments it made” to him, he says.
USC General Counsel Carol Mauch Amir told Courthouse News in an email that the university did not shirk its obligations, because Sarkisian never sought help.
“Much of what is stated in the lawsuit filed today by Steve Sarkisian is patently untrue,” Mauch wrote late Monday night. “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.
“The university made clear in writing that further incidents would result in termination, as it did. We are profoundly disappointed in how Mr. Sarkisian has mischaracterized the facts and we intend to defend these claims vigorously.”
Coaching NCAA Division1 football is highly stressful and requires long hours of work, and a combination of work-related stress and his wife of 17 years seeking a divorce this year aggravated his anxiety, made him depressed and increased his alcohol dependency, Sarkisian says in the complaint.
He claims USC refused to pay him for the remainder of his coaching contract, ended a $1 million annual marketing agreement, and says university medical personnel disclosed his confidential medical information to third parties in violation of law.
Sarkisian and his marketing company, Sark Enterprises, seek punitive damages for disability discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination, disclosing private information – including medical information, bad faith, breach of marketing contract, and negligence.
His attorney Dan Stormer, with Hadsell Stormer & Renick, could not be reached by telephone Monday evening.
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