Former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, who was fired by USC after his continued struggles with alcoholism led him to be placed on leave, is now suing the university for at least $12.6 million in damages.
According to Sarkisian’s complaint, he is entitled to receive the $12.6 million that he had left on his contract with USC because athletics director Pat Haden violated California law by firing Sarkisian “with cause.” Sarkisian’s suit claims that Haden was well aware of his problems with alcohol, and ignored pleas to help with his rehabilitation.
Sarkisian’s alcoholism first became a public problem for USC when he appeared drunk at a team banquet, and again after he was unable to conduct a team practice because he had been drinking the night before. It was after that second incident that Sarkisian was placed on leave by the school, only to be fired one day later as he was flying to a rehab facility. The suit lays out Sarkisian’s version of a phone conversation he had with Haden the day of the second incident:
Steve Sarkisian’s brother Andrew and his sister Eileen met Mr. Sarkisian and theirfather at Mr. Sarkisian’s home following the team meeting. Other family members were also present. Steve Sarkisian was upset, teary, and nearly hyperventilating. Haden called Mr.Sarkisian’s assistant, Jared Blank, on the telephone and demanded to speak to Mr. Sarkisian, threatening to fire them both if Mr. Sarkisian did not get on the telephone right away. Steve Sarkisian, surrounded by his family, called Haden back and told him on a speaker phone, “I’m not right, I need time off to get well.”
Rather than engage Mr. Sarkisian in an interactive process to determine how much time off he required and whether such leave could reasonably be accommodated, or even express any concern about his ailing employee, Haden derisively yelled, “Unbelievable! Can’t you even go back to the office to finish the day?” Steve Sarkisian replied, “No, I need to get help. I’m not right.”
Haden then asked to speak with Mr. Sarkisian’s sister, who told Haden that Mr. Sarkisian was not at all well and that the family was very concerned for him. Even Haden later acknowledged at the press conference he called to publicly announce Mr. Sarkisian’s firing that he had talked with Steve Sarkisian that Sunday and determined “he was not healthy.” Haden’s only response at the time was to say that a sports psychologist named Robin Scholefield (“Scholefield”), who works at USC and had previously provided counseling to Sarkisian at Haden’s direction, would contact Mr. Sarkisian shortly and that he must take her call. Scholefield is not a medical doctor, nor is she an expert in addiction.
In this version of events, Haden sure comes off looking like a guy who is at least morally, if not legally, in the wrong. When an employee admits that he’s an alcoholic and needs to go to rehab, yelling at him to get back to work is not really a good look.
As for how legally strong Sarkisian’s case is, it will probably depend on the exact language of a an agreement he signed after the banquet incident. The suit describes Haden having Sarkisian sign a letter stating that he would attend weekly counseling sessions with a USC therapist and avoid any “future incidents that embarrassed USC, specifically including ones caused by alcohol.” If there was some language in there about USC having the right to fire Sarkisian with cause if he had another alcohol-related incident, then there probably isn’t much he can do, despite what California law says about treating employees with alcoholism.
Read the whole suit below: