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August 2018: Complete Victory for USC in Arbitration Against Former Head Football Coach Steve Sarkisian

August 2018

On June 21, 2018, the firm won a complete victory for the University of Southern California (“USC”) after a seven-day arbitration against its former head football coach, Steve Sarkisian. USC terminated Sarkisian for cause in October 2015 after several public incidents involving Sarkisian’s use of alcohol. Sarkisian—upon completing an inpatient rehabilitation program for alcoholism—sued USC on a variety of claims including breach of contract, disability discrimination, failure to engage in the interactive process under California’s disability discrimination laws, failure to provide reasonable accommodations for his disabilities, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, retaliation, and violation of the Family Medical Leave Act.

Sarkisian contended that he suffered from alcoholism while the head coach for USC (as well as depression and anxiety). Alcoholism is a protected disability under both federal and state laws, which require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for their employees’ disabilities. Sarkisian claimed in the arbitration that, despite his alcoholism, he was fully capable of performing the essential functions of his head coaching job and merely required a 30-day leave to seek inpatient treatment. Sarkisian additionally claimed that he in fact asked USC for time off to seek treatment, only to be fired the next day while on his way to rehab. In the words of his complaint, Sarkisian “pleaded with his boss . . . to give him time off to get the help he needed. Rather than express any concern or willingness to accommodate this request from a man whose history with USC goes back 23 years . . . [and] while Mr. Sarkisian was on a plane travelling to get the help he needed, [USC] notified Mr. Sarkisian by email that he had been fired.” Sarkisian also alleged that his “for cause” termination violated the terms of his multi-year coaching contract. Sarkisian sought tens of millions of dollars from USC in this high-profile dispute, which garnered significant media attention.

At the outset, the firm successfully moved to compel arbitration of Sarkisian’s claims (originally filed in Los Angeles Superior Court). In arbitration, after extensive discovery and a seven-day hearing, the Arbitrator ultimately ruled in favor of USC on each of Sarkisian’s claims, determining that USC’s termination of Sarkisian was both supported by the language of Sarkisian’s contract and not in violation of any disability discrimination laws. Accordingly, Sarkisian is not entitled to any payment from USC. Following the arbitration award, the Superior Court confirmed it and entered judgment in USC’s favor.