Does Firing an Alcoholic Employee Violate the Law?

By Eric B. Meyer

Back in October, the University of Southern California fired Steve Sarkisian, its head football coach.

USC fired Sarkisian after various incidents where he appeared drunk, including during a speech at a pre-season USC football event.

Yesterday, Sarkisian fired back with a 14-count lawsuit in California Superior Court. The lawsuit includes claims for disability (alcoholism) discrimination and failure to accommodate his disability.

Nathan Fenno at the Los Angeles Times recaps Sarkisian’s claims here. Here is a statement from USC’s General Counsel, in which the school denies Sarkisian’s claims:

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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.”

What should employers know alcoholism and the ADA?

All of Sarkisian’s claims are based on violations of California state law. But, the Americans with Disabilities Act covers alcoholism as well. Here are a few basics for employers:

  1. Alcoholism is an ADA disability.
  2. Much like it would do for any other qualified individual with a disability (i.e., someone who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation), an employer must accommodate an alcoholic, unless doing so would create undue hardship for the employer. An example of a reasonable accommodation would be a flexible work schedule to allow a recovering alcoholic to attend AA meetings.
  3. An alcoholic employee must meet all performance and behavior criteria against which all other employees are measured. According to this EEOC fact sheet, this means that “poor job performance or unsatisfactory behavior – such as absenteeism, tardiness, insubordination, or on-the-job accidents – related to an employee’s alcoholism or illegal use of drugs need not be tolerated if similar performance or conduct would not be acceptable for other employees.”
  4. Employers can prohibit the use of alcohol at work. However, if that rule is applied unfairly; e.g., only against known alcoholics, then that would be discriminatory.

For more on alcoholism in the workplace, check out the rest of the EEOC’s fact sheet, as well as a number of my prior posts on the subject.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (, which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.


1 Comment on “Does Firing an Alcoholic Employee Violate the Law?

  1. f you would imagine you have actually an addiction to liquor, talk to your doctor about whether you’ll want to withdraw from alcohol under medical supervision. Your doctor can give you medicine that can help you safely withdraw from liquor. Other medicines might be prescribed later to help you stay sober. With a doctor’s assistance, withdrawal from alcohol is safer.

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    An excellent read. I’ll certainly be back.

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