“Instead of accommodating Steve Sarkisian’s disability, USC kicked him to the curb,” the lawsuit said.
The 31-page complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleges breach of contract, discrimination on the basis of disability and invasion of privacy. It also provides Sarkisian's first public account of the events that led to his ouster after less than two years as USC’s head coach.
In the suit, Sarkisian says the stress of his job coupled with his wife filing for divorce earlier this year furthered his alcohol dependency.
The issue came into public view during USC’s Salute to Troy booster event in August. Sarkisian said in the lawsuit that hours before the event, he consumed two light beers along with prescription medication for anxiety. When Sarkisian spoke at the event, he slurred his words and uttered a profanity.
“Haden then met privately with Mr. Sarkisian and threatened that he could fire him on the spot,” the lawsuit said.
In the aftermath, the lawsuit said, Haden required Sarkisian to sign a letter agreeing to apologize for his behavior and to meet weekly with a therapist at USC.
In a written statement, USC general counsel Carol Mauch Amir assailed the lawsuit and said the school will "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."
The lawsuit said Sarkisian had no alcohol-related issues following Salute to Troy, and pointedly denied that the coach was intoxicated during a Sept. 26 game against Arizona State.
However, the lawsuit said, after Washington, where Sarkisian coached for five seasons prior to coming to USC, upset the Trojans, 17-12, on Oct. 8, the coach’s “depression and anxiety worsened” and his alcohol consumption outside of work increased.
On Oct. 11, the lawsuit said, Sarkisian arrived at USC for a team meeting but did not feel right after drinking the previous night. The lawsuit said Sarkisian wasn’t intoxicated at the meeting, but had taken prescription medication before the gathering and that his anxiety and depression were “spiraling out of control in his mind.”
“The combination of those events led Mr. Sarkisian to not appear to be normal,” the lawsuit said.
Sarkisian realized he needed help and left USC of his own volition before that afternoon’s practice, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said Sarkisan was “upset, teary and nearly hyperventilating” before finally calling Haden on a speaker phone and asking for time off.
According to the lawsuit, Haden said: “Unbelievable! Can’t you even go back to the office to finish the day?”
Sarkisian responded: “No, I need to get help. I’m not right.”
Haden directed Sarkisian to speak to a USC sports psychologist who previously counseled the coach and placed him on leave.
The next day, Sarkisian took a noon flight to an in-patient treatment facility. When he landed, the lawsuit said, he learned Haden had fired him when the coach saw a letter of termination attached to an email.
“Not once did Haden ask Steve Sarkisian what happened at the team meeting nor even whether he had been drinking shortly before the meeting,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit said Sarkisian is owed at least $12.6 million under his contract with USC, in addition to other damages.
"Disability law is a complicated area ... and it often doesn't have easy, predictable outcomes, especially in the context of drugs and alcohol," said Michael McCann, a sports law professor at the University of New Hampshire. "A key issue will be whether Sarkisian was actively abusing alcohol while on the job."
Sarkisian has completed “intensive” treatment, the complaint said, is sober and ready to return to coaching.
"Steve at this point lost his team, lost his income, lost the job that he loved," said Alan Loewinsohn, Sarkisian's Dallas-based attorney. "USC left him no choice but to bring that to light and seek the justice the law affords."
Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report