USC

Steve Sarkisian's lawsuit against USC is headed for arbitration

The messy dispute between Steve Sarkisian and USC dropped out of public view with a few lines on a Los Angeles Superior Court docket.

For almost three months, filings in the former football coach's lawsuit against the school over his firing hinted at the legal brawl to come. Sarkisian claimed USC Athletic Director Pat Haden dismissed him last October rather than allow the coach to seek treatment for alcoholism. USC assailed the lawsuit as "full of half truths" and "outright falsehoods."

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The truth will be sorted out in private after Sarkisian abruptly submitted to binding arbitration earlier this week. The lawsuit alleged discrimination on the basis of disability and breach of contract.

"Mr. Sarkisian has always been and remains confident that he will prevail regardless of who the decision maker is," Alan Loewinsohn, the former coach's Dallas-based attorney, wrote in an email to The Times on Wednesday.

Loewinsohn said Sarkisian, seeking the $12.6 million remaining on his contract plus unspecified damages, sued, in part, because of a belief in transparency. Unlike a case winding through the judicial system, none of the proceedings in the arbitration are a matter of public record. The testimony, depositions and other documents remain between the parties and the arbitrator.

That means the window the lawsuit opened for the public into the unraveling of the relationship between Sarkisian and USC is essentially shut.

"The public aspect of this controversy should be over, which may be good for all involved," said Michael McCann, a sports law professor at the University of New Hampshire.

USC had no comment other than to confirm Sarkisian had agreed to withdraw his opposition to arbitration.

Legal experts said Sarkisian's lawsuit may have been in jeopardy from the start. When USC hired the coach in December 2013, he signed a two-page agreement to arbitrate virtually all claims against the school.

"He'd have an almost impossible time getting out of that," said Scott Andresen, a sports and entertainment lawyer in Chicago who teaches at Northwestern University.

Still, Sarkisian's attorneys pushed back against the clause. USC responded in kind. In the process, both sides provided a glimpse of the wrangling that would likely have intensified had the lawsuit continued.

In court documents filed last month, Sarkisian said in a sworn declaration that he didn't recall signing the arbitration agreement. His attorneys described the agreement as "unconscionable" and "unenforceable" in the filing.

The 161 pages of documents included lengthy email exchanges between Sarkisian's agents and USC officials as they negotiated his contract in December 2013. Several drafts of the contract, which hadn't been publicly released, were also among the documents. As a private school, USC isn't subject to the state's Public Records Act and such materials usually remain private.

Sarkisian's declaration jabbed Haden's urgency to complete the deal.

"Based on his demeanor and words, Haden acted antsy and upset," Sarkisian's declaration said.

Less than a week later, USC's attorneys pushed back in a court filing that said Sarkisian's arguments against arbitration relied on "factual and legal mischaracterizations." And in a not-so-subtle footnote, the filing said the private nature of arbitration would benefit the coach.

"Presumably, Mr. Sarkisian, who is currently looking for new coaching opportunities, would have an interest in preserving the confidentiality of his alleged substance abuse and treatment," the filing said.

Sarkisian's lawsuit said the coach had completed treatment, is healthy and ready to resume coaching.

If the case had proceeded in L.A. Superior Court, the extensive paper trail that would have emerged during discovery could have been used by a potential employer to vet the former coach. The trip to arbitration means that won't exist, at least in the public domain. The few public details about Sarkisian's downfall — slurring words and uttering a profanity at the Salute to Troy booster event last August — and conflicting accounts in court documents about the coach's final days at USC will have to suffice.

"It could potentially serve to keep dirty laundry from both sides from getting aired," Andresen said.

Loewinsohn said that even if they prevailed on the arbitration issue, USC had pledged to appeal. That could have delayed the case for a year or more.

"Mr. Sarkisian made the decision not to wait for a resolution," said Loewinsohn, who added that there isn't a timetable to commence arbitration proceedings.

Whenever the process starts, it'll be behind closed doors.

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

Follow Nathan Fenno on Twitter: @nathanfenno

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UPDATE

11:56 a.m.: Adds written statement from attorney representing USC.

This post was originally published at 10:34 a.m.

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