A whistleblower lawsuit filed against OnTrack describes a verbally abusive work environment, including several instances in which former Executive Director Rita Sullivan allegedly lost her temper and hurled expletives at employees.

The $7.87 million suit, filed on behalf of five former and current workers on Aug. 7, alleges OnTrack, Sullivan and interim Deputy Executive Director Tonia Moro and interim Executive Director Rick Nagel engaged in professional negligence and caused emotional distress. Some other former OnTrack employees defend Sullivan and say the lawsuit is frivolous.

For more than a year, OnTrack has grappled with legal actions as well as investigations by both the Oregon Health Authority and Department of Human Services after "deplorable housing" was found at several facilities.

Nagel said he couldn't discuss the latest lawsuit but said his organization is working through problems raised by OHA and DHS related to substandard housing at some OnTrack facilities.

"Employee morale is up, and things are going well," he said. "Discussions with the state are ongoing."

Those filing the suit and claiming whistleblower status in Jackson County Circuit Court are Amy Jacobs, Chad Cain, Deborah Neville, Cynthia Stevens and Judi Willingham. The legal action follows a tort claim filed by Jacobs, Stevens and Neville on Feb. 23.

The lawsuit claims the Oregon Department of Justice is investigating OnTrack for misappropriation of funds and the creation of fraudulent billing records and grant reports, but does not provide any evidence or examples of fraudulent records.

Jeffery Matthews, attorney for OnTrack, said, "I'm not aware, and OnTrack management is not aware, of any such investigation."

Matthews said he couldn't discuss the other allegations made in the lawsuit.

"OnTrack, as a matter of policy, doesn't comment on pending litigation," he said.

A representative from the Department of Justice, which typically doesn't comment on ongoing investigations, could not be reached Friday.

Sullivan had been executive director of OnTrack for 39 years, building the organization into a two-county addiction recovery services provider with more than 160 employees and $33 million in real property assets, according to the lawsuit.

Much of the suit, filed by lawyers Tracey Naumes of Medford and Clayton Lance of St. Helens, concerns Sullivan's alleged expletive-laden confrontations with employees and others.

The suit alleges that in June 2015, when Sullivan learned a client who had filed a lawsuit against her had a miscarriage, "with a gleeful smile and cheerful chuckle defendant Sullivan exclaimed directly to Plaintiff Jacobs, 'we did it, we killed it.'"

In August 2016, Sullivan and Jacobs were discussing what to do about another employee, Rowna Hunt. When Jacobs responded that she didn't know, Sullivan said, "we should just f---ing kill her, somebody's just got to f---ing kill Rowna," the lawsuit claims.

In July 2016, according to the suit, Sullivan allegedly became irate with Jacobs as arrangements were made for a tour of OnTrack's King Street housing facility.

"What the f--- is wrong with you? There are dead f---ing flowers here," Sullivan said, the lawsuit alleges.

Later in the same month, Sullivan allegedly went into Jacobs' office and slapped some documents in her lap, according to the suit.

"Defendant Sullivan began violently and aggressively kicking a desk, loudly stamping her feet and slapping the walls inches from plaintiff Jacobs' head," the suit alleges.

Former clients and counselors who talked with the Mail Tribune say the behavior alleged in the lawsuit is at odds with the Sullivan they know.

"I've never seen her lash out or threaten anyone," said Charlie McNeal, a former counselor at OnTrack who worked with Sullivan for 26 years.

McNeal said it was sometimes difficult working with clients going through addiction recovery and it sometimes produced tense situations in the office.

"She was no saint," McNeal said of Sullivan. "I'm not perfect, and she's not perfect."

McNeal said Sullivan helped his family and many others to break free from their addictions.

Harrison Lockhart, a former director of various programs at OnTrack for almost 12 years, said he thought the lawsuit was "frivolous."

"It is coming from an employee who was not performing her duties properly," he said.

Lockhart praised the work Sullivan performed, though he said the nature of the work could lead to difficult situations.

"In the time I was there, I did hear her raise her voice and use some colorful metaphors, but nothing that would constitute a threat," he said.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.