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Lawsuits claim sexual assault and whistle-blower retaliation at OnTrack

A pair of lawsuits by a former client and a former employee of OnTrack Inc. claim one of its counselors sexually assaulted clients and that the addiction treatment provider retaliated against a whistle-blower who reported it.

The civil complaints, filed against OnTrack Aug. 11 and Nov. 17 in Jackson County Circuit Court by Eugene employment lawyer Margaret Wilson, claim the alleged abuser was a mental health therapist and counselor employed by OnTrack. No criminal charges nor civil suit have been filed against him in Jackson County.

The Aug. 11 complaint was filed on behalf of a former client who alleges she was sexually assaulted by the counselor when she came in for a routine urinalysis. The complaint claims OnTrack did not adequately check into the counselor's character and background, that it failed to maintain or enforce procedures to prevent the sexual battery of their clients and that it continued to use the services of the counselor after officials there were informed of the alleged assault.

The Nov. 17 complaint, which names both OnTrack and Director Rita Sullivan, was filed on behalf of Chavala Bates, a former counselor-in-training at OnTrack who says she was retaliated against after she reported the alleged abuse of several women by the counselor. The suit accuses OnTrack of violating Oregon whistle-blower-protection laws and Rita Sullivan of aiding and abetting the retaliation.

According to the suit, between April 21 and April 24, Bates received complaints from three OnTrack clients — all of whom had been referred to OnTrack by the Department of Human Services — alleging they had been sexually abused by the counselor named in the suits. Bates reported that alleged abuse to both the Department of Human Services and to OnTrack, the complaint says.

Wilson said Bates escorted at least one of the women to the Medford Police Department to report an assault. The plaintiff in the Aug. 11 complaint also went to the police. 

"I know there was a detective assigned, and it was forwarded to the District Attorney's Office," Wilson said. "I think that's where it kind of died on the vine."

Bates claims that OnTrack and Sullivan retaliated against her for reporting the alleged assaults, including berating her in private meetings, demoting her and contacting employers to tell them not to hire her. The suit also claims Sullivan told Bates' new employer she was not allowed on OnTrack property, including the day treatment area and the Mom's Program, to perform her duties with her new employer.

According to the complaint, Bates' new employer told her that she would lose her position if Sullivan did not allow Bates onto OnTrack property.

Attempts to reach Rita Sullivan directly through OnTrack were unsuccessful. Kurt Peterson, a Portland-based liability lawyer representing OnTrack in the sexual assault suit filed Aug. 11, deferred to an affirmative defense answer he filed Oct. 13, saying it "would be imprudent to comment on pending litigation."

Peterson's answer acknowledges the plaintiff was a client of OnTrack, and that the accused counselor was employed by the organization during the time of the alleged assault, but that "OnTrack denies the sexual assault and battery." "As to the balance of the allegations," the answer continues, "OnTrack is without sufficient information to either admit or deny and therefore denies."

This isn't the first time OnTrack has been sued over alleged sexual misconduct by one of its counselors. In 1999, the father of a 16-year-old girl molested by then-OnTrack counselor Michael Lee Sanchez filed a $500,000 lawsuit against the drug treatment center. In that case, criminal charges were filed against Sanchez, who pleaded guilty to one count of third-degree sexual abuse and was sentenced to probation. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, according to court records.

OnTrack — which has offices in Medford, Grants Pass, White City and Ashland — currently receives federal funds as a partner with Jackson County Community Justice and Jackson County Mental Health in the Second Chance Reentry Program, a treatment program for adult criminal offenders with substance abuse problems.

Both plaintiffs in the new lawsuits are seeking $300,000 in damages, in addition to attorney fees and lost wages. Bates is also seeking an injunction barring Sullivan from giving her a negative reference to her employer or prospective employers. The assault lawsuit is scheduled for a three-day, 12-person jury trial beginning May 5, 2015. An answer by OnTrack's attorney has yet to be filed in response to the whistle-blower suit.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.