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Former Ore. DOC assistant director files $1.6M whistleblower lawsuit

The lawsuit is seeking $109,000 in lost wages, an additional $1M for future lost wages/pension benefits and $500,000 for other compensatory damages

Oregon State Penitentiary

The Oregonian

By Sarah Roebuck

SALEM, Ore. — A former Oregon Department of Corrections assistant director has filed a $1.6 million whistleblower lawsuit, the Oregon Captial Chronicle reports.

Nathaline Frener, former assistant director of the agency’s Correctional Services Division, alleges she faced retaliation and, as a result, was fired when she reported concerns about her superiors taking illegal actions in multiple instances.

Frener’s lawsuit describes what she alleges was a “turbulent” and “backstabbing environment” at the agency during her employment from 2019 to 2022. The legal action was taken in Marion County Circuit Court and alleges that on three occasions agency leaders attempted to disregard the law. In each of these instances, the lawsuit implicates Colette Peters, the former agency director who now holds the position of director at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It is worth noting that Peters is not named as a defendant in this particular lawsuit.

According to Frener, in November 2021, Peters directed the agency’s IT department to search employee emails in an attempt to uncover the source of the leaked memo from then-Governor Kate Brown about inmate sentence commutations, which was published by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Frener claims that she informed her superiors that the memo was considered a public record and the Department of Corrections should not be conducting investigations on employees without issuing appropriate notices.

On August 2, 2022, Peters officially assumed her federal position. However, just four days before that, she sent Frener a letter notifying her of termination and expressing her intention to lead the Correctional Services Division in a different direction, as mentioned in the lawsuit.

Frener’s lawsuit includes several allegations against her bosses at the corrections department. The lawsuit claims the superiors allegedly pressured Frener to come up with an illegal plan to retaliate against another employee, Gina Raney-Eatherly, and block her from returning to the agency after a layoff. Despite the pressure, Frener refused and hired Raney-Eatherly as per the state’s laid-off employees’ rules.

In another instance, the top agency managers allegedly found ways to bypass the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees. They instructed workers to claim religious exemptions and a human resources official allegedly suggested prolonging investigations into unvaccinated employees so they could continue working. When Frener questioned this practice, Peters defended the managers encouraging religious exemptions, arguing that the agency couldn’t judge the sincerity of those seeking such exemptions.

In November 2021, Frener was placed on administrative leave based on allegations that staff had lodged complaints against her, as stated in the lawsuit. However, during the investigation, Frener claims that the complaints were actually made by other employees who were dissatisfied with Raney-Eatherly’s return to the agency. The lawsuit contends that the complaints against Frener were unfounded and untrue.

In February 2022, during an investigation, Frener expressed her belief that she was sent home due to her support for Raney-Eatherly, her opposition to the agency’s stance on the vaccine mandate and investigations of employees without appropriate notice.

During April 2022, while on leave, Frener provided testimony in Raney-Eatherly’s lawsuit against the agency. In her testimony, she asserted that she believed she was experiencing retaliation for rehiring Raney-Eatherly at the corrections department.

Frener was fired three months later.

In her lawsuit, she is pursuing $109,000 for lost wages, an additional $1 million for future lost wages and pension benefits, and $500,000 for other compensatory damages related to anxiety and loss of enjoyment of life.