Former top vaccine chief sues state officials to 'clear her name'

Posted at 4:48 PM, Sep 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-02 19:11:25-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee's former vaccine chief is now suing the state in an effort to "clear her name" and resolve the accusation that she sent herself a muzzle.

A new lawsuit filed in federal court by Michelle Fiscus calls out the Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey and its chief medical officer Tim Jones. The news of the lawsuit was first reported by Axios. In it, the suit declares she is bringing forward this matter for injunctive relief and compensatory damages following her termination.

Previously, an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security indicated the package was sent to her from an Amazon account in her name and using her credit card.

"This investigation has similarly been undermined by the Dept. of Safety’s refusal to provide an unredacted copy of Mario Vigil’s report," her attorney Christopher W. Smith said. "Nevertheless, plaintiff’s investigation has yielded information that a well-known Republican political operative previously described how he sent a political opponent a muzzle. Thus, there appears to be a precedent for exactly the sort of political sabotage tactic to which Dr. Fiscus was subjected."

The dozens of pages-long lawsuit indicates Fiscus has suffered emotional strain and stress as a result from the incident. She is wanting compensatory damages as assigned by the court.

“The complaint and declaration speak for themselves. I look forward to my name being cleared despite the Tennessee Department of Health’s denial of my right to do so.” Dr. Michelle D. Fiscus said in a statement to NewsChannel 5.

Additionally, the lawsuit spells out how Fiscus couldn't have sent herself the muzzle from the account asserted in the state investigation.

The Amazon analysis

On July 7, Fiscus reported having a muzzle sent to her office. The muzzle was meant for the size of a beagle. After receiving the package, Fiscus told her colleagues, who reported the muzzle incident to Tennessee’s Deptartment of Homeland Security. Vigil led the investigation.

"The investigation by the state was inadequate," Smith wrote into court documents. "The report generated by Mario Vigil omitted several key facts, most notably that the credit card used to purchase the muzzle had been canceled for over a year because it was lost."

From the beginning, Fiscus asserted she didn't send the muzzle to herself.

"Fiscus has made a sworn statement under penalty of perjury attesting to these facts," Smith wrote in the suit."

In attempt to investigate herself, Fiscus filed an open records for all records regarding the muzzle investigation. The state quoted her $654,241.95 and had to be advance before the records were provided. Fiscus asked Piercey to waive the fee.

She denied to do so, according to the suit.

The termination itself

The swirl of Fiscus' firing lasted through the month of July, with pieces of information continuing to seep out during the course of weeks.

Fiscus said she believed she was fired for political reasons, which the suit affirms. Gov. Bill Lee denied that claim, particularly saying he had no places in the firing and hiring decisions among the department.

The issue stemmed from the mature minor doctrine, which permits healthcare providers to treat certain minors without parental consent. Its been on the legal books since the 1980s.

After this information came before lawmakers in a meeting in June, Republican leaders said they wanted to dissolve the entire health department.

"Piercey faced intense political pressure to terminate Dr. Fiscus’s employment because of the controversy surrounding messaging to parents and children on the issue of COVID-19 vaccinations," Smith wrote in the suit. "But Dr. Fiscus played no role in such messaging. Nor did she play any role in the creation of the mature minor doctrine or the (Tennessee) Department of Health’s historical reliance on that doctrine. In fact, the department of health continues to apply the doctrine as necessary for its activities."

The letter from Jones

Part of the lawsuit also revolves around a letter Jones wrote that spelled out Fiscus' firing in his words. The letter dated July 9 sited her "lack of leadership" as a reason to no longer employ her. Jones states in the memo that he and another doctor met with Fiscus and another physician to discuss complaints against her, alleging “disrespectful treatment and ineffective management” on her part. He said that meeting ended with a “refusal of both parties to communicate constructively.”

The suit disputes that and accuses the Tennessee Department of Health of sending out the letter along with keeping her previous performance reviews out of the personnel file requested by media outlets. Annual reviews from 2016 to 2020 were instead provided by her husband. All performance ratings on those were listed as either outstanding, advanced, or that goals were met.

"The letter contains several false, stigmatizing, and defamatory statements concerning Dr. Fiscus and her character for honesty and morality," Smith wrote. "These false and stigmatizing allegations include accusations of financial impropriety and self-dealing regarding Dr. Fiscus’s role with ImmunizeTN, a nonprofit whose mission is 'to ensure all Tennesseans benefit from the protections provided by immunizations so that together we can achieve a healthy, thriving Tennessee free of vaccine-preventable diseases.' The letter charges Dr. Fiscus with “poor judgement and a substantial conflict of interest” in “providing funds” to ImmunizeTN, in which Dr. Fiscus has no financial interest whatsoever and serves only in an advisory capacity."

Fiscus wasn't fired until July 12, which is an important date to note, according to the suit because of when the letter was sent.

The suit asserted a meeting attended by Piercey, leaders from the legislature’s government operations committee, and a representative from Lee’s office. The next day, Piercey went on a vacation to Greece, which is the same day Jones wrote the letter that allegedly led to her firing.

In order to clear the air, Fiscus attempted to meet with Jones and Piercey after the firing.

Defendants, through their counsel, denied Fiscus request for a name-clearing hearing on Aug. 5.