Fiscus files lawsuit against Health Department officials, denies mailing muzzle

By: - September 4, 2021 12:08 pm
Dr. Michelle Fiscus (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Michelle Fiscus (Photo: John Partipilo)

Fired state immunization director Dr. Michelle Fiscus has filed a federal lawsuit against top Department of Health officials and in her filing claims, under penalty of perjury, she did not send a muzzle to herself.

“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,” Fiscus said in a brief statement.

Fiscus is requesting injunctive relief and compensatory damages in the wake of her termination, saying Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey and Chief Medical Officer Tim Jones made “stigmatizing and defamatory” statements about her that were published by several media outlets. She claims Piercey and Jones also denied her a hearing to clear her name.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, at a Thursday press conference with Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, at a Thursday press conference with Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Health Department does not comment on pending litigation.

The department fired her in early July as a group of conservative legislators pressured health officials about the state’s vaccine messaging toward teens and a memo Fiscus sent to “vaccine partners” explaining the state’s mature minor doctrine spelling out the process for those under 18 to receive medical care without parental permission.

The lawsuit points out Fiscus was fired July 12 as medical director of the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program, followed by publication three days later of a letter from Jones to Piercey critical of her tenure. She claims she was never shown the letter, nor was she given a chance to defend herself against the letter, which she says was an “intentional effort” by Piercey and Jones to “stigmatize and defame” her.

To defend herself, Fiscus sent copies of her job evaluations to the media showing she received strong marks for her work during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In contrast, the letter from Jones, which was written July 9, accuses her of financial impropriety and “self-dealing” in her role with ImmunizeTN, a nonprofit organization designed to increase immunizations. 

Fiscus, however, produced records showing Jones praised her role in starting ImmunizeTN in February 2019. The filing also says she has no financial interest in the organization, receives no pay and serves only in an ex-officio capacity on the board.

Fiscus complaint

Defending herself against allegations she misinterpreted the state’s mature minor doctrine in a memo to “vaccine partners,” Fiscus said in the filing she included language taken verbatim from a memo provided by Grant Mullins, Department of Health attorney.

A 1987 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling and subsequent attorney general opinion on vaccination of minors acknowledged that “minors have the capacity to consent to medical treatment without their parents’ approval if they are able to fully understand and appreciate the risks and probable consequences of their conduct,” according to the filing.

An email from Mullins to Fiscus contained a new summary of the doctrine posted to the state’s website and “blessed by the Governor’s office on the subject. This is forward facing so feel free to distribute to anyone,” according to the filing.

In a May 17 letter to Rep. Robin Smith, Piercey defended Fiscus’ actions and memo. But as political outrage over the mature minor doctrine spread, Piercey had to face a Government Operations Committee that was highly critical of her handling of the state’s message and associated the doctrine with Fiscus, according to the filing.

In the meeting, Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, suggested dissolving the Department of Health and reconstituting it. 

The lawsuit says Piercey faced “intense political pressure” to fire Fiscus because of messaging to parents and children on COVID-19 vaccinations. Yet the filing contends Fiscus “played no role” in the messaging or creation of the mature minor doctrine and the Health Department’s reliance on it.

“The July 9 memo created the false impression that Dr. Fiscus was a rogue employee with her own political agenda – rather than an employee dutifully circulating language from a legal memorandum provided by a Department of Health lawyer, who had specifically advised her the memo was ‘blessed by the Governor’s office,’” the filing states.

An email from Department of Health lawyer Grant Mullins to Fiscus contained a new summary of the state’s mature minor doctrine posted to the state’s website and  said the summary was “blessed by the Governor’s office on the subject. This is forward facing so feel free to distribute to anyone,” according to the filing.

Fiscus claims Piercey and Jones refused to allow a name-clearing hearing and that their statements about her “adversely” affected her ability to find a job in the state. She and her husband put their home on the market and plan to move out of state, a relocation necessitated by “damage to her reputation in Tennessee.”

Though Fiscus was fired on July 12, she contends the decision to terminate her was made in a July 8 meeting Piercey had with members of the Government Operations Committee and a representative of Gov. Bill Lee’s Office.

Piercey then went on vacation out of the country the next day, according to the filing, the same day Jones wrote the “defamatory” letter about Fiscus, according to the filing. 

Just a day before Piercey’s meeting with lawmakers, Fiscus received a package containing a muzzle and asked co-workers about it. Dr. Paul Peterson, a colleague in the Department of Health contacted the Department of Homeland Security out of concern it could be a threat to a state employee.

Fiscus met with Homeland Security agents three times on July 8. After taking the muzzle and Amazon packaging, later that same day, agents told Fiscus, “Amazon says you bought the muzzle,” according to the lawsuit. 

A state report filed later determined that Fiscus’ American Express card was used to buy the muzzle.

In the lawsuit, though, she says she did not buy the muzzle, send it to herself or have any knowledge of an Amazon account or order related to the muzzle. In addition, Fiscus has made a sworn statement under penalty of perjury backing up her position.

In her lawsuit, Fiscus contends the muzzle drama was made up to make her look bad.

The day of her firing, July 12, Fiscus sent out a 1,200-word statement claiming she was made a scapegoat for the state’s failing vaccination program. She also appeared on national TV news shows.

Republican House Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Republican House Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The lawsuit points out House Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison on July 13 retweeted a link to The View in which the Fiscus firing was discussed, saying, “Sad how the left jumps to conclusions when it supports their narrative without knowing the facts. Just wait.”

When asked about Fiscus’ firing on July 14, Faison said he had little knowledge about the matter. But in a text he said he would wait until the “entire story” came out and encouraged a reporter to request her personnel file from the state.

The lawsuit contends Mario Vigil with the Department of Homeland Security stopped the investigation on July 12 and went to Fiscus’ home July 14 to give her the muzzle, indicating his investigation was done. Yet the same day Piercey and Jones “leaked” their letter about Fiscus’ job performance, Vigil obtained a subpoena from Amazon and ultimately filed a report showing the muzzle was sent to Fiscus through an account opened in her name.

The lawsuit raises several questions about the investigation, claiming Vigil sent a subpoena only to Intelligent, a telecommunications services provider believed to be associated with the phone number on the Amazon account that bought the muzzle. Vigil didn’t subpoena TextNow, a different company that was, in fact, associated with the phone number, according to the filing.

Vigil concluded the dog muzzle wasn’t intended to threaten Fiscus, even though he did not obtain any information from the cell phone provider of the phone number used on the Amazon account, nor mention that the credit card used to buy the muzzle had been lost and canceled more than a year before it was purchased, according to the filing.

Fiscus then requested Metro Nashville Police open a criminal investigation into the origins of the muzzle.

The lawsuit additionally contends the Department of Safety and Homeland Security refused to provide an un-redacted report containing information about the investigation. It also claims the Department of Health informed Fiscus it would cost $654,241 to provide emails and texts about the matter under the Tennessee Open Records Act.

According to the lawsuit, Fiscus found a “well-known” Republican political operative previously described sending a muzzle to a political opponent.

“Thus, there appears to be a precedent for exactly the sort of political sabotage to which Dr. Fiscus was subjected,” the lawsuit states.

Fiscus claims the muzzle investigation is “relevant” to the harm she suffered, saying it was part of a “political sabotage tactic” against her.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.