Former Tennessee vaccine chief Fiscus seeks to have name cleared in court

By: - December 5, 2022 6:02 am
Dr. Michelle Fiscus (Photo: John Partipilo)

Dr. Michelle Fiscus (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee’s former vaccination chief is asking a federal judge to order a public “name clearing” hearing — open to members of the media and with her former bosses at the Department of Health required to attend, newly filed federal court records in an ongoing lawsuit show. 

Dr. Michelle Fiscus was fired from her job as medical director of the state’s Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program on July 12, 2021, amid political backlash during the COVID-19 pandemic and over a longstanding policy allowing some children to get vaccinated without parental consent. 

Fiscus had circulated a memo to the state’s healthcare providers in the weeks before she was fired about the state’s so-called “Mature Minor Doctrine,” outlining when healthcare providers are allowed to give vaccines to adolescents without their parent’s permission. Soon afterwards, Republican leaders contacted the department to complain.

Within days of her firing, health department officials made a memo available to news outlets that pointedly criticized Fiscus’ performance with allegations that Fiscus and her attorneys say are patently false.

The purpose of a name-clearing hearing is to “publicly contest these false charges,” according to a legal motion filed Friday in case, which has been ongoing in federal court since Fiscus first filed suit in September 2021.

Attorneys representing Dr. Fiscus’ two former bosses — the state’s Chief Medical Officer Tim Jones and Department of Health chief Dr. Lisa Piercey, who has since left state government — argued that Fiscus has failed to meet the legal elements required for the judge to order the name-clearing hearing. 

Fiscus in legal filings noted that after her termination she had applied for more than 40 jobs without success and that she and her husband were also the recipients of “hostile and threatening voicemails, emails, text messages, and online posts.”

Dr. Fiscus reputation suffered no harm, they argued —citing her continued ability to retain prestigious employment. 

They also argued that the memo criticizing her conduct was not voluntarily distributed. The memo was placed in Dr. Fiscus’ personnel file and “only provided to media in response to public record requests,” the filing said. 

And they argued that memo did not contain “stigmatizing” statements. “Each allegation (in the memo) relates solely to conduct within the scope of her employment, and none carry a badge of shame,” court filings said. The allegations do “not rise to the same level of stigma as allegations of criminality or dishonesty.”

The memo in Fiscus’ personnel file, which was widely reported on by Tennessee and national media, criticized Fiscus for sharing “her own interpretation of state and federal law with external partners with respect to vaccinations and other medical treatment of minors.”

“The letter should have been reviewed by both leadership and department legal counsel,” the memo said. 

But court filings over the course of lawsuit showed that Fiscus had sought advice from Grant Mullins, the department’s legal counsel, in the drafting process and, in some instances, used the exact language she was provided about the mature minor doctrine. Her direct supervisor, Dr. John Dunn, said he had no criticisms of the memo Dr. Fiscus distributed and noted that the “majority of that memo is the case law verbatim.”

The memo also said Fiscus tried to steer state funding to a nonprofit organization that she founded. Fiscus did not financially benefit from the nonprofit, ImmunizeTN, whose mission is to ensure all Tennessee residents benefit from vaccines and whose creation had previously drawn praise from Jones, the lawsuit said.

The memo “creates the ‘defamatory impression’ that Dr. Fiscus attempted to route state funds to a non-profit that was essentially nothing more than a legal fiction from which Dr. Fiscus personally profited,” the filing said.

Fiscus in legal filings noted that after her termination she had applied for more than 40 jobs without success. She and her husband were also the recipients of “hostile and threatening voicemails, emails, text messages, and online posts following her termination,” court filings said.

“The subject of these hostile messages was the memo Dr. Fiscus sent to medical providers that communicated Tennessee’s 34-year-old Mature Minor Doctrine and the impression that communication of that information was inappropriate.

She was forced to move her family out of Tennessee as a result. Fiscus is currently the chief medical officer for the Rockville, Maryland-based Association of Immunization Managers.

No court date to consider the name-clearing hearing has yet been set.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.