Tennessee’s former top vaccine official suing state health officials for defamation

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee’s former top vaccine official Dr. Michelle Fiscus is suing Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey and Chief Medical Officer Tim Jones after “stigmatizing and defamatory statements” about her were published to local news media after she was fired.

Dr. Fiscus alleges in the lawsuit that both Jones and Piercey denied her request for a name-clearing hearing and that she “has been unable to find comparable employment in the State of Tennessee and intends to relocate” to Virginia “to pursue employment opportunities there.”

The lawsuit alleges that three days after Dr. Fiscus was terminated on July 12, a letter dated July 9 from Tim Jones to Commissioner Lisa Piercey was published to local news media. The letter reportedly outlined reasons for firing Dr. Fiscus, was defamatory, and was not given to Fiscus at her departure nor was she able to defend herself from the allegations or “made aware of [the letter’s] contents.”

“The decision to send the July 9 letter, unsolicited, to members of the news media was, upon information and belief, part of an intentional effort by Defendants to stigmatize and defame Dr. Fiscus,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit also alleges that “Dr. Fiscus’s full personnel file, which included glowing performance reviews contradicting the memo’s allegations, was not sent to the media.”

The lawsuit further claims that the letter “contains several false, stigmatizing, and defamatory statements concerning Dr. Fiscus and her character for honesty and morality” including but not limited to “accusations of financial impropriety and self-dealing regarding Dr. Fiscus’s role with non-profit ImmunizeTN.

“Here, the letter charges Dr. Fiscus with ‘poor judgment 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,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit claims that both Jones and Piercey previously praised and defended Fiscus, but when several Republican lawmakers were politically outraged by the Mature Minor Doctrine in relation to COVID-19 vaccines, that 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.”

The mature minor doctrine has been in Tennessee since the 1980s and permits healthcare providers to treat certain minors without parental consent. The lawsuit says Piercey appeared before lawmakers on June 16, where Republican lawmakers “specifically associated that doctrine with Dr. Fiscus.”

“Dr. Fiscus played no role in such messaging. Nor did she play any role in the creation of the mature minor doctrine or the Dept. of Health’s historical reliance on that doctrine. In fact, the Dept. of Health continues to apply the doctrine as necessary for its activities,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit claims that the letter painted Dr. Fiscus as “a rogue employee with her own political agenda” and that a Dept. of Health lawyer told her that the letter was “blessed by the Governor’s Office.”

After legal counsel for Dr. Fiscus sent a letter to Piercey, Jones, and Grant Mullins with the Board of Professional Responsibility formally requesting a “post-termination name-clearing hearing,” the request was reportedly denied with a single sentence, saying “she has not established the elements necessary to show entitlement to a name-clearing hearing.”

The lawsuit claims that the “false, stigmatizing, and defamatory statements made by Defendant Jones” hurt her reputation and “adversely impacted her ability to find subsequent employment in the State of Tennessee.” The Fiscus’s are in the process of selling their home and moving to Virginia “so that Dr. Fiscus will be able to pursue future employment opportunities.”

“Defendants Piercey and Jones, in their official capacities, possess the authority to provide Dr. Fiscus with a name-clearing hearing. Each Defendant refused to do so and may be held liable for all damages suffered by Dr. Fiscus,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit claims the controversy surrounding a muzzle sent to her was used to discredit her.

“Dr. Fiscus did not send herself the muzzle. Dr. Fiscus did not purchase or order the muzzle. Dr. Fiscus did not have any knowledge of any Amazon account or order relating to the muzzle,” the lawsuit alleges.

Further, the lawsuit said that the state’s investigation was “inadequate” and that the report “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.” The Department of Safety reportedly refused “to provide an unredacted copy” of the report.

“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 lawsuit claims.

Damages listed in the lawsuit include serious mental and emotional stress, loss of employment, loss of retirement benefits, loss of enjoyment of life, and diminished reputation and standing in the community. Dr. Fiscus is seeking a jury trial, a declaratory judgment that her constitutional rights were violated, punitive damages, compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and litigation expenses, an injunction ordering a name-clearing hearing, and other relief.

Dr. Fiscus was terminated from the Tennessee Department of Health on July 12. In a previous interview with News 2, Dr. Fiscus said she is afraid for the state.

“People are going to die of a vaccine-preventable disease. There is no reason anyone in this state should die from COVID-19,” she explained.

Dr. Fiscus said that all messaging regarding any kind of vaccine has ended in response to blowback from the General Assembly.

“My biggest concern is that Tennessee Department of Health leadership, in response to the blowback from the legislature, has now been to cancel any kind of vaccination outreach for childhood vaccines, infant vaccines, flu vaccines in the fall that were scheduled to be given in schools, HPV vaccine messaging so that we can prevent cancer in young adults. All of this messaging has now been put on hold and the department is not permitted to message any of that proactive messaging that saves lives and prevents disease.”

The Tennessee Department of Health said it has “in no way shuttered the immunizations for children program” and remains a “trustworthy source of information” regarding COVID-19.

Read the full lawsuit below or click here:

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