Sep 2, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Ousted Tennessee vaccine chief sues state officials for defamation over firing

Michelle Fiscus. Photo: William DeShazer for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s fired vaccine chief, filed a federal defamation lawsuit on Thursday, alleging state officials skewed facts and misled the public as part of a coordinated campaign to destroy her reputation.

The backdrop: Fiscus was fired in July after facing criticism from Republican lawmakers over messaging to teenagers about the COVID-19 vaccine. A public battle ensued over Fiscus and her job performance.

State of play: Fiscus said someone sent her a dog muzzle shortly before she was fired. She said she viewed the muzzle as a threat to stop talking about vaccines.

  • An investigation by the Tennessee Department of Safety revealed that the dog muzzle was purchased using Fiscus' credit card. The investigation closed after agents said there was "no threat" toward Fiscus.
  • In the lawsuit, Fiscus’ attorneys said "unknown actors mailed the dog muzzle to Dr. Fiscus and did so in a strategic manner to make it seem as though Dr. Fiscus had ordered, paid for, and mailed the muzzle to herself, when she had not."

The latest: Fiscus included with her lawsuit a signed declaration, under penalty of perjury, that she did not send herself the muzzle and does not know who did.

  • The lawsuit revealed the new detail that the credit card used to purchase the muzzle in July had been canceled and reported lost more than a year before the controversy.
  • Fiscus said in the declaration that she was told by her credit card company that online merchants like Amazon are able to charge a canceled card if the card was previously used for recurring charges by the company.
  • Fiscus said the Department of Safety refuses to provide her attorneys with a fully unredacted version of the investigation report, including information like the IP address from which the muzzle was ordered.

The other side: The health department released a memo in July stating Fiscus was fired for poor interpersonal communication skills, ineffective management and attempting to steer state money to a nonprofit she founded.

  • In the suit, Fiscus’ team pushed back against the memo, saying it included "several false, stigmatizing, and defamatory statements" and that it was released "to stigmatize and defame" her.
  • The health department declined to comment on pending litigation, while the attorney general's office did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment.

Of note: The Nashville police department launched an investigation into the muzzle after Fiscus filed a report last month. It was the police investigation that uncovered that Fiscus' credit card had been canceled.

  • The state investigation found that the Amazon account used to purchase the muzzle was created in March, well before Fiscus was at the center of the teenage vaccination controversy.

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