State is paying fired Tennessee vaccine chief $150K in lawsuit settlement

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The state of Tennessee has agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a federal lawsuit by its former vaccine leader over her firing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agreement in the case brought by Michelle Fiscus includes provisions that limit what each of the parties can say about each other, according to a copy provided by the Tennessee Department of Health in response to a public records request.

The current and former health commissioners, and the state’s chief medical officer agreed that they will not “disparage” Fiscus.

Fiscus, meanwhile, must reply “no comment” if she is asked about the lawsuit, negotiations and the settlement. Additionally, Fiscus or anyone on her behalf can’t “disparage” the defendants, the Tennessee Department of Health, the governor or his administration, or other former or current state officials and workers about her firing.

Both the Department of Health and Fiscus declined to comment on the settlement.

Fiscus was fired in the summer of 2021 amid outrage among some GOP lawmakers over state outreach for COVID-19 vaccinations to minors. Some lawmakers even threatened to dissolve the Health Department because of such marketing.

In the days after Fiscus was fired, the health department released a firing recommendation letter that claimed she should be removed because of complaints about her leadership approach and her handling of a letter explaining vaccination rights of minors for COVID-19 shots, another source of backlash from GOP lawmakers. The Department of Health released her personnel file, including the firing recommendation letter, in response to public records requests from news outlets.

Fiscus countered with a point-by-point rebuttal to the letter, and released years of performance reviews deeming her work “outstanding.” She spent time speaking in national media outlets in rebuttal to a firing she argues was political appeasement for Republican lawmakers.

She sued in September 2021, saying the firing recommendation letter attacked her character for honesty and morality, falsely casting her as “a rogue political operative pursuing her own agenda and as a self-dealing grifter of the public purse.”

Her lawsuit also delved into claims about a muzzle that was mailed to her. A publicized Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security investigation indicated the package was sent from an Amazon account using a credit card, both in her name. But the lawsuit said facts were omitted from the state’s report on the investigation, including that the credit card used to buy the muzzle had been lost and canceled for over a year.

Fiscus has since moved out of Tennessee.

In response to the backlash about the state’s policy on the vaccination rights of minors, a law passed in 2021 began largely requiring written consent from a parent or legal guardian to a minor who wants the COVID-19 vaccine. Lawmakers this year broadened the law to apply to any vaccine for minors, requiring “informed consent” of a parent or legal guardian beforehand.

Those are among several laws passed by Tennessee Republican lawmakers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that restrict vaccination or masking rules.

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