EMTs disciplined for speaking out about COVID-19 response to receive $30K each: courts

EMTs win free speech lawsuit.
During the initial weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, four first responders discussed the chaos of the city’s frontline COVID-19 response but were sanctioned for it.
Photo REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The FDNY and the city of New York agreed to pay four EMTs nearly $30,000 each after a lawsuit alleged the department and the city violated their freedom of speech by imposing disciplinary action against the them for speaking with the media about the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the initial weeks of the pandemic in March 2020, four first responders discussed with various media channels the chaos of the city’s frontline COVID-19 response including backlogged emergency rooms, doubled call volume for EMS and the lack of medicine and equipment in city hospitals.

Three paramedics — Elizabeth Bonilla, Alexander Nunez and Megan Pfeiffer — were restricted from treating any patients at all, while EMT John Rugen was put on restricted status and suspended without pay for 30 days, as the department’s Bureau of Investigations and Trials claimed they violated FDNY social media policy and patient privacy.

Bonilla, Nunez and Pfeiffer in media appearances and interviews with print news outlets, spoke specifically about the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in New York City, the emotional toll of dealing with patients who are dying, and the difficulties of providing emergency response efforts.

Rugen, who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks and therefore immunocompromised, said in a March 31, 2020, ABC News telecast that he had not seen his son in a week due to the response efforts from paramedics. According to the lawsuit, Rugen was not asked any questions by the FDNY about his appearance on the telecast before or after violations were issued and sanctions enforced.

The workers were also not allowed to receive overtime or work for any other emergency medical services in the city’s 911 system, in an act of retaliation according to the EMTs union.

This set the stage for a free speech lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District in June 2020 by the FDNY union Local 2507 against the city and the FDNY, citing a lack of rationale for the disciplinary actions against first responders who were simply sharing their stories. The parties reached a settlement on Feb. 16, 2o23.

“It was clear from the beginning of this case that any implication that our EMTs and paramedics did not respect their patients’ privacy was absolutely manufactured hogwash,” said Oren Barzilay, president of the Local 2507, about the settlement. “The women and men of the FDNY EMS service are today, and during the pandemic, heroes that set aside their own health and welfare to serve their fellow New Yorkers. With this settlement, justice is finally served, albeit a bit cold after nearly three years.”

In an effort to sound the alarm regarding the city’s inefficacy and inability to control the pandemic during the early stages of COVID-19 in March 2020, Local 2507 aimed to detail those concerns regarding the city’s emergency response management through media coverage.

But these concerns had already stemmed prior to the pandemic, beginning in late 2019, when Local 2507 launched a campaign to publicize difficulties faced by the union members in providing emergency medical services in the city.

On March 31, 2020, a New York Post story reported that 282 FDNY members — EMS, firefighters and civilian workers — had tested positive for COVID-19. In that article, Barzilay said, “It’s really heart-wrenching work. It’s going into a house and not knowing what to expect. … We’re taking sick people to the hospitals not knowing if they’re going to come out alive or not.”

The Bronx Times reached out to the FDNY and is awaiting response.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at rsequeira@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.