New York City First Responders Win Significant Covid-Linked Free Speech Lawsuit

New York City Fire Department (FDNY) first responders won a massive legal victory this week in a settlement with the city. The lawsuit focused on allegations that the emergency personnel was punished, intimidated, and unfairly muzzled after speaking to the press about their experiences on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Four members of the FDNY’s Emergency Medical Services branch, known as FDNY EMS, were placed on restricted status or were suspended, some without pay, in April 2020. While suspended or under restricted status, they could not receive emergency medical services in New York City’s 911 system or receive overtime.

The sanctions were used as punishment after the FDNY’s members spoke to the news media and detailed their experiences during the beginning stages of the pandemic as part of outreach to highlight their daily struggles.

President of the Local 2507, Oren Barzilay, represents a labor organization whose members include paramedics, fire inspectors and EMTs employed by the FDNY. He explained in an interview that EMS personnel were enduring hardships amid claims by city officials that they had the situation under control. 

“When Covid hit, we were going through tough times,” said Barzilay. “We went from the normal 4,000 calls per day to 7,000-plus. EMTs and paramedics weren’t able to go home, often afraid to spread the disease to their kids, the rest of their families. Some resorted to sleeping in cars.”

Barzilay explained that EMS personnel normally experience one or two cardiac arrests in a shift; however, they were experiencing six, seven, or eight people dying in a single shift.

“This was happening, and we were quickly running out of safety equipment. And the public wasn’t aware,” said Barzilay. “We wanted to let the public know they were getting the wrong information from city officials who were saying we’re prepared, and nothing is wrong. But we weren’t prepared, and many emergency workers got sick. So, we decided to speak to the press.”

Authorities moved quickly to punish personnel who spoke to the press

Barzilay restated how the press office, HIPAA compliance personnel, and FDNY attorneys moved quickly to punish personnel who spoke to the media.

Three paramedics, Alexander Nunez, Megan Pfeiffer, and Elizabeth Bonilla, were restricted from treating patients. However, the city allegedly needed to explain why the restrictions were implemented. 

John Rugen, an EMT, was suspended without pay for 30 days and put on restricted status while the FDNY’s Bureau of Investigations and Trials claimed he violated the department’s patient privacy and social media policy. According to the lawsuit, the agency never gave any evidence. 

Barzilay, the union, and the four responders filed a lawsuit in the spring of 2020. They argued that the FDNY and New York City violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and First Amendment’s free speech guarantees, as well as like measures in the New York Constitution. 

“We believed the city and FDNY’s case was built on overzealousness and decided to push back,” Barzilay said. “I want our members to know they have a constitutional right to speak to the press as long as they don’t disclose any information that could do harm to anybody.”

“I feel vindicated. We all feel vindicated,” Barzilay said. “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.”