FDNY EMS Providers Win COVID-19-Linked Free Speech Lawsuit

FDNY EMS Local 2507 and four of its members, Elizabeth Bonilla, Alexander Nunez, Megan Pfeiffer and John Rugen, together with their union, have reached a settlement in their federal free speech lawsuit against the City of New York.  

The City of New York, with the FDNY has consented to pay each of the plaintiffs $29,999.00 and the city will expunge from all FDNY files any claim or assertion that these members – at the height of the pandemic – committed violations in communicating with the news media in 2020 to explain the health and safety crisis.

“Our union always believed that the City and FDNY’s case was built upon nothing more than prosecutorial overzealousness,” Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507 said. “For them to take such rapid, punitive attacks on these four dedicated medical professions is reflective of a complete lack of understanding and respect for the difficult dangerous work our members do as New York City’s street doctors, as EMTs and paramedics are often seen as.”

Strong First Amendment Case

The original case was brought in the Spring 2020, at the behest of Barzilay, before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, after the FDNY’s Bureau of Investigations and Trials (BITS) brought charges against these first responders for simply sharing their story with the news media.

In interviews during the initial weeks of the pandemic, they spoke of their experience being on the medical front lines of the rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak. It was a time when emergency rooms were severely backlogged, the call volume for EMS nearly doubled, and hospitals lacked medicine and equipment to properly overcome the virus. 

The union brought suit after the workers were suspended or placed on restricted status, and not allowed to receive overtime or work for any other emergency medical services in the city’s 911 system in retaliation. As New York City’s medical first responders, there is no other group with a front row seat to explain what was taking place.

Three paramedics — Elizabeth Bonilla, Alexander Nunez, Megan Pfeiffer – were restricted from treating any patients at all. The city agency gave no reason at all why they were put under restrictions.

EMT John Rugen, who was also a union officer, was put on restricted status and suspended without pay for 30 days, as BITS claimed he violated FDNY social media policy and patient privacy, without the agency ever offering any evidence.

Barzilay said: “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. 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.”