NYC settles lawsuit with FDNY EMS members punished for talking to media about COVID-19 front line

By Molly Crane-Newman

New York City has agreed to settle and pay four members of FDNY EMS who were punished for speaking out about their agonizing experiences working on the COVID-19 front line.

Emergency Medical Technician John Rugen and paramedics Elizabeth Bonilla, Alexander Nunez and Megan Pfeiffer sued the city in June 2020, alleging the FDNY violated their federal free speech and due process rights.

They are said to receive $29,999 each in damages from the settlement, according to the agreement announced Wednesday.

As the city’s emergency rooms began to overflow with dying patients in April 2020, Rugen, Bonilla, Nunez, and Pfeiffer were suspended or placed on restricted duty status without the ability to work overtime or work for other 911 services because they were interviewed by the media. The charges filed against them by the FDNY’s Bureau of Investigations and Trials will be wiped, per the settlement agreement filed on Feb. 16.

On Wednesday, Oren Barzilay, head of Local 2507, the union that represents EMTs and paramedics, said the FDNY overzealously punished his members.

“We have had problems with the FDNY press office for many years. They have tried to control the narrative on what needs to be said,” Barzilay said. “We’ve always felt that they suppressed our members — paramedics and EMTs — from exposing the truth of what happened.”

Barzilay said the city intimidated Rugen, Bonilla, Nunez, and Pfeiffer into silence when they sought to correct the record about what was happening behind the scenes as officials erroneously told New Yorkers they were prepared to respond to the unprecedented health crisis.

“When, in fact, they weren’t,” Barzilay said. “Our members didn’t have the proper gear. They didn’t have enough equipment. They didn’t have enough face mask supplies to keep them safe.”

Rugen told news reporters that he was sleeping in his car and hadn’t seen his son in a week out of fear he would make him sick. He also spoke of contracting Stage 4 lung cancer after his work on 9/11. In response, the FDNY suspended him without pay and stripped his medical benefits.

Camera crews followed Bonilla while she responded to 911 calls as thousands of New Yorkers fell deathly ill with COVID-19. The FDNY restricted her from working with patients after she spoke on camera about the emotional toll of aiding dying people, challenging working conditions and her grave concerns about exposing her family to the virus.

A TV crew also followed Pfeiffer during a tour of duty. She was suspended for expressing concern about the lack of personal protective equipment for medical workers, guidelines recommending that N95 masks only be used when performing lifesaving procedures, “and crying at home and having anxiety attacks,” according to the Manhattan Federal Court lawsuit.

Nunez discussed harsh working conditions and strains on the health care system and EMS services in an interview.

Barzilay said none of the frontline workers violated FDNY rules or exposed confidential patient information.

“Our members should know that they always have a right to speak to the press,” Barzilay said.

A spokesman for the city Law Department said, “The parties have reached a fair resolution of this matter.”