First Responders Win Major COVID-Linked Free Speech Lawsuit Against New York City

The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) and their union won a significant legal victory this week over claims that emergency responders were unfairly punished, muzzled, and intimidated after speaking to the media about their experiences at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four members of the department’s Emergency Medical Services branch (FDNY EMS) were placed on restricted status in April 2020. They could not receive overtime nor work for any other emergency services in New York City.

They were punished after speaking to the media about their experiences during the initial stages of the pandemic. This was part of a campaign to highlight their struggles.

Oren Barzilay is the president of Local 2507, a labor union whose members include EMTs and paramedics employed by FDNY. He explained to Fox News Digital that EMS personnel were experiencing major hardships while city officials falsely claimed they were in control.

He said, “When COVID hit we were going through difficult times.” “We went from the usual 4,000 calls per day to over 7,000. Paramedics and EMTs were often too scared to return home because they weren’t allowed to take the disease with them. Some people slept in their cars.

Barzilay stated that EMS personnel are likely to see one, maybe two cardiac arrest victims in a shift. But then, they would be seeing six, seven, or eight deaths in a single shift.

“This was happening and we were rapidly running out of safety gear. He said that the public was not aware of this.” “We wanted the public to know that they were receiving incorrect information from the city officials, who claimed we were prepared and there was nothing wrong. We weren’t ready, and many emergency personnel got sick. We decided to talk to the media.”

Barzilay recalled how FDNY lawyers, the press office, and HIPAA compliance staff (those charged to enforce the lawful disclosure and use of protected health information), quickly moved to punish anyone who spoke to the media.

Elizabeth Bonilla and Alexander Nunez were the paramedics, while Megan Pfeiffer was the one who was not allowed to treat patients. The city is said to have no explanation for its restrictions.

EMT John Rugen was placed on restricted status and paid no pay for 30 days. The FDNY’s Bureau of Investigations and Trials claimed Rugen had violated department policies regarding social media and patient privacy. The lawsuit claims that the agency did not provide evidence.

Barzilay recalled the senior FDNY staff trying to intimidate him and the four EMS workers. He speculated that they were upset because they had “lost control” of the narrative after going public.

Barzilay stated that “when you are accused of something people start to see you differently.” “When innocent people and women try to do the right things and share their stories, but are criticized by others, we decided to take a stand and push back.”

Barzilay urged him to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, along with his union and four respondents, in the spring of 2020. They argued that New York City, the FDNY, and New York City violated the First Amendment’s freedom of speech guarantees, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, and similar measures in New York Constitution.

Barzilay stated that he believed the case of the FDNY and the city was built on overzealousness. He decided to fight back. “I want our members to know that they have a constitutional right to speak to the media as long as they do not disclose any information that could cause harm.”

The FDNY EMS has announced a settlement with New York City. Each plaintiff will receive $29,999. All claims and assertions of malpractice related to communication with the media during the COVID pandemic will be deleted from any files or records by the city.

“I feel vindicated,” Barzilay said that everyone feels vindicated. “The women, men, and children of the FDNY EMS Service are heroes today and during the pandemic. They sacrificed their health and welfare in order to serve the New Yorkers. This settlement finally brings justice, though it is a little cold after almost three years.

Barzilay stated that EMS’s relationship with the city’s firefighters was always “great” and characterized by mutual respect on the streets. He explained that it is politics in the 8th story that causes these problems.

The news of the settlement is reportedly coming as Terryl Brown (FDNY’s chief lawyer and deputy commissioner in legal affairs) and Frank Dwyer (the department’s long-serving deputy commissioner for information), are reportedly being fired. Barzilay identified them as leaders of the charges against emergency responders. A spokesperson for the FDNY said that the EMS lawsuit was not related to recent terminations or resignations that caused chaos within the department.