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EMT, Paramedics Say NYC Punished Them for Covid-19 Speech (1)

June 11, 2020, 3:49 PMUpdated: June 11, 2020, 5:55 PM

The Fire Department of the City of New York allegedly benched an EMT and three paramedics unlawfully for publicly voicing their concerns about their dangerous working conditions as the Covid-19 pandemic spiraled out of control in the city, the workers and their union allege in a new federal lawsuit.

Local 2507, DC 37, AFSCME president Oren Barzilay is also a plaintiff in the suit, in his official capacity. FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro is a defendant, along with the city.

The suit says the suspension of EMT John Rugen and the placement of paramedics Elizabeth Bonilla, Alexander Nunez, and Megan Pfeiffer on “restricted” status, which were imposed without fair notice or a chance to be heard, violated their free speech and due process rights under federal and state law.

The four first responders spoke as private citizens on a matter of “enormous public concern,” according to the suit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Rugen also spoke in his role as an elected officer of Local 2507, the suit says.

The union embarked on a media campaign because it believed “the narratives promoted by the FDNY were not providing complete information concerning the working conditions of its members,” the suit says. And the media wanted to report on its members’ stories, which included that 252 FDNY employees had contracted the virus and that dozens of its members were sleeping in their cars to avoid infecting their families, according to the complaint.

Rugen has stage 4 lung cancer, and the risks he was exposed to due to his working conditions prevented him from seeing his son for a week, a fact that he shared with ABC News, the suit says.

The FDNY defended the moves by saying the four workers weren’t being disciplined and that placement on suspension or restricted status is part of its customary practice when it investigates employees for alleged job misconduct.

That practice deprives employees of their pay and, in the case of restricted status, the opportunity for EMTs and paramedics to provide their services to other providers that use the city’s 911 system, the suit says.

"“The FDNY respects the First Amendment rights of its employees but those rights must be carefully balanced to respect the privacy rights granted under the law to patients receiving emergency medical care,” Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s law department, told Bloomberg Law in an email Thursday. “We’ll review the case,” he said.

Causes of Action: Violations of First Amendment and due process clause of the U.S. Constitution and the free speech and due process clauses of the New York State Constitution.

Relief: Declarations that city violated constitutional rights of Rugen, Bonilla, Nunez, Pfeiffer, and the union; orders barring further violations of their rights and enjoining the city’s practice and policy of restricting or suspending EMTs and paramedics without promptly affording them notice and a chance to be heard; restoration of Rugen to full duty and Bonilla, Nunez, and Pfeiffer to unrestricted status; back pay and other lost benefits; removal of any reference to suspension or placement on restricted status from the plaintiffs’ personnel files; attorneys’ fees and costs.

Attorneys: Gladstein, Reif & Meginniss LLP represents the union, Barzilay, Rugen, Bonilla, Nunez, and Pfeiffer.

The case is Barzilay v. City of New York, S.D.N.Y., No. 1:20-cv-04452, complaint filed 6/10/20.

(Updated with comment from the city in the ninth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com

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