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Deerfield workers sue dairy farmer Stephen D. Melik over unsafe, unsanitary housing conditions

Benito Andrade and Sonia Luna are seeking a preliminary injunction against Stephen D. Melnik, owner of Bar-Way Farm Inc. on Mill Village Road, for alleged negligence, unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of the Consumer Protection Act, breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment and violation of the state sanitary code according to the complaint filed in Housing Court.

The two plaintiffs are employees of Melnik’s, who provided housing for them at 174 Mill Village Road in Deerfield. They are a non-married couple.

There will also be a separate investigation by the state Department of Labor for federal wage violations. The investigation is still pending.

Melnik could not be reached for comment.

The civil complaint follows an Aug. 30 inspection by the Deerfield Board of Health office, which cited the farmer for 47 violations of the state sanitary code.

Inside the two-story home, a local health inspector found a lack of potable water, raw human sewage in the basement due to a backup of the sewage system into the property, failure to provide a working toilet, lack of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, serious infestation of bees and rodents and issues with the roof, ceilings and walls.

On Sept. 5, the health inspector gave Melnik 30 days, or until Oct. 4 to make the housing repairs. The health inspector also ordered Melnik to provide bottled water to the tenants.

Based on Melnik’s previous failure to repair the property, Jennifer Dieringer, a lawyer from Community Legal Aid in Northampton representing the farm workers, argues it is reasonable to conclude that the violations are unlikely to be fixed without court action.

The Deerfield Board of Health intends to condemn, board and secure the property.

The injunction would force Melnik to complete repairs at the single-family home to comply with the state sanitary code and to provide alternative housing with cooking and laundry facilities until repairs are completed and to provide transportation to and from the farm until repairs are finished.

The case is scheduled to be heard Friday at 9 a.m. at the Western Division of the Housing Court in Greenfield on Main Street.

The employees are suing for damages equivalent to fair market value for three months’ rent, the costs of Melnik’s actions, including attorney fees, medical costs, lost wages, pain and suffering associated with the farmer’s negligence and damages under the Consumer Protection Act.

According to the Sept. 16 complaint, the two workers began employment at the farm on Aug. 26, 2012, where they have cared for 261 dairy cows and four pigs and do field work. The employees are required to work 12 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week for $525 a week or about $5.76/hour, which is $1.49 less than the federal minimum wage. They do not receive health insurance or benefits.

Though the house is not licensed as a farm camp, when the employees requested a raise, Melnik told them if they received a raise they’d have to leave the house, the complaint states.

When the employees moved into the property on Aug. 26, 2012, they discovered black soot covering the walls and were later forced to change bedrooms from the second floor to the first floor due to a roof leak. The employees informed Melnik of the roof leak, but Melnik laughed and never fixed the leak, the complaint alleges.

Over the next few months, the tenants found more problems, such as a clogging toilet, sewage backing up into the basement and inadequate heat during the winter due to a lack of gas. Each time, the tenants said, Melnik either didn’t make the requested repairs or waited months to fix the issue. By January, Luna suffered vomiting and diarrhea after she drank from the water faucet at the house.

After the Deerfield inspection in August, Melnik provided the tenants with housing 20 minutes away from the farm at the Red Roof Inn in South Deerfield, which doesn’t have cooking or laundry facilities. According to the complaint, Melnik said he’d house them at a motel for awhile and then get them a room in the horse stable.

The suit claims Melnik, who promised housing, was negligent in providing a habitable place to live and failed to provide reasonable care of the property and the tenants suffered as a result.

Second, Melnik also acted unfairly and deceptively, the suit states, by promising to provide housing for his employees and then failing to make repairs within a reasonable time after being notified.

Dieringer argues Melnik’s actions were deliberate.

Third, Dieringer makes a case that Melnik interfered with his employees’ quiet enjoyment of the house by failing to provide and maintain the property according to law, failing to provide safe water and evicting the tenants by allowing the property to fall into disrepair and then be condemned. As a result, the tenants suffered emotional distress and physical illness.

Lastly, Dieringer argues Melnik violated state sanitary code by failing to maintain the house as habitable.

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