Rochester renters’ rights pioneer dies; her case lives on in limbo 

click to enlarge Linda Barger sits in the bed of her Sherman Street apartment with her dog, Bear, on January 16.


Linda Barger sits in the bed of her Sherman Street apartment with her dog, Bear, on January 16.

For the better part of two years, Linda Barger lived with the sounds of mice scratching at her walls, rodents scurrying out of her slippers as she put them on, and varmints rooting around in her closet and garbage.

On February 24, she died that way, too, but not before becoming something of a renters’ rights pioneer in Rochester.

With the help of the Legal Aid Society of Rochester, Barger, 64, took her case for better living conditions to court and won, securing a judge’s order directing her landlord hire an exterminator and make repairs. Her exploits made the cover of CITY in January.

The agency’s lawyers took on Barger’s case to test an arcane state law that they theorized gave tenants the right to sue their landlords in Rochester City Court for failing to repair or address health and safety problems. Her win confirmed that tenants could take their landlords to court and proved they could get a court order directing landlords to fix outstanding problems.
But her death has thrust enforcement of her case into limbo, leaving her lawyers to figure out how to move forward. Despite the court order, Barger’s landlord hadn’t taken care of the issues, said Mike Furlano, the Legal Aid Society of Rochester attorney who represented her in court.

When I interviewed Barger in January, just days before she won her case, she listed off some complaints about her apartment’s condition, but she kept coming back to the mice. She told me she was “petrified” of them and It was clear that she just wanted them to be gone.

She was confined to a medical bed in her Sherman Street apartment because of severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and was surrounded by them all day, every day. She died from complications related to her respiratory illness.

“She was frustrated,” Furlano said. “She was a little bit confused. The court ordered the landlord to do something, she didn’t understand why the landlord wasn’t doing what the court ordered.”
Barger’s struggle didn’t end how she hoped it would, but she cleared the way for other tenants to fight their own battles.

“Tenants don’t have to withhold rent and hope for a favorable decision in an eviction proceeding,” Furlano said. “That was previously the only way they could litigate these issues.”

Barger’s landlord, Baridi Viator, and Furlano are scheduled to appear in court on June 24 — they were originally supposed to appear March 24, but the case was adjourned twice because of the COVID-19 shutdown. The purpose of the appearance was for the judge to check in on Viator’s progress toward fixing up Barger’s apartment. Ostensibly, this is where the enforcement component of the case should enter the picture.

But when Furlano goes to court that day — or potentially another date, should the matter receive another pandemic-related adjournment — he essentially won’t have a client. There are ways to find a legal substitute so the proceedings can continue, he said, and he was exploring them.

There are also factors that may complicate how the case proceeds. Among them: the court awarded Barger a judgement should the landlord fail to make the ordered repairs. Furlano wants to make sure Barger’s estate can collect that judgement.

Meanwhile, new cases using the legal process solidified by the Legal Aid Society of Rochester and Barger are in early stages. There are a few of them, Furlano said, and still more people have reached out to the organization.

“At the end of the day, tenants just want to live in clean, safe, habitable housing, and there shouldn’t be this struggle to obtain that,” Furlano said.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at [email protected].

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