Giant Eagle shopper

A senior shopper wears a protective mask as she shops for groceries at Giant Eagle in Richland Township on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

Giant Eagle is being sued by 34 people across western Pennsylvania – including five from Greater Johnstown – who alleged company employees often used aggressive measures to enforce what plaintiffs call an "illegal" mask policy.

The lawsuit includes allegations by customers across western Pennsylvania suffering from different medical conditions.

The plaintiffs include a Pittsburgh-area woman with respiratory issues who said she "passed out" and hit her head in a Butler County store's checkout line because she wore a mask to comply; a Crawford County woman alleging an employee struck her with a shopping cart after she removed her mask inside a Meadville store; and a Venango County man who said a police officer injured his neck after the store reported him for trespassing.

In this region, the suit also includes two Johnstown residents suffering from post traumatic stress disorder – one of them a veteran – who separately said they left the University Park store after being harassed about not wearing masks or wearing them properly and another Johnstown area resident who said he was escorted from the store by police while trying to pick up a prescription for his respiratory issues.

Customers from Bedford, Ebensburg and Northern Cambria are also among those filing lawsuits about issue's with Giant Eagle's mask policy, court documents show.

The civil cases continue to add up against the Pittsburgh-based grocery store company, which has defended its policy as in line with federal Centers for Disease Control and state guidelines.

The cases have been consolidated in to a single case under Pittsburgh U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer.

Pittsburgh Attorney Thomas Anderson, who has been collecting suits against the grocery chain since May, has filed each of the 34 cases.

In his filings, he wrote that the chain's corporate policy violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, treating customers with disabilities as "lepers" rather than guests.

While state officials, including Gov Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, have continued to direct Pennsylvanians to wear masks to stop the spread of COVID-19, the lawsuit notes that their mandates contain an exception to the state’s mask-wearing policies for individuals "who cannot wear a mask" due to medical conditions – in this case, issues such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, emphysema and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Giant Eagle cannot violate federal and state law and exclude disabled people from its public accommodations because their disabilities prohibit them from wearing masks," Anderson wrote.

The group is seeking compensatory relief.

Giant Eagle spokesman Dick Roberts said the company had no comment on the legal action.

Area stores advise customers that masks are required for entry. While Giant Eagle's website did not appear to list a mask policy, it noted steps taken to promote social distancing – such as one-way aisles and no-contact curbside pickup – among measures that go "above and beyond" to protect employees and customers.

Anderson counters that the company has not enforced its mask requirements in other states, including Ohio.

And many of his clients allege they were treated rudely, yelled at or humiliated for not wearing masks by management or employees – even if they listed their medical reasons for not being masked.

Allegations in the Johnstown area only involve the corporate-owned Giant Eagle store on Scalp Avenue.

Giant Eagle Inc. acquired the store from a local franchise group in 2013.

Others include locations in Northern Cambria Borough and Cambria Township.

Among the local allegations:

• Thomas Bensor of Elmora alleges a Northern Cambria store manager told him his respiratory issues, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Artery Disease – better known as COPD – "did not matter" and ordered him to leave after he arrived without a mask on May 26.

• Nathanael Dollar of Ebensburg, a disabled veteran with PTSD and anxiety said he tried to shop at the Cambria Township store on April 19 but was told Giant Eagle "could kick anyone out of the store it wanted" after he tried to explain the medical issues that prevented him from wearing a mask

• Michael Hammers, of Johnstown – another veteran suffering from anxiety, PTSD and other health issues – said he tried using a bandana to shop in the Scalp Avenue store on May 31 but an employee told him to leave the store because he wasn't covering his nose. Hammers said he tried to explain he was "unable to breathe" with the covering over his nose, but was told it didn't matter because of "company policy." He wrote that he complied with a store workers' order to leave the store but when his wife was purchasing their groceries, a cashier was spotted wearing the mask the same way.

• Kristin Harnish, of Johnstown, said she obtained written documentation listing her PTSD and other conditions, but was denied the ability to shop in the store twice – on April 28 and May 2.

• Stephen McRae of Windber said he went to the Scalp Avenue store without a mask to pick up a prescription for his respiratory issues but was escorted from the store by Richland Township police, who documented the incident at McRae's request. McRae alleges he told a store manager who was wearing a homemade mask incorrectly told him that he was being discriminated against and quoted Health Secretary Rachel Levine's order at the time – but the manager refused, saying the store "can do whatever it wants." McRae alleges he recorded the incident on video.

Elsewhere, Judith March in Meadville reported she was "fearful" she was going to be manhandled by aggressive employees after one of them hit her in the leg with a cart while she was inside a Crawford County store.

She said another employee yelled at her to put a mask on, even as she tried to explain her medical issues.

In her lawsuit, March said she was permitted to check out with her purchases after another employee opened up a register for her.

The federal court cases are currently scheduled for disposition in the Pittsburgh office of Pennsylvania's U.S. Western District Court.

The case is still in the earliest stages, with Giant Eagle ordered by the judge to provide a formal response by late July.

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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