Grocery chain hit with mask lawsuits
Giant Eagle accused of discrimination for requiring face covering
Four lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. District Court in Johnstown claiming that the supermarket company, Giant Eagle, is violating a section of the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing entry into its area stores to individuals who say they cannot wear a mask due to various medical conditions.
In complaints filed Wednesday, several individuals with medical conditions are seeking a federal court injunction telling Giant Eagle, a Pittsburgh-based corporation, to stop discriminating against them.
The residents are represented by Pittsburgh attorney Thomas B. Anderson, who said in an interview that the issue involves a misunderstanding of the April 15 order supported by Gov. Tom Wolf and Pennsylvania Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine, generally requiring customers entering stores to wear masks.
The governor’s order, Anderson said, contains an exception that is being ignored by Giant Eagle.
The exception reads: “… individuals who cannot wear a mask due to a medical condition (including children under age of 2 years as per CDC guidance) may enter the premises and are not required to provide documentation of such medical condition.”
Forcing people with medical conditions to wear masks, Anderson contends in the lawsuits, violates Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but, he also charges it is contrary to requirements of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He said Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability of “enjoyment of services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations by any person who … operates a place of public accommodation.”
A spokesman for Giant Eagle, Dick Roberts, replied to complaints about the company’s policy by stating, “We believe these lawsuits have no merit.”
“At Giant Eagle, we are committed to safeguarding the health and well being of our team members and guests, while creating a safe and comfortable environment for everyone,” he said.
The statement indicated that Giant Eagle believes the policy of requiring all customers to wear masks is “consistent” with guidance from the CDC and the governor’s recent safety order.
“We made the decision to require all Giant Eagle, Market District and GetGo team members and guests to wear masks or other face coverings when working or shopping in our Pennsylvania stores.”
Giant Eagle pointed out that the store offers options to accommodate customers who do not want to wear a face mask or who are unable to do so due to a medical condition, including having a team member shop for them, or use of Giant Eagle’s curbside pickup and delivery service.
The store also offers courtesy masks to those able to shop while wearing a mask, according the Giant Eagle reply.
More than 20
The lawsuits in Johnstown are among more than 20 filed by Anderson throughout western Pennsylvania.
Most are in the Pittsburgh area, and all of the cases, including those in Johnstown, have been assigned to U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer.
She has ordered both sides to participate in the court’s Alternate Dispute Resolution Program, and instructed Giant Eagle to file answers to the lawsuits by early August.
Since his initial complaints were filed in the federal court in Pittsburgh, Anderson said he has been inundated with people challenging Giant Eagle’s policies.
Anderson was asked what type of disabilities he was referring to when complaining about requirements to wear a mask while in the supermarkets.
In his lawsuit, Thomas Bensor of Elmora, Cambria County, reported that he suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
He was refused admission to the Giant Eagle’s Northern Cambria location.
“The store manager told (Bensor) that his medical condition did not matter, and he could not shop inside the store without a mask,” according to the lawsuit.
He was told to leave and that he could not return without a mask.
Others who are filing lawsuits against Giant Eagle include:
n Vickie Parker of Bedford, who was refused entry to a store at 510 E. Pitt St., Bedford. Without a mask, a store employee contended that she was violating the safety of other shoppers and that the mask requirement was for everybody’s safety.
n Stephen McRae of Windber was denied admission to Giant Eagle on Scalp Avenue in Johnstown. A store employee called police because he said McRae was illegally trespassing on Giant Eagle property. McRae said he was told by police to leave the store, but they noted he could file a civil lawsuit.
n Kristie Harnish of Johnstown says in her lawsuit that she was told by a store employee of the Johnstown Giant Eagle she could not shop there without a mask, with the employee allegedly stating, “Giant Eagle is a private company that could do whatever it wanted.”
The employee then offered curbside service, but Harnish said she wanted to pick her own groceries.
Anderson stated that in the lawsuits he has filed, people suffer from medical issues such as COPD, asthma and emphysema.
Others have more subtle issues that they say prohibit them from wearing masks, such as post-traumatic stress, anxiety and panic disorders.
One woman Anderson represents is a rape victim and cannot stand something over her face, and he said he represents a man who nearly drowned and thus refuses to wear a mask.
He said there is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation concerning the state’s emergency order.
Anderson said there is a right way to handle the mask issue concerning those with medical conditions.
He said he went to a Chipotle restaurant last week and while waiting for his food, two people in line were not wearing masks. Each reported a medical condition, and the restaurant employee allowed them to purchase their food, but instructed them to maintain social distancing.
While Anderson’s clients cannot receive money damages under the federal law, they can sue for damages under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Each of his clients has filed a complaint under the Pennsylvania law, he said.
The options offered by Giant Eagle — having a store employee shop for the customer or curbside pickup delivery — means that Giant Eagle is treating those with a disability “like lepers,” not as “guests,” according to the lawsuits.
In conclusion, Anderson said Giant Eagle does not have a similar policy for its Ohio stores.