Wal-Mart accused of same-sex bias in class-action suit
Boston — A Massachusetts woman filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday accusing Wal-Mart of wrongly denying employee benefits for same-sex spouses.
Jacqueline Cote says Wal-Mart repeatedly denied medical insurance for her wife before 2014, when the retail giant started offering benefits for same-sex spouses.
After Cote’s wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, the couple incurred $150,000 in medical costs.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston seeks damages for the couple and any other Wal-Mart employees who weren’t offered insurance for their same-sex spouses. A federal commission concluded that Wal-Mart’s denial amounted to discrimination and said in May that Cote could sue.
Wal-Mart issued a statement Tuesday noting it expanded benefits last year to include same-sex spouses and domestic partners. “We have not yet seen the details of the lawsuit and out of respect for Ms. Cote we are not going to comment other than to say our benefits coverage previous to the 2014 update was consistent with the law,” the company said.
Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, agreed in 2014 to start offering medical insurance for same-sex spouses. But the lawsuit brought by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs claims that hundreds or thousands of the company’s employees had already been wrongly denied benefits for their same-sex spouses.
No other employees are named in the suit, but it seeks damage for those who come forward. It also seeks damages for Cote and her wife, Diana Smithson, and it asks Wal-Mart to acknowledge a legal responsibility to continue offering benefits for same-sex spouses.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a nonprofit group that helped file the lawsuit, said Cote’s case is the first class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of gay workers since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in June.
Cote, of New Bedford, previously took her case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which decided in January that Wal-Mart’s denial amounted to discrimination and gave her the go-ahead in May to bring the lawsuit.
Cote and Smithson met while working at a Wal-Mart store in Augusta, Maine, in 1992. They moved to Massachusetts, where they continued to work for Wal-Mart and where they married in May 2004, just days after the state legalized same-sex marriage.
Smithson quit in 2007 to take care of Cote’s elderly mother. That prompted Cote to try to add Smithson to her health plan the following year.
Cote said she tried to enroll online, but the system wouldn’t let her proceed when she indicated her spouse was a woman. When she sought an official explanation, she was told that same-sex spouses were not covered.
Each year thereafter, she tried and failed to enroll Smithson — including in 2012, when Smithson got her cancer diagnosis.