Wal-Mart accused of same-sex bias in class-action lawsuit

AP News
|
Posted: Jul 14, 2015 1:52 PM

BOSTON (AP) — 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.

The couple incurred at least $150,000 in medical costs after Cote's wife, Dee Smithson, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston seeks damages for the couple and for any other Wal-Mart employees who weren't offered insurance for their same-sex spouses. It asks for money to cover out-of-pocket medical costs and for other punitive damages.

Cote said in a call with reporters that the financial stress worsened Smithson's suffering through cancer treatments.

"I'm following through with this for my wife and actually for anyone else who has suffered a similar injustice," Cote said.

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 Bentonville, Arkansas, company said.

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 ordered the company to provide a "just resolution" for violating Cote's civil rights.

In an interview, Cote said they "weren't able to work it out." The commission gave her permission to sue in May.

The lawsuit, filed with the help of 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 been denied benefits before Wal-Mart offered insurance for same-sex spouses in 2014.

"Wal-Mart's position that it has no continuing, legal obligation to provide these benefits equally to same-sex spouses creates significant uncertainty and insecurity for Jackie, Dee and other same-sex married couples," according to the complaint.

The nonprofit GLAD 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 and Smithson met in Cape Cod in 1991 and later they both worked at Wal-Mart stores in Maine and Massachusetts. They were married in Massachusetts in 2004, just days after same-sex marriage was legalized there.

Smithson quit her job 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.

In 2014, the cancer returned and Smithson went through another round of chemotherapy, Cote said, but it took a heavy toll on her health.

"Right now Dee's receiving hospice care at home," Cote said. "We take things one day at a time and try to make the most out of every hour that we get to spend together."

___

This story has been corrected to show that Cote and Smithson met in 1991 in Cape Cod, not in 1992 while working at Wal-Mart in Augusta, Maine.