Gay Workers Hit Wal-Mart With Class Action Over Denied Benefits

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July 14, 2015 11:38 a.m.
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A class action on behalf of gay and lesbian Wal-Mart workers nationwide was filed against the retailer Tuesday, accusing Wal-Mart of denying same-sex couples spousal health benefits under its policies prior to 2014.

The suit is being led by Jaqueline Cote, who according to the complaint has worked for Wal-Marts in Maine and Massachusetts since 1999. She said in the suit that she was unable to put her spouse, Diana “Dee” Smithson, who eventually developed cancer, on her Wal-Mart plan because company policy discriminated against same-sex couples.

The suit said Cote began her attempts to enroll her spouse on the company plan in about 2008, as Smithson had a history with cancer. But, according to the suit, she was unable to do so online and was told when she called the Wal-Mart home office that its spousal coverage did not apply to same-sex couples. Cote tried again in 2012, according to the lawsuit, after Smithson’s cancer returned and she had been dropped from her individual plan, but to no avail. She also called Wal-Mart after the 2013 Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act to see if that meant she could now add Smithson and was told Wal-Mart had no plans to change its policy, according to the complaint.

“As a result of Wal-Mart’s national policy, pattern, and practice of refusing to provide employees with spouses of the same sex spousal health insurance benefits, Jackie and Dee have suffered significant economic and non-economic harm, including negative financial consequences, health issues, emotional and physical harm, as well as pain and suffering,” the lawsuit said.

The complaint said the couple ultimately incurred a $150,000 in medical debt due to Cote’s inability to put her spouse on the Wal-Mart plan.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed the class action on behalf of Cote as well as same-sex couples across the country who were denied benefits due to Wal-Mart’s policy.

The policy, the complaint alleged, was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex. GLAD said it is the first class action filed on behalf of gay and lesbian workers since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide last month.

Asked for comment, a Wal-Mart spokesman sent the following statement:

“Walmart expanded its benefits starting in January 2014 and currently covers 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.”

Read the complaint below:

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