Wal-Mart sued for denying health insurance to gay employee's spouse

A long-time Wal-Mart employee sued the company on Tuesday, saying an older policy of denying health insurance benefits to the spouses of gay employees violated the law.

Danny Johnston/AP
A sign is displayed at a Walmart Pickup Grocery location in Bentonville, Ark., Thursday, June 4, 2015.

A Wal-Mart employee filed a lawsuit against the company Tuesday for denying her wife health insurance benefits, in what the employee claims was a violation of gender discrimination laws.

Massachusetts-based Wal-Mart office manager Jacqueline Cote and her wife Diana Smithson, also a former Wal-Mart employee, have been legally married since 2004, but until 2014 the company refused to provide benefits to spouses of employees in same-sex marriages.

A federal commission concluded that the company’s actions qualified as discrimination. The class-action lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Boston, seeks damages for Smithson and Ms. Cote, as well as any other same-sex couples denied benefits by Wal-Mart.

Before the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, employers could legally deny benefits to spouses of gay employees. Wal-Mart began offering these benefits in 2014, but Cote’s lawsuit says until then, the company discriminated against her gender. The wife of a male employee would not be denied coverage, the lawsuit argues, and even since 2014, coverage is uncertain.

"Benefits provided by Wal-Mart as a matter of grace ... are not secure and could potentially be withdrawn just when large health care costs are incurred," the lawsuit says.

Ms. Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, incurring $150,000 in medical expenses.

A Wal-Mart spokesman declined to comment, and only said the company’s benefits practices before 2014 were legal.

Another spokesman, Randy Hargrove, said earlier this year Wal-Mart was willing to meet and discuss the matter with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the organization that found probable cause to charge Wal-Mart with discrimination.

"While we disagree with the finding of reasonable cause, we have notified the EEOC of our willingness to meet with them and Miss Cote to discuss resolving the matter," Mr. Hargrove said.

Cote’s attorney from the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Allison Wright, said following the EEOC’s finding that Cote and Smithson were seeking about $100,000. This figure includes medical expenses and other damages between Smithson’s 2012 cancer diagnosis and the 2014 adoption of Wal-Mart’s new policy reflecting the Supreme Court decision.

"I'm not only doing this for me," Cote said. "I'm doing this for other gay and lesbian couples that have been discriminated against as well."

This report contains material from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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