New Bedford, MA. Same Sex Couple Files Discrimination Lawsuit Against Wal-Mart
A national class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart was filed by a same sex married couple from New Bedford, Massachusetts this week. The case, Cote V Wal-Mart Stores was filed in Boston federal court.
The suit charges that the giant retailer violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act by discriminating against a company employee in health care benefits because she married the wrong sex for a spouse.
On July 14th, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed the litigation, which also charges that Wal-Mart violated the Equal Pay Act and the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Law.
The plaintiff, Jacqueline Cote, has worked at Wal-Mart since 1999. She is currently on leave from her job at a Wal-Mart in Swansea, Massachusetts, to take care of her spouse, Diana “Dee” Smithson, who has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Cote charges that she was denied spousal health insurance for her wife during the company’s open enrollment periods for health insurance from 2008 through 2012.
Cote says she and Dee have incurred more than $175,000 in medical bills for Smithson’s cancer treatments. Cote seeks an injunction that would prevent Wal-Mart from denying spousal health insurance to the national class of “hundreds of thousands” of Wal-Mart workers in similar situations.
The lawsuit also seeks damages, including punitive damages, plus attorney fees and costs.
In January, 2014, Wal-Mart changed its policy to allow spousal benefits for same sex couples. Wal-Mart started expanding its benefits from 2014 on, and the corporation now claims it covers same-sex spouses and domestic partners. Prior to January of 2014, Wal-Mart refused to provide health insurance to same sex couples. Despite its policy change in 2014, Wal-Mart today says that it has “no continuing, legal obligation to provide same sex spousal benefits.”
Cote’s spouse, Dee, also was an employee at Wal-Mart from 1999 to 2008.
Cote says Wal-Mart unlawfully deprived her of her employment-based health insurance benefits that she would have received if she had married a man. According to the lawsuit, Wal-Mart refused to provide spousal health insurance benefits for same sex spouses of other eligible employees—based on the company’s “gender-based stereotypes.”
Cote first filed her case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September of 2014. The EEOC ruled that Cote was discriminated against on the basis of her sex, and gave her a “Right to Sue” authorization.
In a response to the National Law Journal, a Wal-Mart spokesman said: “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 retailer says it “respects” its long-time employee Cote, but it will not pay for her wife’s growing medical bills.
What you can do: To see a copy of the lawsuit, go to:
Readers are urged to call Wal-Mart’s customer service number at 1-800-WALMART with this simple message:
“Please respect the rights of your gay employees, and give them spousal health care benefits like you do to opposite sex couples. Take care of Jackie Cote and her spouse, and honor the claims of any other legally married same sex couples.”