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Walmart sued over denying benefits to employee's same-sex spouse

Suit alleges discrimination against employee whose spouse suffered from cancer, resulting in debt over medical bills

Walmart employee has launched legal action against the corporation, saying the retailer discriminated against staff in same-sex marriages by denying their spouses health insurance benefits.

The class action complaint alleges that Walmart violated Title VII of the federal civil rights act by displaying bias towards Jacqueline Cote, an employee at an outlet of the chain in Massachusetts, based on her gender, the lawsuit said.

The case, Cote v. Walmart, was filed Tuesday by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) and co-counsel Peter Romer-Friedman of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

“All that Jackie wanted was to be treated like all other Walmart employees, and to take care of her spouse,” Jansun Wu, GLAD senior staff attorney, said in a press release. “Instead, Walmart chose to discriminate against its married gay and lesbian employees.”

Cote works as an associate in a Walmart store in Swansea, Massachusetts, and from around 2008 she attempted to add her wife, Diana Smithson, during open enrollment periods, according to the lawsuit. Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012 and the refusal to include her on the retailer’s insurance scheme resulted in medical costs of $150,000, according to the lawsuit.

The benefit she sought was available to all other qualified Walmart employees in heterosexual marriages, the lawsuit added.

“I felt like a second class citizen,” Jacqueline Cote said. “I had to keep trying, I wouldn’t give up.”

But when Cote tried to enter her spouse’s gender as “female,” the online system stopped her from proceeding and when she called her employer to investigate she was told Walmart did not offer health insurance coverage to same-sex spouses, the lawsuit said.

By the time Walmart officially changed its policy to cover benefits for same-sex spouses, Cote and Smithson owed tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills and suffered stress as a result, the lawsuit said.

Walmart told Al Jazeera its policies have been consistent with the law.

“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,” Walmart spokesman Brian Nick said in an emailed statement. 

Many major companies began offering health benefits for same-sex partners in 2013 in the months following a Supreme Court decision to strike down key portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

The restaurant chain Cracker Barrel and the discount retailer the Dollar Store were among other major companies to begin offering health care benefits to domestic partners of its full-time employees, including same-sex partners, in January 2014.

A study by LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign found that six months after the 2013 Supreme Court decision, 91 percent of the 700 major companies and law firms it surveyed had spelled out explicit protections for their employees barring sexual orientation-based discrimination.

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