Boston, Massachusetts, July 14, 2015 – According to U.S. News & World Report, Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the U.S., has been sued by a married lesbian couple for denying health insurance benefits to same-sex couples.
Jackie Cote and her wife, Diana Smithson, filed their lawsuit in Boston, Massachusetts (Cote v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, case number 15-cv-12945). They are represented by attorneys from Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (“GLAD”) and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (“WLC”), two prominent rights groups.
They estimate their damages to be at least $150,000 in medical bills, as Ms. Smithson developed ovarian cancer in 2012, and also claimed the denial of health insurance benefits for Ms. Smithson hampered her recovery. The lawsuit seeks punitive damages and attorney fees in addition to compensation. As far as compensation, they are seeking to recoup costs incurred through Jan. 1, 2014, when the company was forced to expand coverage to all married and unmarried couples, regardless of sex, after the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to married gay couples in 2013.
The couple, who were legally married in Massachusetts in 2004, tried unsuccessfully since 2008 to have Ms. Smithson added as a spouse to Ms. Cote’s health insurance benefits, which Wal-Mart repeatedly denied. In its own defense, Wal-Mart claimed federal anti-discrimination laws did not apply to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, so it did not have to offer benefits to their spouses.
However, at the beginning of 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) decided Wal-Mart’s denial of insurance “constituted discrimination on the basis of her sex,” as Ms. Smithson would have been covered with no problems if Ms. Cote was male. A few months later, the EEOC issued the couple a “right to sue” letter based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”), which prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sex.
Their next step is an attempt to have this case certified as a nationwide class-action suit, consisting of current and former gay Wal-Mart employees who were legally married before 2014, when the company began covering same-sex spouses.
If it is certified, it will be the first class-action on behalf of gay employees since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide last month.