The Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
The suit charges that Walmart violated Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Law by discriminating against the lead plaintiff, lesbian Jacqueline Cote, based on her sex.
Walmart ended its ban on health benefits for its employees’ same-sex spouses on Jan. 1, 2014. But the lawsuit filed on behalf of Cote and other Walmart employees who may join the class action suit calls for the company to compensate them for damages they have suffered due to the denied benefits.
“Walmart broke federal law when it denied vital benefits to workers who have same-sex spouses,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee’s director of litigation.
“In an era where marriage equality is supported by the American people and the U.S. Supreme Court, it is hard to believe that Walmart would treat its LGBTQ workers so poorly,” he said. “Because Walmart’s discrimination harmed working families across the country, we are filing a national class action to ensure that Walmart finally provides these families the equal benefits federal law guarantees.”
A spokesperson for Walmart couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Cote told reporters during a telephone news conference that as a longtime employee of Walmart’s Swansea, Mass., store, she applied for spousal health insurance benefits for her wife shortly after the couple married in 2004, when the state legalized same-sex marriage.
She said the company informed her that while it provided health benefits to opposite-sex spouses it had a policy of not providing those same benefits for legally married same-sex spouses. Cote said she and her wife, Diana “Dee” Smithson, struggled to pay for a separate health insurance policy for Smithson up until 2012, when the policy was cancelled.
A short time later, she said, Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and she incurred thousands of dollars in medical bills while uninsured.
“So during much of her cancer treatments she was uninsured and we have over $175,000 in unpaid medical bills of that period when she was without insurance until 2014, when Walmart finally allowed associates to provide medical insurance for their same-sex spouse,” Cote said.
Allison Wright, a staff attorney at GLAD, said during the news conference that the lawsuit follows a complaint that GLAD filed on Cote’s behalf before the U.S. Equality Employment Opportunity Commission. She said the EEOC issued a determination that Walmart’s treatment of Cote constituted unlawful sex discrimination.
According to Wright, in May of this year, the EEOC issued a “right to sue letter” to Cote, which could open the way for a court ruling finding that gay people are covered under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.
“Many LGBTQ people across the country live without explicit protections from employment discrimination,” said Wright. “Strengthening protections for LGBTQ people under Title VII will help the poverty-stricken LGBTQ community achieve economic equality and will assistant all LGBTQ workers in receiving equal treatment,” she said.
Among other things, the lawsuit calls for Walmart to “award all damages that plaintiff and members of the proposed national class…have sustained as a result of Walmart’s discriminatory conduct, including back pay, damages for lost compensation and job benefits that they would have received but for the discriminatory practices of Walmart, and out-of-pocket medical expenses incurred as a consequence of Walmart’s refusal to provide spousal health insurance benefits to employees with same-sex spouses.”