A U.S. woman filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday accusing retail giant Wal-Mart of wrongly denying employee benefits for same-sex spouses.
Jacqueline Cote of Massachusetts says Wal-Mart repeatedly denied medical insurance for her wife before 2014, when the retail giant started offering benefits for same-sex spouses.
After Cote’s wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, the couple incurred $150,000 in medical costs.
The lawsuit filed in a Boston court seeks damages for the couple and any other Wal-Mart employees who weren’t offered insurance for their same-sex spouses. A federal commission has concluded that Wal-Mart’s denial amounted to discrimination and said that Cote could sue.
Wal-Mart issued a statement Tuesday noting it expanded benefits last year to include 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,” the company said.
Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, agreed in 2014 to start offering medical insurance for same-sex spouses. But the lawsuit brought by two advocacy groups claims that hundreds or thousands of the company’s employees had already been wrongly denied benefits for their same-sex spouses.
No other employees are named in the suit, but it seeks damage for those who come forward. It also seeks damages for Cote and her wife, Diana Smithson, and it asks Wal-Mart to acknowledge a legal responsibility to continue offering benefits for same-sex spouses.
Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a nonprofit group that helped file the lawsuit, said Cote’s case is the first class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of gay workers since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in June.
Cote and Smithson met while working at a Wal-Mart store in the state of Maine 1992. They moved to Massachusetts, where they continued to work for Wal-Mart and where they married in May 2004, just days after the state legalized same-sex marriage.
Smithson quit her job in 2007 to take care of Cote’s elderly mother, prompting Cote to apply for coverage.