Business

Walmart sued over same-sex benefits

Bias alleged in delay of health coverage

Jacqueline Cote of New Bedford said she repeatedly tried to enroll her spouse in Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s corporate health plan, but was rejected after indicating her spouse was female.

Mike Nelson/EPA/File

Jacqueline Cote of New Bedford said she repeatedly tried to enroll her spouse in Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s corporate health plan, but was rejected after indicating her spouse was female.

A former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employee in Massachusetts is suing the retail giant, alleging discrimination, for not providing company health benefits to her wife after she was diagnosed with cancer and incurred thousands of dollars in medical bills.

Jacqueline Cote of New Bedford said she repeatedly tried to enroll her spouse, Diana Smithson, in Walmart’s corporate plan but was rejected after indicating her spouse was female.

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When Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, Cote again tried to enroll her but was unsuccessful, she said.

In 2014, Walmart changed its corporate policy to extend health benefits to same-sex couples, and Cote said Smithson was eventually covered under the company plan.

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But by then, the couple had incurred $150,000 in medical costs that they still cannot pay. and Cote said she filed the suit to hold Walmart responsible for her wife’s care.

“It’s definitely, without question in my mind, the right thing to do for me and my wife and for other people who have suffered in a similar fashion,” said Cote, 52, who took a leave of absence from her job as an office associate for Walmart in June to care for the 63-year-old Smithson, who is receiving hospice care.

The suit was filed Tuesday in US District Court in Boston. Cote had previously filed a complaint against Walmart with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which in January ruled that the company’s refusal to cover Smithson “constituted discrimination.” In May, the EEOC said that efforts to resolve the case between Cote and Walmart were unsuccessful and issued a letter granting her the right to sue the company.

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In a statement Tuesday, Walmart 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.”

At the time Walmart elected to extend benefits to domestic partners of its employees, gay marriage rights were still being fought state-by-state. The company said it extended the benefits to unify its health care coverage across 50 states and to help it attract and retain talented employees.

Despite the landmark ruling by the US Supreme Court in June legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States, Cote’s lawyer said gay and lesbian couples still face discrimination in the workplace.

“It is harder for LGBTQ to find and keep jobs, earn a living, and provide for themselves and their family, which can lead to poverty,” said Allison Wright, a staff attorney at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders who represents Cote in the Walmart suit. “We still have work to do in the community to make sure employers are respecting LGBTQ families and providing them with equal benefits.”

In addition to damages for her wife’s medical debt and other legal fees, Cote is seeking class-action status to represent other Walmart employees with similar experiences.

She also wants the court to require Walmart to keep those benefits in place, because, according to the lawsuit, the company contends it is under no legal obligation to maintain coverage for same-sex spouses.

Cote and Smithson married in 2004, days after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage. In 2007, Smithson quit her job to take care of Cote’s ailing mother.

The next year, Cote tried to enroll Smithson on her medical plan, but said she was rejected after indicating her spouse was female. She said Walmart told her over the phone that same-sex couples were not covered. She tried again after Smithson’s ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2012, to no avail.

Cote wouldn’t disclose details about Smithson’s health, but wants her wife to have peace of mind that the couple’s financial burden has been lifted.

“Everything in my life is for her, and I don’t know if we are going to be able to do this,” Cote said. “With each coming hospice visit, it’s very difficult to look at the future and wonder if those medical bills are going to be paid off.”

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