Metro

Walmart settles for $7.5m after denying spousal benefits to gay couples

MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS/FILE

A federal judge approved a $7.5 million settlement Monday in a class-action lawsuit against Walmart that found the retail giant violated gender-discrimination laws for years when it denied spousal benefits to same-sex couples.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a New Bedford woman by the advocacy group GLAD. The settlement was based in large part on US Supreme Court rulings affirming the rights of same-sex couples to marry and, in an earlier ruling, their entitlement to federal spousal benefits.

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The lead plaintiff was Jacqueline Cote, who worked at Walmart for 15 years, though more than 300 plaintiffs joined the class-action lawsuit.

After attorneys fees are paid, the plaintiffs will split the roughly $5.5 million balance from the settlement, which US District Judge William G. Young called fair and reasonable.

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“This was a carefully crafted and sensible resolution of a complex matter, and it reflects well on the parties from both sides,” Young said from the bench Monday.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had agreed in 2014 to provide spousal benefits for same-sex partners, and roughly 1,200 employees signed up for the benefits at the time. That decision came after the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in states where it was allowed.

But for three years before 2014, the company refused to pay spousal benefits to employees in same-sex marriages, according to the settlement.

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Cote began working for Walmart in Maine in 1999 and continued working for the company there and in Massachusetts through last year. She sued after Walmart refused to provide spousal benefits for her wife, Diana Smithson, a former Walmart employee who left her job to care for Cote’s ill mother.

In a statement Monday, Cote said, “I’m pleased that Walmart was willing to resolve this issue for me and other associates who are married to someone of the same sex. It’s a relief to bring this chapter of my life to a close.”

Sally Welborn, senior vice president for the company, said in a statement: “We’re happy both sides could come together to reach a resolution . . . We will continue to not distinguish between same and opposite sex spouses when it comes to the benefits we offer under our health insurance plan.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.
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