A gay discrimination lawsuit has been filed in Boston federal court against Wal-Mart on the grounds that the corporate monolith failed to extend health insurance to the spouses of homosexual employees. The Wal-Mart lawsuit is poised to pit the United States’ largest retailer against social justice warriors across the globe. The timing couldn’t be worse for Wal-Mart as same-sex marriage was legalized across the country less than a month ago.
The class-action complaint was filed by Wal-Mart employee Jacqueline Cote. She states the retailer refused to extend health coverage to her wife for a number of years. Cote, 52, believes that this alleged transgression is a clear violation of Massachusetts’ fair-employment law as well as a violation of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act.
Although Wal-Mart did provide benefits to same-sex couples back in January of 2014, it was too late in Cote’s wife’s case. Her spouse, Diana Smithson, had accumulated medical bills of over $150,000 while combating ovarian cancer. Smithson paid all of her medical bills out of pocket as she was not provided with Cote’s healthcare insurance due to Wal-Mart’s previous policy that barred same-sex spouses from receiving coverage.
Cote argues that Wal-Mart should have immediately provided healthcare benefits to her spouse as the federal Defense of Marriage Act had been overturned in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Act defined marriage as a unison of strictly heterosexual couples. However, it is worth noting that Wal-Mart did alter its healthcare insurance policy within two months of the high court’s ruling. By January of 2014, the retailer offered health coverage to same-sex spouses throughout the United States. Wal-Mart will argue that its benefit coverage prior to the 2014 update was compliant with the law.
Cote believes that she has a strong case as she previously took her argument before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This group issued a determination last January stating that the retailer’s treatment of Cote and her spouse amounted to illegal sex discrimination. Cote’s Wal-Mart lawsuit is important as it is is the first of its kind to be filed in the aftermath of the nationwide legalization of gay marriage. If she obtains a court order that legally requires Wal-Mart to provide benefits, it will set an important precedent that has the potential to impact thousands of other employers and same-sex couples.