Outside a Wal-Mart location.

The suit alleges that Wal-Mart employees in lawful same-sex marriages prior to January 2014 were denied spousal health benefits by the company.

WASHINGTON — The Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs on Tuesday sought class-action status in a lawsuit filed against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. accusing the retail giant of discrimination against married gay employees under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.

Jaqueline A. Cote, a Wal-Mart employee who is currently on a leave of absence from her job, is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, which was filed by GLAD and the WLC in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts on Tuesday.

The suit alleges that the world’s largest retailer discriminated against Cotes’ same-sex spouse as well as other employees who had “lawful, valid marriages with a person of the same sex and were unlawfully deprived of employment-based spousal health-insurance benefits because of their sex.”

Wal-Mart employees in lawful same-sex marriages were denied spousal health benefits by the company up until January 2014, when the retailer changed its policy to allow health-insurance benefits for same-sex spouses and domestic partners, according to the lawsuit.

Wal-Mart on Tuesday defended its position in an e-mailed statement.

“Wal-Mart expanded its benefits starting in January 2014 and currently covers same-sex spouses and domestic partners,” the company 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.”

Attorneys for GLAD and the WLC said in a press call that there are potentially thousands of current and former Wal-Mart employees who were denied benefits before the retailer started offering benefits to same-sex spouses in 2014.

The case comes at a pivotal time for the gay community, which celebrated a major victory with the landmark Supreme Court decision on June 26, which legalized same-sex marriage nationally.
Cotes, who has been working for Wal-Mart since 1999, married her spouse, Diana “Dee” Smithson, in May 2004. Smithson also worked for Wal-Mart from 1999 until 2008 but left her job to become a caregiver for Cotes’ ailing mother, according to court documents.

Cotes repeatedly tried to enroll Smithson in her insurance plan provided by Wal-Mart after Smithson’s own private insurance became too expensive but was repeatedly denied coverage and told that the retailer did not offer insurance to same-sex spouses, according to the lawsuit.

Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in August 2012 and underwent numerous and expensive treatment, including chemotherapy, and lost her individual insurance coverage, the lawsuit said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled against Wal-Mart in January and found that the company’s refusal to extend health coverage to Cotes’ spouse “constituted discrimination on the basis of her sex, female.”

Cotes claimed she and Smithson have “suffered significant economic and noneconomic harm, including negative financial consequences, health issues, emotional and physical harm, as well as pain and suffering.”

She also charged that, because of the company’s “discriminatory national policy,” the couple has incurred at a minimum $150,000 of uninsured medical expenses from 2012 to January 2014.

“Although Wal-Mart voluntarily extended spousal health-insurance benefits to the same-sex spouses of Wal-Mart employees beginning on Jan. 1, 2014, it is and has been Wal-Mart’s position that it has no legal obligation to extend spousal health-insurance benefits to employees with same-sex spouses,” the suit charged. “Wal-Mart’s position that it has no continuing, legal obligation to provide these benefits equally to same-sex spouses creates significant uncertainty and insecurity for Jackie, Dee and other same-sex married couples, renders their benefits insecure and constitutes continuing and ongoing sex discrimination.”

The lawsuit alleges violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the federal Equal Pay Act and the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices law and seeks to make legally binding and permanent the retailers’ health benefits for same-sex spouses. It also seeks to permanently enjoin Wal-Mart from denying coverage, as well as damages for the benefits that employees lost, including the “out-of-pocket medical expenses their spouses incurred due to lack of health-insurance coverage, damages for the emotional and noneconomic harm that class members suffered and punitive damages.”

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