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Walmart sued for refusal to provide health insurance benefits to same-sex spouses

A Walmart employee who has worked for Walmart in Maine and Massachusetts filed a class action lawsuit earlier this month against Walmart because the company did not provide her wife with health insurance coverage. The employee, Jackie Cote, has worked for Walmart since 1999 and she has been married to her wife Dee since 2004. Up until January 1, 2014 Walmart refused to provide Dee with health insurance benefits even though it provided health insurance benefits to spouses of employees who were married to someone of the opposite sex.

The complaint filed in court to initiate the lawsuit explains why it is important to get a ruling from the court on the illegality of Walmart’s past practice of denying health insurance coverage to same-sex spouses. The complaint explains that, while Walmart has recently extended health insurance coverage to same-sex spouses, the company disavows any legal obligation to continue providing health insurance coverage to same-sex spouses. “Benefits provided by Walmart as a matter of grace that can be eliminated at Walmart’s discretion are not secure and could potentially be withdrawn just when large health care costs are incurred,” the complaint states.

Ms. Cote is represented by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) as well as the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (Lawyers’ Committee). The attorneys at GLAD and the Lawyers’ Committee have advanced a few different legal arguments to support their claim that Walmart’s policy of excluding same-sex spouses from its health insurance coverage discriminates on the basis of sex. One of the more interesting arguments is as follows: “Walmart refused to provide spousal health insurance benefits for Jackie’s spouse because Jackie is a woman married to another woman, even though Walmart would have provided such coverage if Jackie were a man married to a woman.” In other words, the plaintiffs are arguing that Walmart engaged in sex discrimination when it excluded Jackie’s spouse from its health insurance coverage because if Jackie had been a man, Walmart would not have excluded her spouse from coverage.

“Walmart broke federal law when it denied vital benefits to workers who have same-sex spouses,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, the Lawyers’ Committee’s Deputy Director of Litigation. “In an era where marriage equality is supported by the American people and the U.S. Supreme Court, it is hard to believe that Walmart would treat its LGBTQ workers so poorly. Because Walmart’s discrimination harmed working families across the country, we are filing a national class action to ensure that Walmart finally provides these families the equal benefits federal law guarantees.”