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Gay Wal-Mart Workers Sue Over Benefit Denials

BOSTON (CN) - Wal-Mart illegally denied insurance to the spouses of gay employees, alleges a federal class action led by a Massachusetts woman whose wife has cancer.

"Wal-Mart's discriminatory conduct was a conscious or purposeful effort to demean employees who were married to a person of the same sex," the complaint filed Tuesday states.

New Bedford-based Jacqueline Cote says she has worked for Wal-Mart continuously since 1999, in stores throughout Maine and Massachusetts.

Diana Smithson, whom Cote married in Provincetown in 2004, also used to work for Wal-Mart, according to the complaint.

Cote says Smithson left the store in 2008 to be the primary caregiver for Cote's mother who was battling dementia and living with them at the time.

Though Smithson used to have her own health insurance through Wal-Mart, she lost that coverage when she resigned in 2008, according to the complaint.

Cote says each time has tried to enroll her wife in her insurance plan, Wal-Mart has turned her down.

A Wal-Mart representative allegedly informed Cote that the store did not offer coverage to same-sex spouses.

Cote says her wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in August 2012 and required many expensive treatments such as chemotherapy.

Two months after that diagnosis, Smithson lost the expensive individual coverage she had purchased after her COBRA coverage ran out, according to the complaint.

Wal-Mart once again refused to let Cote enroll Smithson for spousal benefits in 2012, but the couple thought they were finally in the clear when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional in 2013, according to the complaint.

When a Wal-Mart representative informed Cote that it had no intention of changing its discriminatory policy, Smithson remained uninsured, the complaint alleges.

Cote says the policy has cost her and her wife, "at a minimum, $150,000 of uninsured medical expenses from approximately 2012 to Jan. 1, 2014."

That burden has likewise taken its toll on Smithson's health and recovery, according to the complaint.

Wal-Mart finally extended spousal health insurance benefits to the same-sex spouses of Wal-Mart employees last year.

Cote notes that the store still believes, however, "that it could legally rescind that extension of coverage at any time."

"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 complaint states.

Upon investigating Cote's case, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission which found that she "was treated differently and denied benefits because of her sex, since such coverage would be provided if she were a woman married to a man," according to the complaint.

The EEOC finding included a 90-day "right to sue" under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Citing "respect" for Cote, Wal-Mart spokesman Brian Nick declined to comment, "other than to say our benefits coverage previous to the 2014 update was consistent with the law."

The class is represented by Peter Romer-Friedman with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and by Gary Buseck with the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders.

"Walmart broke federal law when it denied vital benefits to workers who have same-sex spouses," Romer-Friedman said in a statement. "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."

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