Wal-Mart Accused of Refusing to Provide Same-Sex Marriage Couples Spousal Health Insurance Benefits

Yarleyn Mena and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the United States, faces class-action allegations that it discriminated against its gay employees seeking health-insurance coverage for their spouses.

Former Wal-Mart employee, Jacqueline Cote, alleges that Wal-Mart violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by not providing spousal health insurance to her wife, Diana Smithson. In 2004, the Cote and Smithson legally married in Massachusetts. Wal-Mart provides its employees with the option to receive health-insurance benefits for their spouses, yet until January 2014, the Massachusetts-based Wal-Mart store did not offer health insurance to its employees’ spouses in same-sex marriages. Smithson and Cote paid for Smithson’s health-care insurance under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). After her COBRA period ended in 2008, Smithson purchased individual-health insurance. When that health insurance became too expensive for the couple, they sought Wal-Mart’s spousal coverage. Cote repeatedly filled out an online form to enroll in Wal-Mart’s spousal health insurance plan, but because Cote entered her and her partner’s sex as female, the program would not process her application, instead directing her to call Wal-Mart’s offices. A Wal-Mart representative told Cote that Wal-Mart does not offer health coverage to same-sex spouses despite Cote otherwise being fully qualified to receive the benefits. In 2012, Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Consequently, from 2012 to 2014, the couple accrued approximately $150,000 of uninsured-medical expenses.

Cote argues that Wal-Mart discriminated against Smithson by denying her health-insurance coverage because of her gender; Smithson would have been eligible to receive health benefits had she been a man. Carisa Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and Cote’s representative, says, “We want to send a message to companies big and small that it is illegal to deny benefits to the same-sex spouses of their employees if they provide the same benefits to employees with opposite-sex spouses.”

Health insurance is a crucial part of employment for many workers like Cote who have spouses that are in need of health benefits. Companies cannot be allowed to continue to discriminate against these workers by denying them their rightful health benefits.

Further, as we have recently discussed, the EEOC has just expanded its interpretation of Title VII gender discrimination to include sexual-orientation discrimination. While this was a step in the right direction, lawsuits like Cote’s emphasize the need for federal laws protecting against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in the workplace.

If you believe your employer has discriminated against you, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.