February 23, 2016
By Steven Wishnia and Neal Tepel
Boston, MA – Did Walmart’s refusal to pay for health insurance for workers’ same-sex spouses qualify as discrimination based on sex? Jackie Cote, the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against the company, is saying that it is, and therefore illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Because Walmart didn’t extend spousal health benefits to employees in same-sex marriages until January 2014, Cote, who has worked there since 1999, ran up more than $150,000 in medical bills after her wife, Diana Smithson, was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2012. “I thought that they would really have no choice because I was legally married in the state of Massachusetts,” Cote says. “The sex of her spouse is the reason for treating people differently—isn’t that discrimination based on sex?” asks attorney Gary Buseck, legal director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which is helping represent Cote. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that discrimination against a woman for not looking “feminine” enough and same-sex sexual harassment qualified as sex discrimination, and last year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Courts said it would treat discrimination against gays and lesbians as sex-discrimination claims. Mediation in the case begins Feb. 22. If Walmart and Cote’s lawyers don’t reach a settlement, the suit is scheduled for trial in federal court in Massachusetts in November. Read more