Walmart could soon face an EEOC lawsuit alleging the retail giant engaged in sex discrimination when it denied health insurance benefits to the same-sex spouse of an employee in Massachusetts.
The EEOC has found reasonable cause to believe that Walmart discriminated against Jacqueline Cote, who began working for the chain in 1998. She married her wife in 2003, when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage.
In 2006, Cote tried adding her wife to her employer-provided health coverage, but Walmart turned her down, as it would for the next seven years. Then in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, clearing the way for same-sex spouses to gain legal standing in matters involving, for example, health benefits.
Walmart began offering health coverage to same-sex spouses in 2014, but by then it was too late for Cote and her wife, who had already racked up $100,000 in medical bills after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
Last year, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), a Boston nonprofit law firm, filed an EEOC complaint on Cote’s behalf. A GLAD statement said, “The charge alleges that in refusing to provide spousal coverage, Walmart violated both state and federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment.”
On Jan. 29, the EEOC agreed, finding that Cote “was subjected to employment discrimination in that she was treated differently and denied benefits because of her sex, since such coverage would have been provided if she were a woman married to a man.”
The case now enters the EEOC conciliation phase. If Walmart does not settle, expect a high-profile lawsuit later this year.