Cote v. Walmart
Update July 14, 2015: GLAD and co-counsel Peter Romer-Friedman of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (WLC) have filed a class action complaint against Walmart, charging the retailer with discriminating against employees who were married to same-sex spouses by denying their spouses health insurance benefits.
The suit alleges that Walmart violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act by discriminating against Jacqueline (Jackie) Cote based on her sex, and seeks to demonstrate how existing federal law can be used to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) workers.
This class action lawsuit flows from a complaint GLAD filed on Jackie’s behalf with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) in September 2014. On January 29, 2014, the EEOC issued a final determination stating that Walmart’s treatment of Jackie constituted unlawful sex discrimination. On May 29, 2015, the EEOC issued a right to sue letter.
Background of Jackie Cote's Complaint
Update June 1: Our client Jacqueline Cote received a notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC on June 1, 2015.
Update January 29: The EEOC issued a notice of probable cause on January 29, indicating that Walmart's refusal to allow Jackie to include her spouse, Diana, on her health insurance did constitute discrimination based on Jackie's sex.
GLAD has filed a charge of discrimination against Walmart with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of Jacqueline Cote. Cote, a Walmart employee, was denied spousal health insurance for her wife, Diana Smithson, who is currently battling ovarian cancer. The charge alleges that in refusing to provide spousal coverage, Walmart violated both state and federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment.
Cote works as an associate in the Swansea, MA Walmart store. Starting in 2006 and continuing through 2012, she attempted to add Smithson to her insurance during Walmart’s open enrollment periods, trying to access a benefit available to all other qualified Walmart employees. Cote was particularly concerned about health insurance because of her wife’s health history – Smithson had had a bout with breast cancer in 1995.
But when Cote entered her spouse’s gender as “female,” the online system would stop her from proceeding further. When she called Walmart’s home office to investigate, she was told that Walmart did not offer health insurance coverage to same-sex spouses.
While Walmart ultimately announced that it would change its policy in 2013 - which went into effect on January 1, 2014 - by that time Cote and Smithson had racked up medical bills topping $150,000, been hounded by bill collectors, and lost many nights’ sleep to worry.
“All that Jackie wanted was to be treated like all other Walmart employees, and to take care of her spouse. Instead, Walmart chose to discriminate against its married gay and lesbian employees.” - Janson Wu, GLAD Senior Staff Attorney
Diana Smithson and Jacqueline Cote. Photo: 777 Portraits Myrtle Beach, SC
“I felt like a second class citizen. I had to keep trying; I wouldn’t give up.” - Jacqueline Cote