A federal agency says Wal-Mart discriminated against a lesbian employee who sought health coverage for her ailing wife and has ordered "a just resolution" for violating her civil rights.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ordered the retail giant to work with Jacqueline Cote of New Bedford, Massachusetts, who hopes the determination will help her pay off $100,000 in medical bills.
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In a Jan. 29 EEOC ruling, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, the agency said Cote "was treated differently and denied benefits because of her sex."
Cote tried to enroll her partner in Wal-Mart's health plan repeatedly starting in 2008, but coverage was denied and the company didn't provide it until 2014. In 2012, Cote's wife, Diana Smithson, was diagnosed with cancer.
The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company said it expanded its policy in 2014 to include same-sex couples.
"While we disagree with the finding of reasonable cause, we have notified the EEOC of our willingness to meet with them and Miss Cote to discuss resolving the matter," spokesman Randy Hargrove said.
Cote, 52, and Smithson, 63, met while working at a Wal-Mart store in Augusta, Maine, in 1999. They moved to Massachusetts where they continued to work for Wal-Mart and where they married in May 2004, just days after the state legalized same-sex marriage.
Smithson quit in 2007 to take care of Cote's elderly mother. That prompted Cote to try to add Smithson to her health plan the following year.
Cote said she tried to enroll online, but the system wouldn't let her proceed when she indicated her spouse was a woman. When she sought an official explanation, she was told that same-sex spouses were not covered.
Each year thereafter, she tried and failed to enroll Smithson — including in 2012, when Smithson was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
"I was shocked," said Cote, who was working in the company's East Falmouth, Massachusetts, store at the time. She said her colleagues in every Wal-Mart store she has worked in have been supportive of the couple.
In 2013, Cote reached out to Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC the following year.
"If she was a woman married to a man, she would have been given spousal health benefits," said Allison Wright, an attorney with GLAD who is representing Cote.
Wright said the next step will be attempting settlement negotiations with Wal-Mart.
"We're estimating up to about $100,000 worth of medical expenses and other damages because of Wal-Mart's discriminatory denial," she said.
Cote said the couple paid out of pocket for Smithson's medical expenses in 2012, when Smithson lost her private health coverage, and up until Jan. 1, 2014, when Wal-Mart's expanded policy took effect.
The couple has "an inordinate amount of bills," said Cote, who now works in Wal-Mart's Swansea, Massachusetts, store as an office associate. Smithson was in remission for 18 months but resumed chemotherapy treatments last month.
"I'm not only doing this for me," Cote said. "I'm doing this for other gay and lesbian couples that have been discriminated against as well."