Walmart settles same-sex benefits discrimination lawsuit for $7.5 million

Lawyers for the largest retail chain on the planet have agreed to settle a lawsuit that accused Walmart of discriminating against LGBTQ employees by denying health insurance benefits to their same-sex spouses.

Under the deal reported by The New York Times, Walmart will put $7.5 million into a fund to compensate those employees who were denied spousal benefits during the three years before Jan. 1, 2014, when the company changed its policy. More than 1,000 people may be eligible, The Times reported.

The settlement comes 9 months late for Dee Smithson, the wife of a Massachusetts woman who filed the class action lawsuit.

Diana "Dee" Smithson, left, and Jacqueline Cote Derek de Koff

Diana “Dee” Smithson, left, and Jacqueline Cote

Jacqueline Cote, sued in July 2015 in U.S. District Court in Boston, seeking damages for the couple and any other Walmart employees whose same-sex spouses were denied medical insurance.

Cote said Wal-Mart repeatedly denied insurance for Smithson before 2014, when it started offering benefits for same-sex spouses.

The couple married in 2004. They incurred at least $150,000 in medical costs after Smithson was diagnosed with cancer in 2012.

“We’re happy both sides could come together to reach a resolution,” Sally Welborn, a Walmart senior vice president, told the newspaper in a statement. “We will continue to not distinguish between same- and opposite-sex spouses when it comes to the benefits we offer under our health insurance plan.”

A joint statement issued by Pride at Work, the United Food and Commercial Worker’s Union’s UFCW OUTReach group and the organizers of the Making Change at Walmart national campaign hailed the settlement but called for vigilance given Walmart’s record of addressing the concerns of its LGBTQ employees.

“Actions speak louder than words, and until now, Walmart’s actions regarding LGBTQ workers’ and their spouses’ health benefits were discriminatory and hurtful. We are pleased to hear that Walmart has admitted wrongdoing in Cote et al. v. Walmart Stores, Inc., and that they have agreed to abide by anti-discrimination policies, and to make those who have been discriminated against whole. It is our hope that Walmart accepts how wrong they were so that not one more Walmart worker will have to experience such injustice and bigotry.

“We congratulate Jacqueline for her bravery, and we hope she inspires other Walmart workers to come forward and speak up about intolerance. In addition, we hope that Walmart realizes that this is just a start, and that too many of its hard-working Walmart men and women face poverty-level wages, poor benefits and unfair workplaces. Now, more than ever, it is time for Walmart to wake up and change.”

The paper’s report indicated that a settlement of this kind could be a bellwether for other legal claims by the LGBTQ community, in equating discrimination based on sexual orientation with the classic definition of sex discrimination. The message it sends to corporate America in a time of potentially endangered rights for LGBTQ Americans could have significant ramifications going forward.

The settlement is pending the approval of a judge which The Times reported might take several weeks.

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