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Walmart Sued for Denying Employee Benefits to Same-Sex Couple

A Walmart employee has sued the retail titan for denying medical insurance for her wife.

In a complaint filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Boston, Jacqueline Cote alleges that Walmart violated Title VII—the federal civil rights law that prohibits employment bias based on sex, religion, race and national origin. The lawsuit seeks nationwide class-action status.

“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, senior staff attorney for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), said in a press release.

Cote, who works as an associate at a Walmart store in Swansea, Massachusetts, said in the lawsuit that starting in 2006 and continuing through 2012, she attempted to add her wife, Diana Smithson, a former Walmart employee who is now in hospice care battling ovarian cancer, to the retailer’s insurance scheme. When she entered Smithson’s gender as female, she was told that the company didn’t offer health insurance coverage to same-sex spouses.

“I felt like a second class citizen. I had to keep trying; I wouldn’t give up,” Cote said.

By the time Walmart changed its policy in January 2014 to start offering benefits to domestic partners of U.S. employees regardless of their sexual orientation, the lawsuit said the couple had racked up more than $150,000 in medical debt.

Last year, Cote filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which said in January that Walmart’s treatment of the situation constituted unlawful gender discrimination and in May issued a “right to sue” letter.

According to a statement from Walmart: “We have not yet seen the details of the lawsuit and out of respect for Ms. Cote we are not going to comment other than to say our benefits coverage previous to the 2014 update was consistent with the law.”