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Walmart may be sued for a same-sex marriage policy it already changed

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An employee rings up sales at a cash register at a Walmart in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles.Photograph by Robyn Beck — AFP/Getty Images

It was only a few months ago that Walmart came out in public opposition to a corporate “religious freedom” bill that detractors said was discriminatory against LGBT individuals. The company has continued to score points as one of the biggest corporate supporters of same-sex marriage. And yet, it now faces a potential class-action lawsuit over its former policy of denying benefits to the spouses of gay employees.

Jacqueline Cote, a former Walmart employee from New Bedford, Massachusetts, says Walmart denied medical insurance for her wife, who had ovarian cancer and is now in hospice care. This was before 2014, when the company, No. 1 on the Fortune 500, changed that policy and began offering benefits to same-sex spouses. Cote says the couple incurred more than $150,000 in medical bills at the time.

“I’m following through with this for my wife,” Cote told reporters, “and actually for anyone else who has suffered a similar injustice.”

Cote worked for Walmart until 2008 at stores in Massachusetts and Maine. She first filed her complaint last year with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; the commission ruled in January that Walmart did violate gender discrimination laws by denying her benefits.

Now Cote is seeking class-action status for her case on behalf of other current or former Walmart employees in same-sex marriages who were married before Walmart changed its policy. Cote’s suit also aims to ensure that Walmart be made to keep its new same-sex benefits in place.

Walmart will have the chance to file a full response, but for now it has put out a brief statement: “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.”

This case raises the question of whether more like it will emerge now that the Supreme Court has effectively legalized gay marriage in all states.

Allison Wright, a lawyer with GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, the advocacy group that filed Cote’s lawsuit), told the Boston Globe that her organization believes other large corporations have similar policies in place that could open them up to related lawsuits. “We still have work to do in the community,” Wright said, “to make sure employers are respecting LGBTQ families and providing them with equal benefits.”