A federal court judge has approved a $7.5 million settlement between Walmart and current and former employees who claimed that the the retailer unfairly discriminated against them by denying health benefits to their same-sex spouses.
The lead plaintiff in the case, a Massachusetts woman who began working at Walmart in 1999, said she repeatedly attempted to add her wife to her Walmart-sponsored insurance plan, but was told the company had a policy of not insuring same-sex couples.
As a result she claimed that her wife had to purchase more expensive insurance on the individual marketplace — coverage that was lost while the spouse was undergoing costly treatments for ovarian cancer.
Even after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, opening up federal tax and insurance benefits to same-sex couples, the plaintiff said that Walmart still maintained its policy of denying benefits to same-sex spouses.
Walmart eventually changed its policy in 2014, but by then the plaintiff said her family had tallied $150,000 in medical debt because of the retailer’s refusal to offer the same benefits available to male-female married couples.
The employee filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which determined in Jan. 2015 that Walmart had discriminated against her based on gender, since the health insurance she sought “would be provided if she were a woman married to a man.”
She then brought this lawsuit [PDF] against her employer, alleging violations of federal civil rights law and state employment laws, and seeking to represent other Walmart workers who had similarly been denied coverage for their spouse.
Walmart and the plaintiff reached a settlement [PDF] in April that would pay out a total of $7.5 million to the whole plaintiff class. The judge in the case approved the settlement on Monday.
Once the attorneys have been paid, the more than 300 or so plaintiffs will split the remaining $5.5 million.
U.S. District Judge William G. Young said the award is fair and reasonable, reports the Boston Globe.
“This was a carefully crafted and sensible resolution of a complex matter, and it reflects well on the parties from both sides,” he said from the bench on Monday.
The settlement also ensures that Walmart won’t revert to its prior policy of excluding same-sex spouses from its health insurance plan.
The lead plaintiff said in a statement that she’s pleased Walmart has resolved the issue for her and others who are in same-sex marriages.
“It’s a relief to bring this chapter of my life to a close,” she said.
Walmart also said it’s happy that both sides could reach a resolution.
“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,” Sally Welborn, senior vice president for the company, said in a statement.