Matthew Handley Chosen as Finalist for Public Justice’s Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

May 29, 2018

Public Justice announced its finalists for its 2018 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. Among the four teams of lawyers chosen were Matthew Handley and his co-counsel for their efforts in Cote v. Wal-Mart on behalf of a class of Wal-Mart employees who were denied health insurance coverage for same-sex spouses.

When longtime Wal-Mart employee Jacqueline Cote attempted to enroll her wife, Dee Smithson, in the company’s health insurance plan, she was told that Dee did not qualify for spousal benefits because the company only offered health insurance coverage to opposite-sex spouses. Dee, who had previously been treated for breast cancer, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in August 2012 and lost her individual health insurance two months later. Over the next year, the couple racked up more than $150,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses for Dee’s treatment.

In 2014, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders filed a class-based charge of discrimination against Wal-Mart with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that Wal-Mart’s refusal to give spousal benefits to employees who were legally married to persons of the same sex violated Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination. In January 2015, the EEOC agreed that it did.

In the wake of the EEOC’s decision, Jackie filed a nationwide class action to seek justice and equality for all Wal-Mart employees whose spouses had been denied health benefits. Following months of litigation and settlement negotiations (including dozens of hours of mediation on three separate days), class counsel reached a historic $7.5 million settlement – the first class certification and settlement for LGBT workers challenging workplace discrimination. The settlement provided substantial monetary relief to the couples who were impacted by Walmart’s policy, with class members receiving payments that were greater than the value of the health benefits that had been denied, along with a promise from Walmart to treat same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally when providing health benefits. Through court-approved notice, class members were identified and able to submit claims to receive significant payments under the settlement.

The New York Times hailed the settlement as a major victory, adding that the settlement “signals how legal doctrine on discrimination against gays and lesbians is rapidly changing, making it increasingly likely to be considered a form of sex discrimination,” and that the settlement “reflect[s] the growing acceptance of [the EEOC’s] analysis [of LGBT rights] by private sector employers.”

Matthew Handley was a proud member of the team that fought for and won this legal victory, and is honored to have been chosen to be among the finalists for this award. The team was led by Peter Romer-Friedman of Outten & Golden and included Gary D. Buseck, Allison Wright, and Janson Wu of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders; Christine Dinan of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs; Juno Turner and Sally J. Abrahamson of Outten & Golden; and Peter Grossi, John Freedman, Sarah Warlick, and Whitney Moore of Arnold & Porter.

Public Justice presents its Trial Lawyer of the Year Award to the attorney(s) who made the greatest contribution to the public interest within the past year by trying or settling a precedent-setting, socially significant case. Public Justice pursues high impact lawsuits to combat social and economic injustice, protect the Earth’s sustainability, and challenge predatory corporate conduct and government abuses.

We are lawyers who seek to improve the world. We fight for: workers deprived of wages, consumers deceived about products, tenants denied access to housing, farmers mistreated by processors, parents deprived of adequate parental leave, investors who were defrauded, small businesses harmed by antitrust violations, persons with disabilities denied access, whistleblowers who uncover fraud, and women and communities of color subject to discrimination.

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