A Winthrop woman is asking a court to penalize Wal-Mart for denying health care benefits coverage to her wife for five months in 2013 because the two have the same gender.

The complaint by Jamie Cousins against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores East, which operates the Augusta Wal-Mart store, where Cousins is employed, says, “Cousins had to watch her wife suffer tremendous pain due to the lack of health care coverage for treatment.”

The complaint itself, which was removed by Wal-Mart from Kennebec County Superior Court to U.S. District Court in Bangor, neither names Cousins’ wife nor indicates anything else about the woman’s medical condition.

Portland attorney Rebecca Webber, who filed the complaint on Cousins’ behalf, said in an emailed response to questions that the case “is about the defendant’s promotion of the culture of focus on self.”

“What that means is that, if you do not look like ME or if you do not believe as I do, it is OK to exclude you and it is OK to treat you as less valued a human being as my SELF, and my group of people like ME,” she wrote. “This case is about changing that view to one that is inclusive and that promotes the intrinsic value of all human beings, regardless of difference.”

Cousins, reached Thursday evening, declined to respond to questions, saying, “At this time, I don’t really want to comment.”

Wal-Mart, represented by attorneys Rachel Wertheimer and Terence McCourt, has sought a stay in the proceedings, saying the issues in the case are identical to a case underway in Massachusetts, Jacqueline A. Cote, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“Plaintiff Cousins is also a putative class member in Cote, a prior filed action in the District of Massachusetts, which brings the same claim, as well as others, against (Wal-Mart Stores Inc.) on behalf of a putative nationwide class,” they wrote.

Wal-Mart’s attorneys also note, “Effective January 1, 2014, Wal-Mart began providing same-sex health care benefits to its associates in the United States.”

Randy Hargrove, director of corporate communications for Wal-Mart, said Friday via email, “Walmart did not offer benefits to same sex couples when Ms. Cousins applied for them in August of 2013, and that coverage was not required by law. Walmart expanded its policy in January 2014 to cover same sex spouses and domestic partners. We intend to defend the company against the allegations.” He added that the company’s expansion of benefits in 2014 was voluntary, and it was unaware of any medical bills that would have been submitted for payment in 2013 under such a policy.

On Aug. 18, Magistrate Judge John C. Nivison allowed more time for Wal-Mart to provide responses to Cousins’ complaint, setting a deadline of Sept. 14.

Webber outlined some of the background in the court filing, saying that Cousins first filed a complaint of gender discrimination on Sept. 9. 2013, with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

However, before the case was acted on, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “found reasonable grounds to believe that discrimination occurred with respect to Cousins on the basis of gender.”

The EEOC then gave Cousins permission to go to court after it issued a “notice of failed conciliation.”

Cousins’ complaint says she began working for Wal-Mart in 2002 and married her wife in July 2013. Same-sex marriage became legal in Maine in December 2012.

She sought benefits for her wife beginning in August 2013 and was repeatedly rejected, she says.

Her complaint seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting Wal-Mart from retaliating against Cousins plus damages for lost benefits as well as punitive damages.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams