Owning a Restaurant

Denying Service to Restaurant Customers

Customer service in restaurants gets tricky if a patron is drunk, unruly or is not wearing appropriate clothing. We discuss when restaurants can deny customers service and tell them to go somewhere else.

Can restaurant owners deny service to customers?

Denying Service to Restaurant Customers

Not too long ago, a steakhouse owner in Louisville, Kentucky asked O.J. Simpson to leave his restaurant and later said "I didn't want to serve him because of my convictions of what he's done to those families."

Was this legal or illegal? In what instances can a restaurant decide not to serve a customer?

After the incident, O.J's lawyer said that his client's ejection was about race and that he intended to file a lawsuit and might go after the restaurant's liquor license.

One wonders whether the restaurant owner realized that he might be putting his restaurant at risk when he denied service to this high-profile customer.

Restaurant owners, take note. If you own a restaurant, it's important to understand the laws regarding denying service.

Generally speaking, restaurants are allowed to implement neutral patron conduct rules, dress codes or other neutral admission policies. Such policies must apply equally to all persons regardless of their race, color, sex, gender identity or other protected characteristics.

However, restaurants that have policies that adversely affect individuals based on specified protected classifications risk significant exposure under federal civil rights laws. The same is true if the restaurant does not apply their policies equally to all patrons.

Beyond that basic premise, the laws, and the case law, vary from state to state.

In California, for example, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, enacted in 1959, says that: "All persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever."

In Stoumen v. Reilly, a case interpreting the Unruh Act, the appellate court wrote: "Members of the public of lawful age have a right to patronize a public restaurant and a bar so long as they are acting properly and are not committing illegal and immoral acts. The proprietor has no right to exclude or reject a patron except for good cause, and if he does so without good cause, he is liable in damages."

If you are not in California, you're probably wondering: What about my state?

You'll want to talk to a local lawyer to learn more about local statutes, regulations and judicial decisions affecting house rules and denial of service.

We've just covered the basics of denial of service laws for restaurants, and the rules can change at any moment. As such, you should always seek the advice of legal counsel when formulating your restaurant's house rules.

By the way, if you are wondering what happened with the O.J. Simpson denial of service incident, no lawsuit was filed for denial of service. In the end, O.J. and his attorney just decided to simply let the matter die.

Nonetheless, if you deny a customer service, there may be consequences. Always make sure you think things through thoroughly before deciding not to serve a customer and make sure you have witnesses to your actions so you are covered just in case the matter ever does end up in court.

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Have you had any experiences regarding refusing to serve a customer that you'd care to share? Please leave your comments, tips and questions below.

  • San posted on 3/9/2009
    I liked this article. Where can I get information on how to start a restaurant?
  • Ken Gaebler posted on 3/10/2009
    Ken Gaebler
    San, I would recommend that you read our article on Starting a Restaurant. It offers some good advice.
  • Mary posted on 3/19/2009
    I have a question. Can I denial service for a ex employee that was fired because was giving free drinks for customers and that I have all the paper work sing at her employee file??
  • Janet McCollister posted on 8/19/2009
    Janet McCollister
    My husband and I were denied service at an upscale restaurant/bar because I told the manager not to touch me. As I was walking in he did not see me and almost ran into me - he put his arm around my waist as if I needed help getting by him. I did not - and the crowd was not too crowded to walk through. I told him not to touch me. He told the bar attendant not to serve us and then came and told us that he was offended and they were not going to be serving us and asked us to leave.
  • DAVID RIVERS posted on 3/29/2011
    I recently encountered a problem at a restaurant that I am currently working at as a server. A very large party of ppl. came in after a ball game 30 mins before closing. I greeted them as usual, and was given a snotty attitude by the leader of the group.(a lady) when I approached to get the order at her table, her children were running around the restaurant, and tipped over another patrons glass and made a huge mess. Another table asked if I could change their service plates out because part of this party was waving their hair, and touching their nose, etc. near them. The ppl did not wait to be seated, but instead acted like they ruled the restaurant, running aroungd and acting crazy. When I approached the second large group to get the order, I told them that I could not babysit their children tonight, that they would have to act in a reasonable manner. They were offended but so was I. I also serve as service manager, and when the ppl. complained about my "bad attitude" to the general manager, he did not support my decision to not serve them. The leader left me a nasty hand-written note, and I was told I could not charge gratuity on the check, although it is listed on the menu. I was just wondering if I am within the law for stating my opinion, and sticking with my decision on this issue?....-Frustrated?
  • cathy posted on 6/25/2011
    In Massachusetts I was asked to leave a restaurant because I was told I complained to another patron that their raffle was fixed - all not true. The patron that they were referring to I have no contact with. I was approached by the manager and a bar maid and they both asked me to take my business elsewhere. This bar maid had it in for me because I no longer have her serve me. This is a restaurant that I only have gone in 4 times in 6 months. Never had a problem with me re drinking, conduct, actually I hardly drink. There is more to the story but actually I was discriminated and retailated against over another employee that they fired - all can be clearly proved but wanted to know if I could bring any suit against this establishment for asking me to leave based on retailation. All answers would be appreciated. Thanks.

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