Owning a Restaurant

Refusing to Service a Customer

When can a business owner refuse to serve a customer? We take a look at situations in which a restaurant cannot refuse service to a customer. If you refused service to any of these customer types, you may find yourself explaining your actions to a judge.

If you own a business, you occasionally may find that you don't want to serve a customer.

Be careful. Refusing to serve a customer can result in legal action if the customer feels they were unjustly discriminated against.

In this short article, we examine when it not OK to refuse to serve a customer.

Reasons That Cannot Be Used to Justify Refusing to Service a Customer

Although laws vary from state to state, business owners typically cannot refuse service to customers based on the following:

  • Religious, social or racial background: Exclusion of any person due to racial background, social class or religious preference is prohibited.
  • Age: A business establishment cannot arbitrarily exclude a would-be customer from its premises strictly because of the person's age. There are some exceptions, however, in which age can be used to deny service (e.g. serving alcohol).
  • Sexual preference: Exclusion of men or women, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is considered arbitrary discrimination. Don't do it.
  • Sexual identity: Restaurants cannot refuse service to transgender individuals. In addition, restaurants cannot refuse to allow transgender individuals to use their restrooms.
  • Reputation: You cannot exclude somebody from your restaurant simply because of their reputation. Establishment of the fact that persons of ill repute congregate in a particular establishment is not a reason to have them removed.
  • Dress: There are no laws that prevent dress codes from being established. However, many lawsuits have been decided in favor of the plaintiffs because of the court's interpretation on what the local community standards are for casual dress, leisure wear or formal attire. Importantly, once a restaurant dress code is established for customers, never permit exceptions. If exceptions are made, a business may later face charges of discrimination for unevenly enforcing the code.
  • Guide dogs: People accompanied by guide, signal or service dogs must be given full and equal access to all public establishments.

In case you are getting the impression that you never can refuse service to a customer, that is not correct. In another article, we discuss When Restaurants Can Choose Not to Serve a Customer.

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