The right to refuse service to rude customers: Is it legal for a business?

The right to refuse service to rude customers: Is it legal for a business?

Kim Mercado
By Kim Mercado
Aug 25, 2023
7 min read

We’ve all seen the signs in businesses, retail shops and elsewhere that read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” But is that really true? Do business owners have the legal right to refuse service to a rude customer?

The answer is complicated. And while you, your business, and your employees may have the right to refuse service to anyone, that right may be limited under local, state and federal laws.

Read ahead to learn:

What is the right to refuse service?

According to the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, no business serving the public can discriminate because of a customer's national origin, sex, religion, color or race. This applies even if it's a private business.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents a business's refusal of service based on a customer's disability. It prohibits discrimination in employment, transportation and public accommodations (such as stores, restaurants and most businesses.)

These and several other laws mean that businesses cannot discriminate against protected classes which include:

  • Race or color
  • National origin or citizenship status
  • Religious beliefs
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Veteran status
  • Disability or pregnancy

Under federal law, a business can refuse service based on sexual orientation. However, many states and local governments have statutes prohibiting businesses from refusing service to customers based on their gender identity or sexual preference.

Before a business uses its right to refuse service to a rude customer, ask if your actions could be misconstrued as a breach of these anti-discrimination laws.

Does a business have the right to refuse service to rude customers?

Legalities and protected classes aside, what if the customer is straight-up rude to you or your staff?

Telling customers to leave your business must be within the laws as they apply to your business. Your reasons for not accepting a customer are what matters.

In general, if a customer is causing a scene or making it impossible for your other customers to enjoy their experience at your place of business, you can legally ask them to leave.

Before exercising your right to refuse service, you and your employees should always try to deescalate a rude customer situation. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Don't take it personally — even if a rude customer gets personal.
  • Never mistake an unhappy customer for a rude customer.
  • People say things online that they would never say in person.
  • Practice empathizing statements like, "I understand your disappointment" and "I see why that's inconvenient for you."
  • Maintain eye contact and keep your body language open.
  • If your customer has legitimate reasons for complaining, offer a sincere apology.
  • If appropriate, ask the customer how they would like you to resolve their problem.

Talk with your employees and co-owners about specific customer behaviors that will not be tolerated before you have to deal with an angry customer. In some situations, building bridges could help you create a lasting customer relationship.

Five examples of the right to refuse service

Not all unequal treatment violates federal or state laws. Some discrimination is legal and not subject to a civil rights lawsuit.

For example, it’s unlawful discrimination is if you refuse to seat or serve a group of diners based on their skin color or nation of origin. This is a civil rights violation.

However, it’s lawful discrimination, which is legal, if you run a black-tie restaurant and a party shows up in flip-flops and cargo shorts. You can refuse to serve them based on your business’ dress code.

As a business owner, you don’t have the legal right to refuse service based on religion, skin color, sex, physical conditions not within the customer's control or nationality. If you do so, you are guilty of unlawful discrimination.

Discriminatory behavior could make you and your business vulnerable to a lawsuit. Before you refuse service to a rude customer, make sure your reasons are clear and can't be misunderstood.

Some example of the right to refuse service to a customer include:

  1. A customer brings their dog to your restaurant, which is a violation of local health ordinances. Unless it's a service dog protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you can refuse service legally.
  2. A customer threatens or verbally abuses you, your employee or other customers. You can ask them to leave.
  3. If your business is closed and a customer wants service, you have the right to refuse them.
  4. If a customer is causing a scene by yelling, swearing, or making a mess, or they’re clearly intoxicated, you have a right to refuse them.
  5. When a customer breaks the rules of your establishment, which are within local, state and federal statutes, you are under no obligation to serve them.

Which states have anti-discrimination laws?

States that protect everyone from discrimination States that offer discrimination protections by municipality States that ban cities and counties from passing nondiscrimination provisions
District of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
Rhode Island
North Carolina
North Dakota
South Carolina
South Dakota

How NEXT can help protect small business owners

NEXT’s general liability insurance can help provide financial protection if you need to defend an accusation of libel or slander. Small business insurance could also protect you from other things, too, such as property damage, medical payments, injured workers, business vehicle mishaps and more. 

Answer a few questions about your business to get an insurance quote, buy online and get proof of insurance in less than 10 minutes. Access your policy 24/7 via web and mobile app.

Questions? Ask one of our licensed insurance advisors anytime. 

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The right to refuse service to rude customers: Is it legal for a business?


kim mercado
About the author

Kim Mercado is a content editor at NEXT's blog, where she writes and edits posts for small business owners. She enjoys helping entrepreneurs solve their business challenges and learn about insurance. Kim has contributed to Salesforce, Samsara and Google.

You can find Kim trying new recipes and cheering the 49ers.

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