Is There A Constitutional Right to Refuse Service to Rude Customers?

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By Next Insurance Staff
Aug 28, 2019 min read

Working directly with clients is a challenge, but with some basic knowledge about your rights and theirs, it can also be satisfying and profitable.

There have been some recent news stories about customers who were denied service at a business in the United States. These situations may leave business owners confused about when and under what circumstances they can legally refuse to serve a customer.

While you have the right to refuse service to anyone, that right may be limited under local, state, and federal laws...

What is the Constitutional Right to Refuse Service?

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

The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents a business's right to refuse service based on a customer's disability.

Under federal law, you have a constitutional right to refuse service based on sexual orientation, but many communities have statutes that specifically prohibit businesses from refusing service to customers based on their gender identity or sexual preference.

Before you use your right to refuse service to a rude customer, ask yourself if your actions could be misconstrued as a breach of these laws.

Here are the current laws according to state regarding discrimination based on gender identity and expression:

Every person in these states is protected from discrimination:

  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • California
  • Nevada
  • Utah
  • Colorado
  • New Mexico
  • Minnesota
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • New York
  • Vermont
  • New Hampshire
  • Main
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • Connecticut
  • New Jersey
  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • Washington DC

Local ordinances protect 50-99% of these states

  • Montana
  • Wyoming
  • Nebraska
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • South Carolina
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Ohio
  • Michigan
  • Wisconsin

Three states ban cities and counties from passing nondiscrimination provisions

  • Arkansas
  • Tennessee
  • North Carolina

Knowing the federal laws is an important part of making decisions about whether your business has the right to refuse service to rude customers or for any other reason that seems justified at the moment. It's just as important to understand your state and local rules about discrimination, though.

Your Right to Refuse Service to Rude Customers

You may have a sign posted in your place of business that says, "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone" or "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service". While both of those signs are legal, your reasons for asking a customer to leave your business or telling them you won't accept them as a customer must be within the laws as they apply to your business.

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.

As the business owner, your goal should always be to deescalate the situation. Keep these quick tips in mind:

  • Don't take it personally, even if a rude customer gets personal
  • Never mistake an unhappy customer for a rude customer
  • Remember that 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 a legitimate gripe, offer a sincere apology
  • Don't be afraid to 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.

Lawful Discrimination vs Unlawful Discrimination

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 dress code. This is an example of lawful discrimination.

How you handle a situation like this is important.

Be discreet. You don't want to embarrass the customer or those near the person who violated your dress code. Speak quietly and smile, so it won't be obvious from across the room that there's a problem.

Here are 5 other examples of lawful discrimination:

  1. A customer brings their dog to your restaurant, which is a violation of local health ordinances. Unless it's a service dog, which is 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. If they refuse and you feel as if your physical safety is being threatened, it may be wise to call for police backup.
  3. Your business is closed and a customer wants service.
  4. A customer is causing a scene by yelling, swearing, or making a mess, or they are clearly intoxicated.
  5. A customer breaks the rules of your establishment, which are within local, state, and federal statutes.

As a business owner, you do not 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.

This behavior could make you and your business vulnerable to a lawsuit. As mentioned previously, before you refuse service to a rude customer, make sure your reasons are clear and can't be misunderstood.

Does My Business Have the Right to Refuse Service?

Understanding how to run a successful small business is a learning process.

As you seek to understand local, state, and federal laws about how and when to refuse service, remember that your goal as a businessperson is to gain as many customers as possible. While you have the right to refuse service to rude customers, ask yourself if there's a way to make that person a loyal customer instead of kicking them out. In some cases, you may not have a choice. However, building bridges by listening to their concerns and trying to understand why they are upset could help you create a lasting relationship.

Talk with a lawyer about how small business insurance can protect you, as well. The best way to handle a lawsuit is by preventing it, so consult knowledgeable and experienced advisors before you make important decisions about who you choose to serve as a business owner.

Experts at Next Insurance can help. If you have questions or need insights about what best practices to follow, contact them today for a free quote.

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