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Small Business

Is there a constitutional right to refuse service to rude customers?

Kim Mercado image
By Kim Mercado
Jul 13, 2021 min read

Every so often, you’ll see 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 have the right to refuse service to a rude 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 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, you have a constitutional right to 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 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 discrimination laws by state, based on gender identity and expression:

Every person in these states is protected from discrimination:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington

Anti-discrimination laws vary across most states. These states offer various protections on a state and municipal level:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Two states ban cities and counties from passing nondiscrimination provisions

  • Arkansas
  • Tennessee

Can a business refuse service to rude customers?

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

We’ve all seen signs posted saying, "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" or "No shirt, no shoes, no service." But are they enforceable without ramifications?

While both of those signs are legal, your reasons for not accepting a customer are what matters. Telling customers to leave your business 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 legitimate reasons for complaining, 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.

Knowing the federal and local laws is an important part of making decisions about refusing service to rude customers or for any other reason that seems justified at the moment.

Lawful discrimination vs. unlawful discrimination

Not all unequal treatment violates federal or state laws. Some discrimination is completely legal and doesn’t form the basis for a civil rights lawsuit.

For example, 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.

On the other hand, if you refuse to seat or serve a group of Black diners, you’ve committed a civil rights violation. This is an example of unlawful discrimination because you are discriminating against the diners on the basis of race.

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 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 have safety concerns, 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, making a mess or 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 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. Remember, before you refuse service to a rude customer, make sure your reasons are clear and can't be misunderstood.

So, does my business have the right to refuse service?

The answer is: sometimes. 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. 

While you may not have a choice in some cases, building bridges could help you create a lasting customer relationship.

Small business insurance can also protect you. NEXT Insurance’s general liability coverage provides financial protection if you are held responsible for some of the most common accidents at a business. It also provides coverage if you are forced to defend an accusation of libel or slander.

Answer a few basic questions about your business to get an insurance quote in less than 10 minutes. 

If you have any questions, you can hop on an online chat or phone call with one of our licensed insurance advisors.

Start a free instant quote today.

Kim Mercado image
By Kim Mercado
Kim Mercado is the managing editor of NEXT's small business blog.
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