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Rhode Island Legal Blog

Monday, December 28, 2015

When Can I Refuse Service to a Customer?

Many businesses have a sign hanging on the wall, often near the cash register, that says something like “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” The reality is not as straightforward as the sign's message.

First, members of legally protected classes cannot ever be denied service based on their membership in their respective class.

  • The Federal Civil Rights Act guarantees all people the right to “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”
  • The right of public accommodation is also guaranteed to disabled citizens under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which precludes discrimination by businesses on the basis of disability.
  • In addition to these federal protections, many states also protect people from discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or other personal attributes.

Second, putting up a sign does not create the right to refuse service; the right exists, but you must be careful about when you exercise it. When a customer is not a member of a federally protected class, you can generally deny service so long as you have a legitimate business reason. Some reasons that have been found to be legitimate include:

  • When a customer is not properly dressed. Hence the other common sign, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”
  • When a customer has poor hygiene, such as extreme body odor or being excessively dirty.
  • When a customer is being disruptive. This includes customers that are intoxicated.
  • When a customer harasses your employees or other customers.
  • When there are safety concerns, such as when there are too many people to serve.
  • If you are certain a customer cannot or will not pay.
  • When a customer comes in just before closing time or when the kitchen is closed.
  • Patrons accompanied by large groups of non-customers who wish to stay on premises.

Even the most compelling business reason cannot overcome obvious discrimination. Legitimate reasons for denying service cannot be used as a shield when the actual reason for the refusal of service is discrimination.

When creating policies and considering guidelines for your business, it is important to consult an experienced business law attorney for advice on how to comply with federal and state law.


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