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Photo of Michelle Cohen Levy
Photo of Michelle Cohen Levy

When can you legally refuse to serve a customer?

On Behalf of | Dec 1, 2021 | Business Law |

As a business owner, when do you have the right to refuse service to a customer? It’s gotten a lot more complicated than the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” days.

It’s your business, and you want to serve every customer who walks through the door, but don’t you have a right to turn people away? You don’t if refusing to serve someone can be seen as discriminating against a group member protected under federal, state law.

What does Florida law say?

Under Florida law, “places of public accommodation” cannot deny “equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations” to someone based on “race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, handicap, familial status, or religion.”

That doesn’t mean if someone in a wheelchair is throwing things at employees, you can’t tell them to leave. However, you can’t turn someone away or refuse to help them for no discernable reason. That could lead them to believe your actions were based on bias. If your store is near the beach and you regularly allow people to come in without footwear, but you turn away a group of barefoot women who just got out of a pregnant women’s yoga class, that could be an issue.

Consistency is key

The important thing is to have a clear, written policy and enforce it regardless of who the customer is. If it’s something people need to know before entering, it should be posted on your door. Then if you need to refuse service or ask someone to leave, you have something to point to – if you can’t resolve the issue with them. If you or your employees have a habit of being selective about enforcing rules (or the rules seem to be arbitrary), you increase the risk of a lawsuit or at least bad word-of-mouth, which these days can be just as damaging to a business.

If you have to turn someone away, it’s wise to document the incident. Note what the person did, how you tried to resolve the issue, what you told them about why they had to leave and any threats or accusations they made. If they end up filing against you, it will help your defense.