New York’s swanky Standard Hotel made unwelcome headlines this Memorial Day weekend when it refused entrance to a Navy officer in dress uniform because her clothing didn’t match the lounge’s “dress code.”
Aside from the insensitivity of refusing service to a servicewoman on Memorial Day (for which The Standard has since apologized), there are interesting legal questions that arise related to when exactly businesses can refuse people service based on their attire, behavior, or any other set of characteristics.
Let’s take a look at the real standard when it comes to refusal-of-service laws.
THE SCOPE: PUBLIC ACCOMMODATIONS
The first thing to understand about refusal-of-service laws is to whom they typically apply. You may think that because a business is privately owned, it’s not subject to the kind of laws that could prevent managers or employees from refusing service to certain clients. Not so.
Laws that deal with refusal of service generally govern places of “public accommodation.” These include any facilities that offer lodging, food, entertainment, sales or rental services, health care, or recreation to the general public. So even though restaurants, stores, and swanky rooftop bars may be operated on private property, they still qualify as public accommodations and are thus subject to the service regulations set forth by federal and state laws.
WHEN IT’S ILLEGAL TO REFUSE SERVICE
Two federal laws govern when a refusal of service is illegal. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation based on a patron’s race, color, religion, or national origin, and the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents discrimination on the basis of physical, mental, or emotional impairments. Additionally, some (but not all) state laws extend their anti-discrimination policies to protect customers from refusals of service based on other criteria, including age, gender, sexual orientation, and military status.
Therefore, despite the fact that some places of public accommodation (albeit legally) post signs stating their “Right to Refuse Service to Anyone” or establishing a certain code of conduct or dress, these public venues are still not absolved from abiding by federal and state laws that deem certain refusals of service unlawfully discriminatory. Bottom line: Dress codes are not illegal, but discriminatory ones are — sign or no sign.
WHEN YOU ARE PERMITTED TO REFUSE SERVICE
Scenarios in which refusals of service are warranted by law typically include situations where a customer’s presence would put the safety and welfare of the customer herself and/or others at risk. While state-specific health and duty of care laws vary, a place of public accommodation may typically refuse to serve a customer if:
- The patron lacks adequate personal hygiene (extreme body odor, excess dirt, etc.)
- The patron is visibly intoxicated
- The patron is unreasonably rowdy or causing trouble
- The patron’s presence would overfill venue capacity
- There is good reason to believe the patron will not be a paying customer
- The patron has chosen not to abide by a venue’s neutral dress requirements, in a manner that is somehow within the patron’s control
That last point is important. It’s why although “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policies are rarely mandated by law, they are also rarely illegal, because they don’t discriminate against any particular category of person. Food for thought if you are barefoot-inclined in the summer months.
Knowing your rights as both a business owner and patron is important. Refusal-of-service laws can cause consternation, but they are legal — except when they’re not.