Recently, a company denying services made the news. You may have heard of a theme park called “The Ark Encounter” in Kentucky. When the facility opened in July, a group of protesters appeared at the gates. A company was contracted to provide a portable restroom for their convenience. The portable restroom company representative learned the unit was for the protesters and denied service. The resulting media storm and legal posturing was a distraction no company needs.
I can decide who I want to serve, right?
Yes and no. In general, companies cannot deny service on the basis of circumstances that are protected by law. With few exceptions everyone has 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.”
There are more than a dozen specific classes that are protected and on whose characteristics you cannot base a decision to deny service.
Why would I want to deny service?
Some companies would never turn away a paying customer. Others do so regularly for a variety of reasons that are totally legal.
The PSAI’s Code of Excellence for the portable sanitation industry states, “We respectfully decline to provide service in circumstances where a customer may steadfastly insist on an arrangement that is not in conformity with standards, may pose a health or safety risk, or would tend to promote conditions in which the reputation of our company or industry would be negatively affected.”
As the incident in Kentucky shows, real-life situations can make it challenging to determine when you should — or can — legally deny service.
It has to be equal. You can deny service on an equal basis — meaning that you wouldn’t serve anybody who made a similar request.
- Denial on the basis of service type. You can refuse to provide a certain type of service for all customers. For example, you cannot refuse to serve only weddings with which you disagree, but you can refuse to serve all weddings.
- Denial due to distance. You can refuse to provide units if doing so would be outside your service area. Be sure to clearly articulate your service area in writing. Of course, it’s important that you don’t have any units outside your stated service area if this is to be a credible justification.
- Denial to comply with a law or standard. You can deny service if the customer is asking you to break a law or published standard. Be sure you consistently adhere to those standards or this won’t hold water as a reason to deny.
- Denial due to danger. You can deny service on the basis of danger to users or your service team. It’s best to have this policy spelled out in advance because that will make it easier to defend your decision.
The onus is on you, as the business owner, to make sure you are not breaking any laws or violating rights. States, counties and municipalities may have additional laws of which you need to be aware. Make it your business to know what they are.
When in doubt, consult an attorney. In extreme cases you can be prosecuted for refusing service to a potential customer. More likely, you’ll just suffer from a lot of negative publicity and related headaches.