Legally Speaking: Banning a Problem Customer

Thomas Clement MRA General Counsel
Thomas Clement Vice President, Operations and General Counsel

banning a problem customerAn unfortunate reality of owning and operating a retail store is dealing with problem customers. Whether they are disruptive, displeased with the service they have received, in violation of reasonable rules that you have put into place, or just downright unpleasant, dealing with these situations requires both deft interpersonal skills and a strong backbone.

Perhaps the initial reaction is to simply kick the customer out and tell them never to return. In many circumstances this is the perfect response, especially where safety is an issue. In other situations, an outright ban may be an overreaction to a circumstance that can be solved with some good diplomacy. In another scenario, maybe the mantra “the customer is always right” holds true and you need to assess whether you or your employees are in the wrong.

Recently, our Ask Us First team was asked whether the owner of a store could ban a customer who engaged in a verbal dispute with staff. Generally, the answer is yes, so long as the reason for the ban is non-discriminatory and does not violate federal, state, or local laws. You will also want to make sure that you inform the customer of the ban properly, in order to make enforcement easier.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits businesses from refusing service based upon race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Likewise, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation on the basis of disability. There is no current federal law that bans discrimination in places of public accommodation based on sexual orientation or gender identity. However, this is very much a part of an ongoing nationwide dialogue, with many states and local laws affording these protections. With these laws in mind, it is safe to say that you may be running afoul of the law if you ban or refuse to serve someone, not because of anything they have done, but simply because of who they are.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of retail owners do not discriminate against anyone, whether there are legal protections in place or not. These same people also have a vested interest in ensuring a safe, comfortable and enjoyable experience for their customers. In order to afford customers a nice experience, problem customers can and must be dealt with or without fear of legal recourse.

Dealing with problem customers can take several forms including a ban from the store, either formally or informally, a warning, or a discussion, whether amicable or not, in an effort to correct any miscommunications. In the normal course of events, these options will usually build upon each other. First, with the infamous, “I need to speak to your manager,” and the ensuing discussion that takes place.  Oftentimes, through good interpersonal skills, all issues can be resolved at this stage, whether through accommodating the needs or wants of the customer, answering a question that others could not, or reaffirming what your employees have already communicated. If this fails, and the customer becomes increasingly disrupted or agitated, it may be time for the strong backbone to emerge, whether through agreeing to disagree, the customers departure, a stern warning or a full ban.

If you choose to ban a customer from your store, in reality you are issuing them a trespass notice. Ideally, this should be done in writing, with a formal letter of trespass, so that you can prove that the person was on notice. Law enforcement in many communities provide resource officers who may be able to assist with service of a trespass notice. Where this type of resource exists, it is the safest option. MCL 750.522 provides that a person shall not “enter the lands or premises of another without lawful authority after having been forbidden to do so by the owner or occupant, or the agent of the owner or occupant.” Violation of this statute is a misdemeanor, punishable by not more than 30 days imprisonment, a fine of not more than $250, or both.

Banning a customer from your store is an extreme option that should be used only when necessary. The most obvious circumstances that warrant a ban are theft, property damage, or threats to physical safety. When a ban is necessary, knowing the options and the process will help implementation with maximum legal effect. If you would like a sample trespass letter that you can tailor for your own needs, please email me at