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If a Business Refuses Bathroom Access, Can You Sue for Discrimination?

By George Khoury, Esq. on June 14, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When you have to go, the last thing you want to hear is "no." Depending on the circumstances, it's possible you could have a legal claim for discrimination. 

For one South Carolina man in need of relief, 5 different gas stations and convenience stores allegedly denied him access to their restrooms, despite the man being a paying customer. Adding insult to injury, Daniel Woodward, the man denied bathroom access, believes the denial was on account of him being an African American.

After an investigation by his attorneys reportedly confirmed discriminatory bathroom policies, Mr. Woodward filed a lawsuit to fight back. He is seeking $5 million from the El Cheapo, Pops, and City gas stations, as well as the Obama Convenience Store and the Cheapway (presumably another store).

Suing a Business for Discrimination

Under both federal and state laws, discrimination in the provision of services or goods by businesses that are open to the public is illegal. Essentially, any business that is a public accommodation cannot discriminate against customers that walk in seeking goods or services. While a business can refuse to serve a person for legitimate reasons, such as the infamous "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service" signs we're all accustomed to seeing, basing a refusal to serve on race, gender, national origin, disability, or another protected class, is illegal.

A person who has been denied service may not know for sure that the denial was discriminatory. However, if there is a suspicion, feeling, or just an inkling, contacting a civil rights attorney for a consultation is a good first step. A person can also file a complaint with the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division for discrimination in a public accommodation. Additionally, there are state civil rights agencies that may also be able to accept complaints, investigate, and possibly mediate the matter, or file suit on your behalf.

Do Businesses Have to Provide Restrooms?

This question is determined by state and local regulations and laws. Generally, depending on the type of business, restrooms may be required. However, there are often exemptions and exceptions based on the age the business, the date of the last renovation or remodel, and other specific factors that vary based on location.

Usually, businesses that have a large thumbprint, like malls or super-stores, or those that serve food and beverage, are required to provide a restroom for customers. While most state and local laws allow businesses to limit the use of bathrooms to customers only, placing other limits on who can use the restroom can potentially run afoul of discrimination laws. Additionally, if a restroom is not wheelchair accessible, or otherwise accessible to individuals with disabilities (when it can be made accessible), this too is considered discrimination.

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