Legally Speaking: Banned for Life? Yes, They Can Really Do That

John G. Browning Sep. 20, 2011, 5:31am

Many of us recall the "Soup Nazi" episode of the sitcom Seinfeld, and how its titular character (based on the real-life New York restauranteur) achieved pop culture iconic status with the catchphrase "No soup for you!"

The phrase referred to how the "Soup Nazi" would dismissively refuse service to customers like Elaine who failed to abide by his strict orders of lining up for, ordering, and paying for his food, resulting in their being banned from the premises.

And we've all heard of professional athletes whose indiscretions like drug use or gambling have resulted in lifetime bans from their respective sports. But from time to time I'll get a question about whether a business can legally administer a "lifetime ban" on particular customers. The short answer is, yes they can, and in fact it happens more often and for more varied reasons than you might think.

Sometimes the stated reason, like real or presumed criminal conduct like shoplifting, makes perfect sense. Even here, however, a draconian policy can catch not just smalltime criminals, but those making an understandable mistake.

Thirty-three-year-old mother Elissa Drassinower of New York City accidentally left a half gallon of milk and some beer in her 20 month-old son's stroller while grocery shopping. A security guard approached her just outside the Fairway market.

Drassinower says she apologized, explained that she had forgotten, and that she fully intended to pay; in fact, she reasoned, why would she pay for the rest of the $50 in groceries only to steal $3.49 worth of milk?

But store security and the grocery chain itself would have none of it—she was photographed and informed that she was banned from Fairway for life. Drassinower, who wasn't arrested, says she was embarrassed, outraged, and pleaded for days for the store to lift the ban — to no avail.

Retailers want loyalty and repeat customers, but occasionally spring into action over too much of a good thing. Californian Kim Navarra loves Abercrombie & Fitch clothing, and estimates that she spends at least $1,000 a year on the trendy wear.

But when she went online recently to spend a $200 Abercrombie & Fitch gift card, the chain refused to accept it, cancelled her order, and said it would no longer accept any new orders from her.

According to the company, they suspected Navarra of re-selling clothing she was purchasing based upon her buying patterns. The retailer has policies forbidding such re-sale, and reserves "the right to cancel all subsequent orders from such customers," in order to protect their brand from those who might buy and then re-sell on websites or in foreign countries.

Navarra scoffs at the accusation of re-selling, and says one look at her closet will make it obvious who her favorite brand is. Subsequent discussions, and an investigation by a local news broadcaster, resulted in Navarra back in Abercrombie & Fitch's good graces.

And one Los Angeles man who really did decide to play the online re-seller with iPads found out the hard way that Apple plays for keeps as well. After he began purchasing iPads and re-selling them internationally via an online gaming forum, the would-be entrepreneur got some strange looks from local Apple store employees when attempting his latest purchase (he never bought more than two at a time).

Apple employees informed that he had "reached his lifetime limit of iPad purchases, and wouldn't be allowed to buy any more;" of course, no one told him what his "lifetime number" happened to be, just that he had hit it.

Don't tell April Cuevas about too much of a good thing. The Boise, Idaho, woman has a hobby of "extreme couponing," borne of her efforts to save money. During a recent visit to Wal-Mart, she learned that the store's "Ad Match" policy had undergone changes, and she wanted to discuss these with a store manager—while recording it all on her iPhone.

While recording the conversation, an argument ensued and Cuevas was directed to "pay full price [for] the groceries or leave." Cuevas later found out from police that Wal-Mart had complained about her, and had issued a ban that was chain-wide, preventing her from setting foot in any Wal-Mart ever again. Cuevas says she didn't do anything wrong, "and I would also like to go back to Wal-Mart."

Sometimes it's a customer's complaints or other actions that lead to lifetime bans. After complaining on three separate occasions about the "burnt" coffee at his local Tim Horton's (a popular Canadian restaurant chain), Jimmy Craig of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, was served with a letter banning him from the restaurant for life under Canadian trespassing laws.

Craig professes to be "baffled," saying "I don't see this as a way to treat people. What happened to the customer is always right?"

Meanwhile, Deborah McCarthy of Beaverton, Ore., can never have a package delivered to her house by UPS again. McCarthy, whose ability to drive is limited because of a medical condition, says she returned an item that arrived broken, and when she received a new delivery, complained to the UPS delivery person about the box's battered condition.

UPS now will only deliver her packages to a neighbor or make them available for pickup at a depot nearly 10 miles away, claiming she has been "threatening." McCarthy denies threatening the carrier or its personnel, and her neighbor Dale Steuwe calls the 5 foot, 2 inch, 100 lb. McCarthy "about as dangerous as my seven-pound Chihuahua."

Karen Young found out that Facebook was really serious about banning her for life. The social networking site notified Young via email that she had violated the site's terms and conditions of use in multiple ways, including sending friend requests to people she didn't know, contacting strangers, and soliciting others for business purposes.

Young went to pretty extreme lengths to try to get reinstated on Facebook. She drove 3,000 miles from Maryland to Facebook's California headquarters to speak to someone in person (on more than one occasion), and filed a lawsuit alleging that the social network had violated her rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution (the lawsuit was tossed out earlier this year).

Of course, bizarre or even criminal conduct can get you banned for life as well. Actor/nutjob Randy Quaid was banned for life from the Actors' Equity Association in 2008 as a result of his "oddball behavior" and alleged physical and verbal abuse of fellow performers during a 2007 theatrical production at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre.

Criminal courts have banned computer hackers and child pornography defendants from computer and Internet use all over the country.

So why can companies get away with a lifetime ban, whether justified or not?

The answer is simple, and reflected in the countless "No shirt, no shoes, no service" signs posted in businesses across America. As long as business owners aren't discriminating against protected classes of people (such as racial minorities), their agreement to have you on their premises is a license given for a limited purpose (like shopping, or dining) and which can be revoked at any time.

That ticket you bought to the local multiplex may entitle you to see the movie, but that license can be revoked when you create a scene, use loud and abusive language, and disturb moviegoers.

Can you be banned for life? Absolutely—even if it doesn't happen that often.

More News