California Law Prohibits the Blanket Exclusion of Underage Guests: What Hoteliers Need to Know Before Developing Age-Specific Rules

A vexing issue for hotel managers and operators is how to handle groups of underage guests, particularly during prom night and graduation parties where there may be excessive noise and alcohol use. Hoteliers face legal exposure in refusing underage guests based on their age alone. In California, hoteliers have a general duty to admit all persons seeking accommodations unless there is “just cause or excuse” to refuse accommodations. Under the California Unruh Civil Rights Act (the Unruh Act), a guest also cannot be arbitrarily refused accommodations on the basis of specific classifications such as age.

The Unruh Act makes it illegal for hoteliers to adopt any sort of “blanket policy” that prohibits providing rooms to minors (i.e., under 18 years of age). The California Supreme Court has ruled that an apartment complex’s exclusion of children is unlawful even if children as a class are “noisier, rowdier, more mischievous and more boisterous” than adults. (Marina Point, Ltd. v. Wolfson (1985) 30 Cal.3d 721.) The Court found that the Unruh Act does not permit a business enterprise to exclude an entire class of individuals on the basis of a generalized prediction that the class “as a whole” is more likely to commit misconduct than some other class of the public. Thus, it is ill advised for any lodging establishment to adopt a general policy prohibiting minors from staying at its property.

The nature of the business enterprise provided has been asserted as a basis for upholding a discriminatory practice only where there is a strong public policy in favor of such treatment. Public policy may be gleaned by reviewing other state laws. For example, it is permissible to exclude children from bars or adult bookstores because it is illegal to serve alcoholic beverages or to distribute “harmful matter” to minors. This sort of discrimination is not considered arbitrary because it is based on a compelling societal interest. (Koire v. Metro Car Wash (1985) 40 Cal.3d 24.)

To address the hospitality industry’s concerns about underage guests, California enacted Senate Bill 1171 providing owners and operators of lodging establishments rights with respect to minors. Specifically, where a minor seeking accommodations is unaccompanied by an adult, the lodging establishment may require that the minor’s parent or guardian (or other responsible adult) assume, in writing, full liability for the stay of the unaccompanied minor. This assumption of liability includes all charges incurred as well as any injuries or damage caused by the minor.

Additionally, Senate Bill 1171 provides that, where a minor 12 years of age or younger is accompanied by an adult, the lodging establishment may require that the adult agree, in writing, not to leave the minor unattended on the hotel property at any time during their stay and “to control the minor’s behavior during their stay so as to preserve the peace and quiet of the innkeeper’s other guests and to prevent any injury to any person and damage to any property.”

What does this all mean? California hoteliers risk violating state law by adopting a general prohibition on the stay of minors as a group. The consequence of violating the Unruh Act may be a civil lawsuit resulting in the property paying actual or statutory damages (minimum $4,000), plus an award of attorneys’ fees and costs to the prevailing plaintiff. As a general practice, hoteliers should avoid developing age-specific rules or policies. The better course is to institute policies consistent with Senate Bill 1171 requiring a signed writing by the responsible adult for unaccompanied minors or accompanied minors 12 years of age or younger. Despite these limitations, however, hoteliers may develop policies prohibiting minors from consuming alcohol on the premises since doing so violates the law.

Independently, hoteliers may develop age-neutral policies and procedures that uniformly, without discrimination, deal with the type of situation involving prom or graduation events. For instance, hotel operators may consider developing a general rule prohibiting parties in guest rooms or after-hours noise. These policies and rules should be made available to guests when reserving rooms, whether on the hotel’s website or a third party site, and otherwise on check-in.

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