What hotels need to know about their legal obligations

Pop quiz: If a guest leaves his luggage in his hotel room after checking out, can you throw it away? Or if a guest refuses to leave, can you call the police and have her arrested?

The answers to these questions can vary dramatically from city to city and often depend on state and federal laws as well. That means it's important for hotel owners and managers alike to be familiar with the rules and regulations that might affect them.

Safety & Security

Knowing the local laws can help prevent an unpleasant encounter even before a guest checks in. Cliff Risman, an attorney at law firm Foley Gardere who represents companies that develop, own, operate and finance hotels and resorts, explained that hotels are public accommodations, and as such, managers are obligated to accept any guest as long as they have rooms available. “However, there are what you would expect in terms of exceptions to that obligation,” he said, noting that hotels generally can refuse service to guests who are drunk and disorderly, have a contagious disease or are trying to bring animals into properties that do not accept pets. (That last exception, of course, does not apply to service animals.)

Guest safety is paramount, said Scott Joslove, president and CEO of the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association, so anyone who poses a threat to other guests—or even themselves—should not be allowed in. “We're not a medical facility,” he said. “If the guest presents an issue that is beyond our capacity to address, we have to make sure that we can protect the safety of our other guests, and make sure that that guest is safe as well.”

In the wake of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, in which a hotel guest prevented staff from seeing his weapons cache by hanging a “do not disturb” sign on his suite door, some hotels and brands have eliminated these signs or changed their privacy policies. This is reasonable, said Joslove, because a guest should only expect a limited right to privacy at any hotel to begin with. “They should expect that a hotel [team member] is going to enter the room in order to protect the safety of that guest in case something has happened to them,” he said, noting that this policy also protects other guests and the hotel itself.

Time to Go

The rise of extended-stay hotels can present an unexpected challenge for hoteliers in areas where a person can achieve limited tenancy after staying a certain amount of time in any location. In some states, said Brady Dunnigan, a real estate partner in the Lexington, Ky., office of Dinsmore & Shohl, the law turns a guest into a tenant after he or she stays in a hotel room for 30 consecutive days. “Once a hotel guests becomes a tenant, then the hotel operator has to follow the state laws governing residential landlord tenant rights and duties, which could be a longer and more expensive process in terms of terminating a tenancy,” he said.

If a guest has left belongings behind—or if a hotel team needs to move a guest’s belongings to a different room—different jurisdictions have different policies on what the staff can do with the property. When moving or removing property, Joslove said, a good rule of thumb is to have several team members inventory every item that the guest has left behind and record the process of packing up and moving the property. This way, everything can be accounted for and the guest cannot claim that an item was stolen during the process.

Who You Gonna Call?

Being well-versed in all of the rules and regulations affecting a hotel can prevent not only expensive lawsuits, but negative publicity. That's why it's always worthwhile to educate management on what they can and cannot (or even should and should not) do, starting from federal law all the way down to brand standards and an individual property’s policies. “Within every division within a hotel you need to have as a resource someone who can advise you,” Joslove said. This advisor should not only be familiar with the company’s brand standards, he added, but also how those brand standards and operational protocols can be affected by local—or even federal—provisions. “You may be able to do something under state law or under federal law or local ordinances, but the brand standards may be more conservative.”

Avoiding legal disputes often comes down to several basic questions hotel employees should ask themselves, said Risman: “Did you warn [the offending party]? Did you try and resolve it? Did you act reasonably? Did you act with care?” When in doubt, he added, the team member should check in with management or counsel. “The instruction to staff should always be to use common sense, be reasonable and consult with counsel if needed (if it's during the appropriate hours),” he said.

Perhaps most importantly, Risman said, a hotel’s rules and regulations should be reasonable and applied both fairly and uniformly to all guests.