Sunday, June 29, 2008


When Richard Robinson tried to use a $50 bill to pay for $38 worth of tickets to the Oakland Zoo, he was told that the zoo did not accept payment with any bill larger than a $20.

Soon after the zoo incident, Robinson tried to pay for an order at McDonald's with a $100 bill. Again he was told, "We do not accept any bill larger than a $20."

Robinson protested, arguing that it states right on the bills, "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private." In neither case, however, could he convince the cashier to accept the bill.

And yes, I admit that I had to take a bill out of my wallet to confirm that the bills actually do carry this proclamation.

Robinson wants to know if such refusals constitute unethical behavior by the companies concerned.

Let's get the law out of the way first: Robinson is correct that the cash is legal tender, regardless of the denomination. According to the U.S. Treasury, the Coinage Act of 1965 makes the money legal to use for payments. There is no federal law in the United States, however, that requires retailers -- or anyone else -- to accept any form of legal tender as payment, unless there is a state law that requires them to do so. There are comparable statutes in Canada.

In short, while it's an annoyance to be refused service because you have only large-denomination bills, it's not illegal.

As longtime readers of my column know, however, I believe that the fact that a given action is legal does not always make it ethical. Too frequently, individuals or corporations use the law to justify behavior that is blatantly unfair or unjust.

Are companies being unfair to Robinson by refusing the large denominations with which he chooses to pay? Should he have to carry around smaller bills, or pay with a credit card, when it's inconvenient or when he simply doesn't want to?

It may be a major inconvenience for some customers, but there is nothing unfair about the policy as long as it is posted clearly for all to see.

Businesses miss the ethical mark, however, if they don't make their policies clear before their customers place their orders. The right thing is both to post it clearly on site and also to include it in any other marketing materials such as Web sites -- as indeed the Oakland Zoo does on its Web site. If Robinson had known the McDonald's policy before he arrived, for example, he could have made sure that he had the right currency on hand.

Robinson has a choice, of course. He doesn't have to carry around smaller bills or use credit cards if he doesn't want to. If he finds doing so excessively inconvenient, he can choose not to do business with establishments that place limits on what currency they will take.

There's nothing unethical about a company setting its own policy, but there's also nothing unethical in Robinson responding by taking his business elsewhere.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

The more difficult question I run into is "no cash accepted' policies, particularly from rental offices. I'm a poverty lawyer, and people would be amazed at how many Americans don't or can't have checking accounts. I've always wondered if "no cash" policies are legal. Your column suggests that they are.

David Scott

Anonymous said...

Anytime a business, such as a hardware store, has an unusual or not widely known practice (no denominations over $50, do not park here, no checks) should be clearly stated as you enter the establishment, in the flyer and other ads, and before customers are finally up to the register! When I had to special order a light fixture from a large box home improvement store, it was an hour's drive one way. When it arrived at the store, I drove in and had an employee open the box-broken! Over to customer service and they were only going to give me a credit! All they did was point to a spot on the receipt that stated this. I hadn't even left the building with a product yet! Never again will I purchase a product from a store that will not give me my money back. My fault for being naive? Or was this store being sneaky? Now I make sure everyone that is doing a home project knows about this practice at this midwestern store.

Anonymous said...

A local mom & pop string of hardware stores has their bags of mulch, stones, gravel, etc. alongside the nursery in the parking lot. Parking your vehicle close to them so that the help can load into your trunk is just a neighborly gesture, or so I thought. After two helpers loaded me up, I began to drive away but a pallette of bricks that were sticking out grazed alongside my car. The manager did nothing but shrug and say I was not supposed to park next to the bags of mulch. I said where are the signs telling people this? Where are the ropes, pylons, etc. directing us where to park? Why didn't the employees who loaded up my car say anything? I had to ask this manager to get a forklift to remove the bricks! I contacted an officer who followed me back to the business. As he was writing it up and my car was in the mulch 'lane', another worker came up and asked which bags we wanted loaded! The officer and I had a good laugh over that one. My car's repair was about $400 dollars, about two years worth of 'True Value' products for me. Perhaps I will visit them again in 2010. Have they since added signage? When my temper settles, I may drive by to look.

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