At least 180 people have now accused Massage Envy, the nation's leading massage spa franchise, of fostering a culture in which complaints of sexual assault and abuse are ignored or concealed.
Were you or a loved one violated during a massage at Massage Envy? You are not alone. Contact our sexual abuse attorneys today for a free consultation. Learn more about your rights - at no charge and no obligation.
In civil lawsuits and police reports, sexual assault survivors, most of whom are women, say they were groped, violated or penetrated by massage therapists at one of Massage Envy's locations, according to a new report from Buzzfeed News.
If you or a loved one were sexually assaulted during a massage, know that you are not alone. We understand the strong range of emotions that being victimized can draw up. You may be feeling scared, or fearful or even guilty. You did nothing to deserve this. There is no excuse for sexual assault. The only person who deserves the blame is the perpetrator, along with any organizations that enabled the abuse to occur. We are here to help you find your voice. More than 200 women have leveled serious allegations of sexual assault against massage therapists who worked at Massage Envy. Now, Hand and Stone Massage and Facial Spa may be in similar trouble. A growing number of complaints have surfaced against former Hand and Stone employees. Learn more about sexual abuse at Hand & Stone.
Time and time again, these sexual assault allegations have been dismissed by Massage Envy employees and owners. Therapists who have been accused of assault are often allowed to remain at work, without official or informal sanction. The allegations against Massage Envy have captured the nation's headlines. After appearing in Buzzfeed, the story was picked up by ABC News, USA Today and the Washington Post.
Some of the first civil lawsuits against Massage Envy were filed by the attorneys at Laffey, Bucci & Kent, a Philadelphia-based law firm that works frequently in the area of sexual assault and abuse.
The firm's sexual assault litigation team is led by Brian Kent, Esq., a lead sponsor of Abuse Guardian. Kent began his career in the field as a prosecutor, working for the Sex Crimes Unit of the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office. And, while he's now transitioned to private practice, Kent says he's more focused on promoting the rights of sexual assault survivors today than at any time in the past.
Through their own investigations, the team at Laffey, Bucci & Kent have found evidence that Massage Envy's corporate policies support a "culture of silence," one that encourages franchise owners and employees to handle assault investigations without police assistance.
In recent court filings, the attorneys describe the company's "incomprehensible" policy in detail: "[Massage Envy directs] franchisees to conceal reports of allegations of sexual assaults involving Massage Envy massage therapists and direct[s] franchisees not to report said allegations to local law enforcement and / or state massage therapy boards."
Massage Envy doesn't even ask franchise owners to document sexual assault allegations for its own records, the lawyers continue. These policies, they conclude, "enable[...] the assaults to occur on a national level."
Even more damning is the allegation that Massage Envy franchises often allow accused massage therapists to remain employed. "In numerous cases involving sexual assault," the complaint says, "Massage Envy therapists were allowed to remain employer[,] were transferred [or] hired / re-hired at another Massage Envy franchise location, only to go on to sexually assault another, if not multiple, female customers."
To date, Brian Kent and his colleagues have filed at least six civil complaints against a single Massage Envy location in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Filed on behalf of six women, all of whom have remained anonymous to protect their safety, the cases involve the allegations of assault leveled against James Deiter, a man who worked as a massage therapist at the Pennsylvania Massage Envy franchise in 2014 and 2015.
James Deiter is now in jail, according to WFMJ. In 2016, he pled guilty to indecent assault and related charges for molesting at least nine women during his tenure at the Massage Envy location in West Chester, which is owned by Spa Dogs LLC.
Deiter will spend between 6.5 and 13 years in prison, but Spa Dogs, along with Massage Envy itself, have yet to face justice, according to sexual assault survivors and their attorneys. That's why the six civil lawsuits aren't being filed against James Deiter, but against Spa Dogs, Massage Envy and Roark Capital, the private equity firm in Atlanta that purchased the Massage Envy brand in 2012.
All three of these companies, the lawsuits allege, played a crucial role in allowing James Deiter to remain employed at the West Chester massage spa, even after multiple women had reported the man's inappropriate conduct. No one reported Deiter to the police, the Pennsylvania Board of Massage Therapy "or anyone for that matter," court records say. Instead, Deiter was allowed to continue his "work" at Massage Envy.
After allegations of a 2015 assault surfaced, the man was "merely suspended for one week and allowed to return to full duty thereafter with no restrictions concerning his access to female customers," plaintiffs claim. Employees at the Massage Envy franchise didn't warn unsuspecting customers of the allegations against Deiter, the lawsuits continue.
"In fact," attorneys argue, "employees at Massage Envy [...] unfathomably recommended Deiter to unknowing female customers after they knew he had already sexually assaulted at least one client at that location."
It's unsurprising, though immeasurably tragic, that Deiter was allowed to assault numerous women under the guise of massage therapy. The allegations leveled against Deiter in these six civil lawsuits are horrific. The rampant, and callous, negligence attributed to Massage Envy is no less shocking.
In the first Massage Envy lawsuit, a woman says Deiter "touched her bare breasts and genital area" during a 2015 session. The plaintiff reported the assault to a female employee at the West Chester location in January of that year. Employees of the franchise then filed the customer's complaint with Massage Envy's corporate office in Arizona.
That's when Massage Envy "informed and directed the employee(s) at Massage Envy West Chester not to report the assault to the Pennsylvania Board of Massage Therapy and / or law enforcement personnel but rather to handle the matter 'in-house,' " court filings report.
"Consistent with Massage Envy policy and procedure," the lawsuit continues, no authority or official body was notified of the allegation against Deiter. Nor did Massage Envy conduct an internal investigation, the plaintiff claims. Instead, Deiter was suspended for one week, then allowed to return to his "work" at the franchise location.
A woman referred to as Ann Doe says she was assaulted by Deiter during a "massage" in September 2015. "During the massage," the complaint says, "Deiter moved his hands and fingers up Plaintiff's thighs past the personal boundaries recognized by the profession." He then caressed her upper thighs, "placed his fingers on her groin" and "touched her vagina."
The plaintiff's emotional trauma was "aggravated exponentially" because she had been the victim of rape as a child. Even more appalling, the assault occurred while Deiter was training to reach the certification requirements for "hot stone" massage, court records show. The suit says that Deiter's employers had "insisted" that he work toward the qualification.
An assault survivor called Jane Doe in court documents describes the "massage session" she received in March 2015. After she had undressed and made herself comfortable on the massage table, Deiter forced the woman to touch his genitals, digitally penetrated her vagina and then, moving to the top of the massage table, "pressed his erect penis" against her head.
In her own lawsuit, a survivor describes three separate instances of inappropriate conduct, a trend that culminated in April 2015, when Deiter "placed his erect penis in the hand of Plaintiff and began gyrating up and down." He then penetrated her vagina with his finger, court documents state.
In a previous session, Deiter had touched the plaintiff's upper inner thigh "close to the genital area." The plaintiff warned him not to go "that high" during a massage.
In the sixth lawsuit, a plaintiff referred to in court documents as June Doe says that Deiter violated her during a massage session on May 2, 2015. As in the previous cases, Deiter positioned the woman's hand so it touched his erect penis, groped her bare breasts and "placed his erect penis on the top of her head."
The woman reported the assault to local law enforcement the same day. Deiter met with a police detective for questioning shortly thereafter and "proceeded to admit to the sexual assaults," court records continue. That admission, which only came after at least two years of violations, led directly to Deiter's conviction and prison sentence.
Deiter placed the plaintiff's "hand on his erect penis" as he "moaned with sexual pleasure." He continued to hold the woman down, masturbating against her hand. Then, as the "massage" progressed, Deiter fondled the plaintiff's breasts, saying "there is just no good place to stop."
Already a survivor of a "brutal rape" several years before, the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress. Before making her appointment, an employee at the franchise had called Deiter "the best we have" when recommending his services.
Massage Envy franchises provide tens of millions of massage sessions to paying clients every year. The company's brand is now featured at nearly 1,200 locations across the nation, USA Today reports, controlling 67% of the US spa market.
Many survivors, including a woman from Florida who filed a lawsuit against Massage Envy in August 2015, say the company’s corporate policies actually create an atmosphere that allows sexual offenses to occur.
Speaking with South Florida’s ABC News affiliate, the woman, whose identity has been withheld to protect her privacy, pointed to the company’s employee manual. Instructions given to every Massage Envy worker say that after a complaint of sexual misconduct is made: “administrator[s] should immediately respond to the guest’s needs and get them to a private room. Let them recover, allow them to explain what happened and document. Do not admit / deny / or make any promise about the allegation other than a promise to investigate and take appropriate action.”
“Appropriate action,” however, seems to be very little. When they complain to management or even the company’s corporate office, survivors report being ignored – or dismissed as frauds. In their own lawsuits, some victims even describe screaming from inside the massage room, without any response from the other employees working just outside the door.
In most cases, yes. Many sex assault survivors have found that filing a civil lawsuit is the only way for them to secure any compensation at all. It can also be a deeply-empowering choice, a way to find your voice again after it was stolen away.
After an assault, many survivors feel guilty, as though they did something to invite the undue attentions of a sexual predator. That couldn't be further from the truth. You did nothing wrong. You did not deserve this. This was not your fault.
Under a well-recognized legal theory known as respondeat superior, employers can be held liable for the damage done by employees, as long as that damage was inflicted in the course of employment. If an assault occurs during a massage, while the offender is ostensibly carrying out the duties of being a massage therapist, then it’s highly likely both the offender and the massage parlor can be sued.
In some instances, survivors will have to show that the massage parlor was negligent and that its negligence allowed the assault to occur. Negligence is a broad concept, one that can be proved in a number of ways. Negligent hiring is a frequent allegation in lawsuits involving rape and sexual assault. Plaintiffs have also claimed that some Massage Envy franchisees continue to employ alleged sex offenders, even after clients have notified the owners of previous assaults.
While each state’s criminal code will define degrees of sexual assault differently, the fundamental concept behind these horrible acts remains universal. Sexual assault is any act of sexual contact to another person’s body that occurs without their own consent.
Rape is usually defined in terms of penetration, either vaginal, anal, or oral. Groping and forced kissing are also types of sexual assault, and can be just as degrading as rape. Consent is the key issue here. For a sex act to be consensual, and thus legal, all parties must voluntarily agree to participate.
For an in-depth look at the concept of consent, visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
Assault can happen to women and men, but violence against women remains a pervasive, and deplorable, aspect of our society. Even victims of rape can be told that an assault was somehow their own fault, leaving survivors burdened by feelings of shame, guilt or worthlessness that are as unfounded as they are psychologically damaging. Again, this was not your fault.
Yes, and we believe you should.
If recent reports are true, neither Massage Envy nor its franchisees seem willing to confront this devastating problem head-on. While a swift police response is always best in cases of sexual assault, it becomes absolutely necessary when the site of assault is a massage parlor or other private business.
As soon as an assault occurs, survivors should contact the police to begin a thorough investigation of their allegations. Doing so can be difficult, though, since sexual assault often causes far-reaching psychological effects, including denial. We can help survivors process through their emotions and gain the confidence to step forward. Thankfully, most states have established “discovery rules,” which allow survivors extra time to come to terms with their assault and file a civil lawsuit.
Once an initial report is made, victims have the option of asking the police to continue their investigation, with the assumption that criminal charges will be filed if sufficient evidence is discovered. Requesting a full investigation is referred to as “pressing charges.” But ultimately, the decision to pursue a criminal conviction is up to state prosecutors, and for the vast majority of survivors, that form of justice will never come. Only 3 out of every 100 rapists will face the consequences of their violent actions, according to US Justice Department data.
We know survivors of sexual assault deserve better than to have their allegations dismissed. We know victims deserve more than terminated investigations, and that no sex offender should walk away with impunity. But even when state prosecutors pursue a case, the criminal justice system makes punishing offenders its sole priority, leaving rape victims unsupported as they recover.
At Laffey, Bucci & Kent, our sexual assault lawyers believe that no abuse is acceptable. We’ve helped numerous survivors pursue just compensation, money they need to begin recovering. Now we want to help you.