A massage is supposed to be a relaxing and therapeutic experience. But across the country, and here in San Mateo, California, massage therapists employed by the franchise Massage Envy have been accused of taking advantage of their clients, committing sexual assault against multiple massage clients while the company did nothing to stop it. Find out what the victims of sexual assault by a massage therapist can do, and whether they can hold the massage parlor responsible for what happened.
In 2015, Susan Ingram of West Chester, Pennsylvania was sexually assaulted by her massage therapist. A regular at the Massage Envy franchise, Ingram lay face down, eyes closed, when her massage therapist, James Dieter, pushed his erect penis against her, groped her breasts, and put his fingers into her vagina.
Mortified, Ingram drove home from the session sobbing. She called the manager, who she knew by name, and asked her to get Dieter out of his next session before it happened again. But the Massage Envy employee refused because Ingram was reporting the abuse over the phone instead of in person. Ingram went to the police, who interviewed Deiter that same afternoon. He quickly admitted to assaulting several Massage Envy clients saying, “I need help.” He later pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting nine women in 2014 and 2015.
It turns out, Dieter was not the only source of Massage Envy complaints. A 2017 BuzzFeed investigation revealed over 180 instances of sexual assault lawsuits, police reports, and state licensing complaints against the Massage Envy spas, their employees, and their franchisees. In response to the investigation, Massage Envy issued a new plan for employees to respond when clients report sexual abuse by massage therapists. But the plan seemed to be designed to protect the company, and not its members. For example, the plan required employees to provide complaining clients with the contact information for local law enforcement, but it did not require the franchisees to take action against the massage therapists directly.
According to lawsuits filed as recently as March 2020, Massage Envy continues to turn a blind eye to complaints against spa employees. More than 100 plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against the company saying they were abused in massage parlors across the country. One lawsuit, filed in San Mateo County Superior Court in 2019, said Massage Envy ignored the “known risk of assault” five therapists working there “posed to customers” but allowed them to remain employed or transferred them to different franchise locations instead of addressing the sexual assault victims’ complaints. Another said Massage Envy “actively sought to conceal the knowledge and danger of customers being sexually assaulted within their business locations” by discouraging the customers from filing sexual assault reports with law enforcement or state licensing boards.
At the same time these lawsuits were pending, there was also a Massage Envy class action lawsuit, suing the company for inappropriate increases in membership fees. The period for filing claims to recover a portion of the Massage Envy settlement in that membership fee case is now closed. However, nothing about that lawsuit affects the claims of sexual assault victims against the spa, its franchise owners, or the massage therapists who work there.
Victims of sexual assault can file civil lawsuits against their massage therapist if they were touched inappropriately without their consent. While massage therapy can sometimes include manipulation of the chest muscles, breasts, or inner thighs, clients have the right to remain clothed or covered, or ask a therapist to avoid sensitive or private areas. In any case, it is not appropriate for massage therapists to touch a client’s private parts, and should never touch the client with their own genitalia.
You are not required to report sexual assault to the massage parlor. You may go directly to the police instead. However, addressing the matter with the spa may strengthen your case against the massage parlor if it turns out they knew of the massage therapist acting inappropriately before, or failed to respond to your complaint appropriately.
Once the criminal investigation into your sexual assault allegations has begun, you should contact an experienced sexual assault victim’s lawyer as soon as possible. This lawyer can act as a liaison between you, the police, prosecutors, the spa owners, and other interested parties (even news media) to reduce the chances that something you say will be used against you by the defense. A sexual assault victim’s advocate can also help shield you from retaliation or traumatic retelling of what happened to you, allowing you to focus on healing, while the attorney protects your rights.
At ADZ Law, LLP, our sexual assault victims’ lawyers have decades of experience representing the victims of rape, sexual battery, and other crimes. We know how to navigate the criminal and civil courts on our clients behalf, and how to hold massage parlors, employers, and other businesses accountable for the inappropriate behavior of their employees. If you have been the victim of sexual assault during a massage, we invite you to contact ADZ Law, LLP to schedule a consultation to learn more about our team, and how we can help you.