A California woman claims a Massage Envy employee ejaculated onto her back while she lay undressed on a massage table in Encintas, CA. After reporting the incident to the spa’s manager, she received an apology and an offer for a free massage.
The largest employer of massage therapists in the U.S., Massage Envy made headlines back in 2017 when a Buzzfeed News investigation revealed more than 180 women had filed sexual assault lawsuits against the corporation. This week, law firm Grant & Eisenhofer P.A. (G&E) announced the filing of a sexual assault lawsuit against the Scottsdale-based company, in which the public attorneys are representing four women who claim they were subjected to groping, digital penetration, and other sexual assaults by staff therapists at four separate Massage Envy locations throughout California.
“It’s unconscionable that such brazen client abuse would take place in just one Massage Envy franchise—let alone multiple locations across California,” says Elizabeth Graham, G&E director and representation for the plaintiffs. “This is a by-product of a toxic work culture, where abuse persisted and was tolerated even after the problem was well recognized within the company, and yet customer complaints went smothered and unreported.”
The Massage Envy locations where the alleged assaults occurred between 2014 and 2016 include Corona, Cotati, Daly City, and Encintas. The lawsuit, filed last week in California Superior Court in San Mateo county, names Massage Envy’s corporate parent as well as franchise operators as defendants. The case is just the latest in a series of nationwide suits against Massage Envy; the plaintiffs’ complaints state that the high rate of sexual assaults persists because of the company’s “incomprehensible policy and procedure” of directing franchisees to conceal reports of sexual assault allegations in order to protect the brand, and that the use of Massage Envy’s protocol encouraged employees to handle allegations of sexual misconduct internally.
“Employees who went to management were told not to complain, which sent a message to those speaking up that such conduct was acceptable,” says Graham. “In at least one instance, male therapists shamed women clients, claiming they obviously wanted sex by seeking a massage, even though massage treatments are standard at virtually every spa and nail salon in the country. The misconduct itself is disturbing enough at franchise locations, but compounded by the parent company’s lack of reporting and rooting out of the abusers—not unlike the wider sex abuse scandals we’ve seen at the U.S. Gymnastics Association or even the Catholic Church.”
The plaintiffs believe that Massage Envy did not require its franchisees to report sexual assaults of customers to law enforcement or to State massage therapy boards. The complaint further states that the “Inappropriate Touch Procedure” found in Massage Envy’s General Orientation, Manual & Workbook lacked any instructions to notify authorities.
Massage Envy responded to American Spa's request for comment with the following statement:
"We cannot comment on pending litigation, but we believe we have established best-in-class practices to address the types of issues alleged in this lawsuit, with the help of the Massage Envy Safety Advisory Council—made up of leading experts —and our work with RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S. These and other concrete actions underscore our commitment to promoting a safe environment for members, guests and service providers at each of our nearly1,200 franchise locations, and we will never stop working to have industry-leading safety policies. For more information please visit the Commitment to Safety section of our website at www.massageenvy.com/a-commitment-to-safety/."
After the 2017 investigation, Massage Envy CEO Joe Magnacca released a statement claiming the company was working with victim’s rights groups, industry associations, and sexual violence experts to help determine a definitive plan to prevent and protect clients and therapists from harmful situations. While the plan was being devised, Magnacca added that all Massage Envy locations were required to review, re-communicate, and recommit to safety and reporting policies. All massage therapists’ files were re-reviewed to ensure all background and personal reference checks were completed, as well as license, certifications, and continuing education courses were up to date. The franchise also enlisted the help of an accredited third-party background screening company to re-screen each of the 20,000 licensed massage therapists within the Massage Envy Network. Later that year, Massage Envy released a six-point commitment to safety plan, which included tips on prevention, reporting, investigations, reviews, support, and guidance. At the time, the brand had also planned to form the Massage Envy Safety Advisory Council, a group which was to help develop, maintain, and implement strong safety and support standards for all Massage Envy franchisees, therapists, and clients.
Filing the suit against Massage Envy is a part of G&E’s wider advocacy on behalf of women with cases stemming from the #MeToo movement. The firm has previously represented women bringing sexual harassment and workplace abuse claims against companies in technology, financial services, and other areas. Graham and other G&E attorneys recently participated in a round table discussion of some of the most common questions relating to sexual harassment claims, including “how do I know if what is happening to me qualifies as sexual harassment,” “what precautions should I take if I am being sexually harassed,” “am I required to report the harassment to my employer,” and “how long do I have to bring a claim?” The roundtable can be watched here.
* This story has been updated to include the dates of the alleged assault as well as Massage Envy's response to American Spa's request for comment — 7/22/19 *