Dozens of women have accused employees of a popular massage chain of sexual assault and say the company has mishandled victims’ claims or not addressed them at all, according to an investigative report by BuzzFeed News.
BuzzFeed reported Sunday that more than 180 women have filed police reports, complaints to state boards and lawsuits in civil court over the years against Massage Envy, a franchise that claims nearly 1,200 locations across 49 states. The women accused their massage therapists of groping and other forms of sexual abuse, according to the report.
After the news of the allegations, Massage Envy called each incident “heartbreaking,” saying that it will “never stop looking for ways to help our franchisees provide a safe environment.”
“The article references 180 reported incidents,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post, referring to BuzzFeed’s report. “These occurred over a span of 15 plus years and 125 million massages. But, we believe that even ONE incident is too many, so we are constantly listening, learning, and evaluating how we can continue to strengthen our policies with respect to handling of these issues.”
Massage Envy’s more than 20,000 massage therapists provide 50,000 massages a day, 1.5 million a month and 18 million a year, according to the company.
The BuzzFeed report highlighted a particular case at a location in West Chester, Pa., where a massage therapist pleaded guilty last year to molesting nine women from 2014 to 2015 and was sentenced to up to 13 years behind bars. One of his clients, Susan Ingram, told CBS News it was during her seventh visit that the massage therapist, James Deiter, violated her, throwing her into “a state of shock, disbelief, fear.”
“He lifted up my body, groped both of my breasts roughly and aggressively. Put his hands down to the lower part of my body,” Ingram recently told the news station.
Ingram, who had detailed the incident in court, said that once she got home from the spa that day in 2015, she called back to speak to a manager but was ignored. “She said, in a very apparently scripted response, ‘We invite you in to talk about your services.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no you don’t understand,’ ” Ingram told CBS News.
The BuzzFeed report recalled similar cases in other states in which women accused their Massage Envy therapists of assault with digital and oral penetration, among other things.
These claims represent only a sliver of the tens of millions of services Massage Envy says its franchises have provided. Still, lawyers for aggrieved spa clients told BuzzFeed News that there are more cases where women report abuse by massage therapists to police but no arrest is made, and that Massage Envy spas sometimes offer a settlement before a suit is filed, leaving no public record. Statistically, most victims of sexual assault don’t report at all. Even Massage Envy’s own orientation manual, discussing client satisfaction in general, has warned new employees that “Only 4% of upset customers will tell you when there is a problem.”
Massage Envy told BuzzFeed News that it would not be “appropriate to respond point-by-point” to questions “because of pending litigation” and the confidential documents involved. But overall, Melanie Hansen, general counsel of Massage Envy Franchising, said the company has worked hard to create the industry’s “most stringent, rigorous policies” for hiring, screening, and training therapists. “We hold franchise owners accountable to our policies and, when we say nothing is more important to us than treating clients with respect and giving them a safe, professional experience, we mean it,” she said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
But a review by BuzzFeed News found the company’s policies on reporting improper conduct do more to protect the company brand than to ensure customer complaints are handled appropriately. Customers have been violated in shocking ways, then seen their reports brushed aside, while offending therapists have been allowed to keep their professional standing with no consequences.
In September, a massage therapist at a Massage Envy in Washington was arrested and charged with first-degree sexual abuse after a client reported an alleged sexual assault. The therapist denied the claims.
The Post reported at the time that the company said its franchises are required to complete extensive background and reference checks and enforce a zero-tolerance policy.
The American Massage Therapy Association told BuzzFeed that “anyone who feels there may be inappropriate behavior to call the local police immediately” and that “any massage therapist who steps over the line to inappropriate touch should face the legal consequences.”