SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – On Mother’s Day, 2011, a woman went to a Massage Envy in Laguna Beach for a special holiday treat.
Initially, her massage was routine. But the woman claims that midway through, she “heard heavy breathing and the sound of clanking metal” from her massage therapist’s belt.
He then “made a forceful movement with his hands” and pulled her underwear “down all the way to her knees,” according to the woman’s account. He then tried to climb up onto the table.
She jumped from the table, but was trapped in the small massage room. Despite her screams for help, she says, no one from Massage Envy came to the rescue.
She managed to escape and, still shaking, approached the front desk employees. She told them her masseur just tried to rape her. She asked them to call 911.
The employees did nothing. They ignored her, according to the woman’s account. She left the building and called 911. Officers investigated and one told her that the masseur confessed to sexual assault.
This woman is one of dozens of women who say they have endured similar situations.
This summer, four women in the Washington D.C. area all accused a massage therapist of sexually assaulting them.
Nine different women accused another massage therapist of sexually assaulting them just outside Philadelphia between 2014 and 2015.
In a city just outside Los Angeles, three women accused another massage therapist of sexually assaulting them between 2009 and 2010.
All of those massage therapists worked at Massage Envy, the United States’ largest massage chain.
With almost 1,200 franchise locations around the country — employing some 25,000 massage therapists — most Americans know the Massage Envy brand, but few people may be aware of the extent of sexual assault allegations against the company.
Since Massage Envy opened in 2002, the company has settled numerous lawsuits, and is grappling with many more — all alleging the same thing — a male massage therapist sexually assaulting a female customer.
CBS San Francisco found over 45 Massage Envy employees who were accused in criminal and/or civil cases of sexual assault against female customers over the last 15 years.
Some of these massage therapists are alleged to have assaulted multiple women.
The sexual assault allegations — described by women of different ages, living in different states – tend to fit a pattern.
The dozens of sexual assault allegations raise questions about how Massage Envy handles these claims.
Almost every woman who has recounted their experience of sexual assault at a Massage Envy has expressed a desire to protect other women from victimization.
Massage Envy’s own internal documents show its policy has been not to report such claims to police. Victims say the company’s internal investigations sweep the claims under the rug.
Even more troubling, Massage Envy franchises are accused of continuing to employ massage therapists with a known record of sexual abuse – who go on to victimize additional women.
Now, even Congress is considering legislation requiring massage businesses to alert law enforcement to sexual assault allegations, in an effort to protect the public.
Under mounting public pressure, Massage Envy announced this week that they are making some changes, including requiring their franchisees to provide any client who makes an allegation of sexual assault with contact information for local law enforcement and offer them a private room to complete that call.
Massage Envy has said a Buzzfeed News investigation into the sexual assaults at their franchises prompted the company to change their policies.
But is that enough?
Protecting The Brand
Massage Envy’s internal policies reveal that the company — as recently as 2015 — has not instructed its franchises to report any inappropriate touching or sexual assault to law enforcement authorities.
Massage Envy’s “Inappropriate Touch Procedure” is a flow chart that begins with a report of inappropriate conduct and ends with employees notifying the franchise owner, completing an incident report and emailing a copy of it to corporate headquarters and the regional developer.
While Massage Envy touts a zero tolerance policy for “inappropriate touching,” it does not clearly define what constitutes “inappropriate touching.”
Massage Envy also claims that it internally investigates reported misconduct.
Victims say that’s not true.
Some victims — such as the woman who was assaulted on Mother’s Day 2011 — claim Massage Envy employees refuse to call 911 on the victim’s behalf. Another California victim claims an assistant manager assured her that they had filed a police report about the incident, but that they never did.
Victims say the internal investigation goes nowhere, and they suspect that the failure to investigate is due to internal policies set up to protect the reputation of the company from negative publicity.
Massage Envy provided CBS SF with this statement regarding their policies in early November:
“All franchised locations must adhere to our stringent standards and policies. Before a therapist is hired, franchisees must complete a stringent background screening, check references and verify licenses and certifications. Franchisees are required to put every therapist through our rigorous training program, which includes industry-leading standards and practices to ensure safe, professional experiences for clients.
All franchisees and their therapists must comply with our Code of Conduct, and our Zero Tolerance policy. If they violate these policies, we impose serious consequences, including revoking a franchisee’s license to operate a Massage Envy franchised location.
In addition, we are partnering with industry groups and leveraging technology innovations to develop programs that will improve the safety of the entire industry.”
No Requirement to Report Assault
Patrons of Massage Envy, and other massage businesses, might assume that current law requires these companies to report customers’ allegations of physical and sexual abuse to law enforcement.
There is no law.
The sexual assault allegations raise questions about whether customers of the massage industry would benefit from a state or federal law requiring massage businesses to alert law enforcement to claims of sexual assault on their properties, or face penalties.
Similarly, patrons might assume that if a customer files a complaint with the business or the state licensing board recounting a sexual assault, the massage therapist’s license would be suspended or revoked following an investigation.
But license revocations don’t always happen when they should.
Most state massage licensing or certifying boards only issue suspensions after they have been made aware of criminal charges filed against the licensee. A complaint to the company or to the board is not enough to guarantee an investigation or a license suspension.
There is also no guarantee that a licensing board will find out about the criminal charges and suspend the license. There is no nationwide requirement for massage businesses to alert massage boards of sexual assault allegations.
It’s unknown how many sexual assault allegations customers have leveled against Massage Envy employees since the company began operation 15 years ago. However, at least two dozen Massage Envy employees have been arrested, with a handful convicted and sentenced.
Dozens of civil lawsuits have been filed against Massage Envy, claiming among other things, that the company failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent injuries to its customers.
Massage Envy has settled many of these cases out of court and none have come before a jury. Massage Envy has not had to defend itself publicly against these allegations in court and not many of the company’s internal policies have seen the light of day.
Additionally, plaintiffs who reach a settlement with the company are often barred by confidentiality clauses from discussing the settlement or its amount.
Congress Takes Notice
Among the cases of sexual assault at Massage Envy locations, perhaps none are more alarming than that of a massage therapist in Pennsylvania who victimized nine women. During his time at Massage Envy, James Deiter was briefly suspended after a complaint alleged inappropriate contact with a client, but he was later allowed to return to work, where he continued to victimize female customers.
Each of the nine women came forward to accuse Deiter of sexually assaulting them at a Massage Envy in a suburb of Philadelphia between 2014 and 2015.
Deiter eventually pleaded guilty in 2016 to assaulting all nine women. He was sentenced to 6 1/2 to 13 years in state prison and will need to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
It’s the first bill ever introduced into Congress that would require massage business owners to report sexual assault allegations to law enforcement or face penalties, including imprisonment.
“Her assault came even after another woman had complained, months before, of an assault by the same employee,” Meehan said. “But instead of fully investigating or reporting the alleged offender, his employer gave him a short suspension and just days later he was back on the job.”
Meehan said abusers often become repeat offenders, but some massage facility owners are reluctant to report allegations of misconduct among their employees.
“Reporting alleged assault will help victims understand their rights, like pursuing an investigation and pressing charges, and the resources available, such as local sexual assault programs,” Meehan said, adding that allegations of sexual assault should be investigated and pursued in accordance with the victim’s wishes.
“Requiring massage establishments to report these claims to law enforcement will help ensure victims get the justice and help they deserve – and help prevent future assaults on more innocent victims,” Meehan said.
The bill, H.R. 1023, is limited to massage businesses and does not include other businesses where customers sometimes are alone with employees, such as yoga studios, nursing homes, and hotels.
It has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations. But so far, no hearing has been scheduled.
With the federal bill still sitting in subcommittee, some victims are going online to recount their experiences with the massage chain, joining a national movement of people using the hashtag #MeToo to share their personal stories of sexual assault with the world.
Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode told CBS SF in October that victims should consider telling their stories on social media.
“If women are willing to go public in deference, you have remedy,” Rhode said. “There’s safety in numbers.”
In an effort to protect others, a survivor of sexual assault at Massage Envy created an online petition to call on the company to do better.
Danielle Dick described being sexually assaulted at a Massage Envy in Virginia in a Medium post last month.
After massage therapist Daeshawn Bullard had put his hands around her throat and sexually assaulted her, Dick said he leaned over and said: “Our little secret, okay?”
Dick has not let the assault remain a secret and she is boldly demanding change.
Her assailant was convicted of sexual battery and is serving a five-year sentence.
In the online petition, she writes:
“Let’s get the word out about what’s going on and send a message to Massage Envy that they need to change their corporate policy to put in place procedures to support victims of sexual assault. Don’t visit Massage Envy stores. Cancel your membership and let them know it is because of how they handle sexual assaults at their franchises.”
Massage Envy provided a statement about Dick’s concerns and the company acknowledges her demand to involve law enforcement, stating: “We can tell you that we expect franchisees to treat every member and guest with dignity and respect, and that includes support for reporting incidents to law enforcement.”
That statement is a departure from Massage Envy’s standard response to allegations, which consists of championing the company’s high standards and tough policies.
Dick explained that her nature is to work with people, not against them.
“I would have loved to tell my story in the context of a company that responded with action in taking these issues seriously, rather than in the context of how corporations can treat victims so callously,” Dick told CBS in early November.
Dick said the Duty to Report Sexual Assault Act could be a critical step toward holding massage establishments accountable for the way they handle sexual assaults, and would stop companies from handling allegations internally, which she said is “critical for protecting the public.”
Dick said that both before and after she went public with her story, Massage Envy threatened to take legal action against her.
“Massage Envy’s threats of legal action are intended to intimidate me into silence,” said Dick. “Sadly, this would be consistent with the way the company handled my assault, which would suggest a company that is far more interested in protecting its corporate brand than in supporting individuals assaulted at their stores.”
“Sadly, my hope that they would want to do the right thing was obviously misplaced, and they responded via e-mail to my lawyer with threats of legal action if I went public with my story,” Dick told CBS SF.
“I did anyway.”
This week, the company announced the formation of the Massage Envy Safety Advisory Council. Dick, as well a representative from Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) will be on that council.
‘A National Epidemic’
Among the dozens of lawsuits against Massage Envy, is one filed on behalf of a woman who says she was sexually assaulted at a franchise located in the city of Elk Grove, just outside of Sacramento, in January 2016.
The woman alleges that massage therapist Carlos Ocampo first fondled the sides of her breast, spread her buttocks apart and then rubbed his hand on her vagina. He attempted to put his fingers inside her vagina.
The woman’s attorney, Robert Thompson, alleges in the lawsuit that “sexual assaults committed by massage therapists at Massage Envy Franchising franchise locations is a national epidemic” and that such incidents at Massage Envy are “neither isolated nor unusual.”
After assaulting the woman, Ocampo allegedly told her, “I wish it wasn’t over. I’d love to continue to practice massaging you.”
The lawsuit says the company is liable, at least in part due to the company’s “incomprehensible policy and procedure of … directing franchisees not to report said allegations to local law enforcement and/or state massage therapy boards.”
Furthermore, Thompson alleges in the lawsuit, that in numerous cases involving improper touching, Massage Envy therapists were allowed to remain employed, were transferred or re-hired at another franchise location where they went on to improperly touch more female customers.
In the case of Ocampo, Thompson alleges the company failed to conduct a criminal background check or a reference check prior to hiring him and continued to employ him even after the plaintiff reported him to management.
The complaint also alleges that for years, Massage Envy failed to take action against massage therapists, including Ocampo, despite knowing or having reason to know that they were sexual predators and/or mentally ill.
By failing to take action, the lawsuit alleges, Massage Envy ratified inappropriate and harmful actions carried out by its massage therapists.
Judy Lindenberger, a human resources specialist who founded The Lindenberger Group, told CBS SF in October that there are strict laws about reporting abuse against minors to law enforcement, but when it comes to adults, it appears the responsibility to report to law enforcement falls squarely on the victim.
Lindenberger stressed that, “There are many reasons why people don’t report sexual harassment” and abuse, such as feelings of shame, embarrassment, stress, and fear of retribution.
Lindenberger believes that because there are, in fact, so many reasons why victims do not report sexual assault to law enforcement, there is an even greater need for a law that requires companies to report customers’ allegations of sexual assault to law enforcement.
The volume of alleged sexual assaults at massage businesses such as Massage Envy may be a result of limited or no state oversight of the massage industry.
Four U.S. states: Kansas, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wyoming, have no regulations at all regarding the practice of massage.
In California, there is a voluntary massage therapist certificate administered by the California Massage Therapy Council, or CAMTC, a private nonprofit public benefit corporation – with almost no teeth.
CAMTC states, “It is within the sole discretion of CAMTC whether or not to investigate or pursue any case against a massage professional” and reminds the public that it is not a law enforcement or government agency. In addition, law enforcement agencies are not required to alert the council to charges filed against its licensees.
Ahmos Netanel, the CEO of the CAMTC, told CBS SF that because the council is not a government agency, it does not have governmental immunity from lawsuits, which may contribute to why the council does not display as much information as the massage boards in other states.
For instance, the Florida Massage Board – which is a government entity – posts on their website administrative complaints filed against massage therapists and whether the therapist has any discipline on file.
CAMTC received roughly 300 complaints against certificate holders in 2016, but the content of those complaints are not public, making it difficult for people to check whether their massage therapist has had complaints of improper conduct filed with the council.
Catherine Smith is also suing Massage Envy. She says she was the victim of unwanted sexual contact by massage therapist Dennis Tolbert at a Massage Envy just outside Chicago in 2016.
Her attorney, Jessica Arbour, told CBS SF that inappropriate touching is a major issue that Massage Envy and the rest of the industry has failed to address properly.
In addition to having her breasts and vagina inappropriately touched during her massage, Smith’s lawsuit alleges that Massage Envy’s “Inappropriate Touch Procedure” discourages employees from taking independent actions beyond reporting the incident to corporate headquarters.
Massage Envy’s failure to instruct employees to call police, Smith’s lawsuit alleges, “fosters an environment that is conducive to unwanted sexual contact by its massage therapists.”
Smith’s complaint alleges: “The massage therapists can touch a client’s breasts, buttocks, and genital regions, even if the client does not welcome such contact, without the risk that law enforcement will be notified by their employer…”
Since Massage Envy does not instruct its tens of thousands of employees to notify law enforcement when sexual assault is reported, police don’t interview the victim, police don’t question the alleged perpetrator and police don’t gather criminal evidence. The lack of a police investigation may weaken the victim’s case should she decide to pursue legal recourse.
In Smith’s case, she immediately reported the incident to two Massage Envy managers who, following Massage Envy protocol had her file an internal report that purportedly launched an internal investigation, conducted by Massage Envy’s own attorneys.
Neither manager offered to make a report to law enforcement or assist her in reporting the unwanted contact to law enforcement, the complaint states.
The complaint contends that Smith was later refused any information about the status and eventual outcome of the investigation into her complaint.
Massage Envy’s apparent practice of not instructing employees to report sexual assaults to law enforcement may boil down to the notion that the company’s human resource and customers service departments exist to protect the company.
Adam Horowitz, an attorney in Florida who has represented clients in dozens of lawsuits against Massage Envy told CBS SF in October, “It’s always the same thing.”
He said the suspect consistently is a male employee and the victim a female client, and the problems often begin with inappropriate draping, which is the technique of covering the client with a sheet.
“As a leader of the industry, they should be taking the lead,” Horowitz said, noting that the problem extends beyond Massage Envy, to the industry as a whole.
Horowitz said if women only knew how common this was, they would be appalled.
In the time since the bill requiring massage businesses to report allegations of sexual harassment was introduced in Congress last year, more women say Massage Envy employees have assaulted them.
Licensed massage therapist Habtamu Gabreselassie was arrested after being accused of sexually assaulting four women at Massage Envy locations in the greater Washington D.C. area in mid to late 2017.
A lawsuit filed against Massage Envy on behalf of one of Gabreselassie’s alleged victims claims that he sexually assaulted a female client in June 2017 at a Massage Envy location in Bowie, Maryland and was then transferred to a D.C. location, where he sexually assaulted another female client. The suit alleges that Massage Envy had full knowledge that Gabreselassie had committed at least two prior sexual assaults at two different Massage Envy locations before sexually assaulting the plaintiff.
The plaintiff alleges that Gabreselassie licked her vagina during the course of the massage without consent to do so. He then allegedly begged her not to tell anyone.
The plaintiff — named in the suit only as Jane Doe — is demanding Massage Envy pay her $25 million in damages. Gabreselassie is facing multiple criminal charges and Massage Envy stated that he no longer works for the company. His massage therapist license was also suspended. A fourth alleged victim of Gabreselassie has since come forward.
Just last month, massage therapist Brian Sams was criminally charged following allegations that he sexually battered a woman at a Massage Envy franchise near Atlanta, Georgia.
Sams’ massage therapy license remains active.
By Hannah Albarazi – Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.