Massage Envy clients at 4 NJ locations sue over sex assault
A lawsuit against Massage Envy and four franchise locations across New Jersey now represents five women with claims of sexual assault at the hands of several male massage therapists. The claims span a roughly two year period, between winter 2015 to the most recent in September 2017.
The amended complaint filed December in Superior Court in Middlesex County added a second woman who said she was assaulted at the Short Hills franchise.
Other locations named as defendants are Piscataway, Closter and Mays Landing.
Stewart Ryan, an attorney with Laffey, Bucci & Kent, said his Philadelphia-based law firm expected to file a response to defendants' motions to dismiss the suit.
Each of the women, identified as Jane Doe 1 through 5, detailed a range of behavior, from groping and grinding to sexual penetration.
The encounter at Massage Envy Mays Landing in the lawsuit was in September 2017, during which the woman said she was groped and sexually penetrated. In that case, the suit said the therapist turned out to have an extensive criminal history, was not licensed by the state and had also been accused of molesting another client who had complained to a manager in July 2016.
Another of the cases also involved groping and sexual penetration, in the winter of 2015 at Massage Envy Closter. The woman said when she returned to confront the therapist, she was told he had resigned and that employees refused to answer any further questions.
An incident at Massage Envy Piscataway involved a woman who had been a monthly client until November 2016, when she said her male therapist ignored her written response on a pre-massage form asking that her "chest, glutes and inner thighs" be off limits. She said the man proceeded to grope her, despite her repeatedly telling him to stop. He eventually “made contact with her vaginal area” at which point she asked him to leave so she could get dressed.
The two reported instances at the Short Hills location involved separate male therapists about a year apart.
In January 2015, a woman said her male massage therapist wound up removing her privacy covering while groping her and grinding against her. When she reported the assault to other employees, she said she was told that involving law enforcement would mean “a lot of red tape” and it was unlikely any action would be taken.
The other incident at Short Hills occurred in December 2016, when a client said she was forcibly kissed and pulled toward a male therapist she had received massages from before. She said she was scared to stop him and “left feeling violated, embarrassed, and terrified.” She said she attempted twice to report the assault to the owner of Massage Envy Short Hills, but never received a return call.
Last year, a former employee accused of sexual contact with clients at two Massage Envy locations in Monmouth County lost his license as a massage therapist but did not face criminal charges.
Massage Envy, an Arizona-based corporation, is the largest employer of massage therapists with 1,200 locations in the United States.
A 2017 Buzzfeed report outlined at least 180 allegations of sexual assaults by Massage Envy therapists across the country.
The lawsuit in New Jersey said amid a lack of response since that published report, "the exact number of sexual assaults by Massage Envy therapists on customers is believed to be well in excess of 180."
The lawsuit seeks damages from the corporate office and each New Jersey location on 18 counts including negligence, civil conspiracy and violation of the state Consumer Fraud Act.
The Massage Envy corporation was named on Monday on the National Center on Sexual Exploitation's 2019 Dirty Dozen list. The online report cited "a number of poor policies" such as "hidden clauses in customer agreements which force women to surrender their rights and many former employees report being trained to do all in their power not to encourage police to show up at their locations."
In response to questions on the lawsuit, Massage Envy's corporate office released a statement saying that "Massage Envy is committed to promoting a safe environment for members, guests and service providers at each of our 1,200 franchise locations nationwide. We urge anyone that experiences anything other than a safe, quality massage to report it immediately to the franchise location so that it can be investigated."
The office also said based on guidance from experts, "including RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US, it is our policy to respect the victim’s privacy and the victim’s right to decide whether they would like to report to law enforcement, the state board, or anyone else. We do require franchisees to report to law enforcement when required by law."
The statement also referenced a Commitment to Safety section of the company's website.
The webpage includes a six-point plan that says the corporation is "mandating updated background screening for all massage therapists on an annual basis" while also "launching a fully-automated, third-party system with UBS (Universal Background Screening)."