For five months, a New Jersey mother of two went to her local Massage Envy for treatment of chronic pain, and the sessions helped. But her sixth visit was a different—and disturbing—story.
As she lay on the table, the therapist began massaging her breasts and moved his hands down to her underwear, even though she repeatedly asked him to stop, she claims in a lawsuit against the company. When he touched her genital area, she alleges, she made him leave the room.
The appointment that day in November 2016 was over, but her torment was just beginning.
“I’ve lost trust in every spa and massage therapist in the industry,” said Lisa*, who asked not to be identified due to the nature of the allegations.
“I have nightmares, and it’s difficult for me to be affectionate—even with my two sons and sometimes my husband,” she told The Daily Beast.
The 52-year-old life-coach and divorce mediator is one of 20 women who have filed lawsuits against Massage Envy within the past week, claiming the company’s negligence paved the way for sexual assaults by masseurs.
The complaints have continued to pile up even though Massage Envy promised action—and hired a respected anti-abuse nonprofit—after an investigation by BuzzFeed News nine months ago, which found 180 civil lawsuits, complaints, and police reports about alleged sexual assaults by its employees.
Lisa’s lawsuit, filed with three other women on Wednesday in Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County, accuses the billion-dollar company, which has 1,200 franchises, of deceiving the public about “the dangers of its services.”
Massage Envy, the suit says, actively worked to keep sexual-assault claims “in-house” and away from “law enforcement, state massage therapy boards, unsuspecting customers, and the public at large,” the suit alleges.
“Franchisees were told the goal when investigating claims is to ‘avoid police and keep membership,’” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit says a former corporate employee of Massage Envy disclosed that executives were worried about “what would happen ‘if someone connects the dots of how many sexual assaults have occurred across the country’” and prepared for that in risk-management training.
Across states and time, the women’s lawsuits tell a strikingly similar story: masseurs touching their breasts and genitals without warning or permission—and pressing their erect penises against them. One woman alleged a therapist even choked her.
There have been scattered complaints since the BuzzFeed story last November, but the litigation gained steam this month.
On Monday, 11 women in Florida filed suit against the spa chain, alleging they were sexually assaulted while getting massages in at least five Florida locations. The 163-page complaint claims that spa employees dissuaded women and other staff members from notifying law enforcement.
Days earlier, five other women in California accused the company of negligence, sexual battery, gender violence, and claimed in the court papers they were harassed or sexually assaulted at some of the 1,200 locations nationwide.
Massage Envy has not filed public responses to the suits. In a statement to The Daily Beast, the company said: “While we aren’t able to comment on active litigation, we can tell you that we remain focused on our Commitment to Safety plan, which is further strengthening our existing policies. Safety is and will always be our priority and we will never stop working on it.”
After the initial scandal, Massage Envy put out a statement on its new “Commitment to Safety,” a six-point plan that promised “to drive additional, meaningful change.” Franchises committed to a more robust reporting system. Any customer with a sexual-misconduct complaint is supposed to be given contact information for local law enforcement and offered a private room where they can make the report.
But Brian Kent, one of the attorneys who filed the three latest lawsuits, says even that solution is flawed.
“They say they are leaving it up to the victims, but many of them don’t even know who the perpetrators are,” Kent told The Daily Beast.
In March, the receptionist at a Fort Lauderdale spa purportedly asked a woman not to report her alleged sexual assault by a Massage Envy therapist to police and to let the company “handle it internally,” the Miami Herald reported at the time.
The woman did go to authorities, and Juan Pablo Mendiz, 32, was arrested in April, police records show.
The accuser said that when Mendiz penetrated her vagina with his fingers during the massage, she grabbed his forearm and told him, “That’s not why I’m here.”
Through his attorney, Mendiz denied the charges and pleaded not guilty. He is due back in court Aug. 31.
The request from the Massage Envy location’s receptionist to “handle it internally,” if true, would appear to constitute a violation of the company’s reporting section of its “Commitment to Safety.”
At the time of Mendiz’s arrest, Massage Envy told the Herald that his alleged conduct was “upsetting and unacceptable,” that he was no longer employed and that the franchisee was cooperating with police.
Massage Envy’s response to the uproar following the BuzzFeed story included hiring sexual-assault prevention and support nonprofit RAINN.
Massage Envy would not discuss specifics of the nine-month review of the company’s policies and procedures, but told The Daily Beast this week that RAINN’s recommendations will be made public “as they are implemented.”
RAINN, which declined to say how much it was paid by Massage Envy, said in a statement that it “commends” the company for commissioning a “comprehensive assessment” but could not “discuss specific details of our client relationships.”
RAINN spokeswoman Sara McGovern said the organization works with clients “across public, private, and nonprofit sectors to recommend targeted, effective sexual-assault education and response programs.” That’s in addition to a litany of other services, including a hotline and online guidance for sexual-violence survivors.
Attorney Brian Kent said that none of his clients have been contacted by RAINN over the course of their Massage Envy review.
Bobby Thompson, an attorney representing plaintiffs in two of the lawsuits, doesn’t believe Massage Envy’s “commitment to safety,” or its partnership with RAINN, will make a difference—so long as the company’s bottom line looks the same.
“That’s the most important thing to these people,” Thompson said.
Elizabeth*, one of the plaintiffs in Monday’s lawsuit, told The Daily Beast that she believes RAINN needs to speak up.
“If you want to call yourself an advocate for anything, you have to be present, and RAINN is not present,” she said.
It was during Elizabeth’s “third or fourth” visit to a Massage Envy in Florida in 2016 that her “genitals were inappropriately touched without her consent” by a therapist, according to her lawsuit.
“I instantly called my best friend and was hysterical,” Elizabeth said in an interview. “I think I was so shocked for three months afterwards.”
After seeing her attacker while in a checkout line at a grocery store, she decided she couldn’t ignore the incident any longer.
“I realized if I still feel this way seeing him, I have to do something,” she said.
The next day, she said, she called the Massage Envy location, spoke to a receptionist and then reported the incident to the manager, who told her to email a complaint to the company. She followed up the next week with a phone call, but never heard back.
In her lawsuit, she claims the spa did not immediately fire the therapist after her report. Massage Envy has said in multiple statements to The Daily Beast that it cannot comment on specific allegations in active litigation, but that it takes all accusations against its therapists seriously.
The women who spoke to The Daily Beast this week said they have found solidarity and empowerment in speaking out.
For Elizabeth, the effect of a Massage Envy visit didn’t hit her until months later, when she went to the doctor and found she couldn’t stand to be alone in a room with him—and asked for a female nurse to join them.
“I will never be alone again with another human being for as long as I live,” she said.
For two years, the 37-year-old says, she used different coping mechanisms..
“A lot, a lot of therapy,” Elizabeth said. “I took up kickboxing so I am able to defend myself, got into a lot of Buddhist meditation, and I joined a support group for survivors of sexual assault.”
Ashley* was sexually assaulted in July at a California location she had visited many times before.
On the table and starting to drift asleep in the spa’s familiar purple room, Ashley felt hands “not where they were supposed to be,” she told The Daily Beast.
“I was in shock,” she said. “I couldn’t move or comprehend what was happening.”
The moment the therapist left the room, Ashley said, she got dressed as fast as she could and left.
She later told her husband, who encouraged her to go to the police to file a report. Ashley added she has still not heard from Massage Envy, two months later.
Cmdr. Tom Higgins of the Ventura Police Department confirmed Ashley's July 2 report and other details but would not comment further, citing an ongoing investigation.
In the coming weeks, Ashley plans to join the lawsuit filed in California on Monday, said Thompson, her attorney.
“I have a lot of shame from all of this,” Ashley said.
As the lawsuits against Massage Envy continue to mount, Massage Envy insists the well-being of their clients is its top priority.
“In conjunction with our Safety Advisory Council, Massage Envy will continue to raise the bar on existing safety standards in the massage industry and share updates on the progress of the Commitment to Safety plan as they become available,” said CEO Joseph C. Magnacca. “Massage Envy’s commitment to providing an accessible, inviting, safe, and professional environment to every member, guest, and service provider has never been stronger.
“We will likely implement the vast majority, if not all, of the recommendations” from RAINN, the company said, declining to describe any of those recommendations
“The RAINN partnership is designed to support our work on prevention and handling of inappropriate conduct in the massage therapy room and helping our franchisees maintain a safe, secure and professional environment,” Massage Envy wrote. “The goal of this work is continuous improvement and both parties agree that the partnership is working.”
*The Daily Beast has provided pseudonyms to the women who have alleged sexual assault in these cases to protect their identities.