4 Chicago-area Massage Envy franchises among nearly 200 sued by customers alleging sexual assault

Chicago Tribune

Four women have filed lawsuits against Massage Envy franchises in Chicago and the suburbs claiming they were sexually assaulted by massage therapists, part of a growing list of women who say they were sexually assaulted by employees at the company’s franchises across the U.S.

Claims against the nationwide firm from more than 180 clients were brought to light as part of an investigation by the website BuzzFeed News earlier this week, which reported that many of the victims believed that both the company and its franchises mishandled or ignored their complaints.

In Illinois, the Tribune found lawsuits filed against four different Massage Envy franchises in Chicago, Naperville, Elmhurst and Tinley Park in recent years in which women alleged they were sexually assaulted by male massage therapists.

A Chicago woman sued a Massage Envy in Tinley Park claiming that in August 2016 her male therapist groped her “breasts and vaginal area under the guise of providing her with massage therapy,” according to a copy of the lawsuit filed in Will County. Afterward, the therapist allegedly met the woman outside the massage room to ask if she was OK and “made several admissions to suggest that he knew his behavior was not welcome,” according to the lawsuit.

An attorney for LCG Massage, owner of the Tinley Park Massage Envy franchise, denies the allegations of any sexual touching, according to court documents. The attorney also noted that law enforcement was notified of the woman’s complaint, but no charges were filed against the massage therapist, according to court documents.

The other three women have either settled or voluntarily dismissed their lawsuits, according to a review of court records in Will, Cook and DuPage counties.

In April, a Plainfield woman settled a 20-count lawsuit against Massage Envy, a massage therapist and the franchise manager regarding a May 2013 incident at the Massage Envy at 2775 Showplace Drive in Naperville. The lawsuit sought at least $1 million in damages and court costs. Court documents do not disclose the settlement amount.

The Naperville lawsuit alleges a male massage therapist told the woman to take off her bra and, about halfway through the massage, began “cupping her breasts” and touching her inappropriately, prompting the woman to try to pull up a sheet that was covering part of her body in an attempt to shield herself.

In a response to an amended complaint, an attorney for the therapist said the man had “asked the plaintiff if she wanted her pectoral muscles massaged,” and that the woman “only pulled the sheet ... after the defendant became uncomfortable, apologized and stated that he shouldn’t be making such contact with her.”

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation revoked his massage therapist license in June 2014. The therapist’s attorney, Joe Giamanco, said the man is no longer employed by Massage Envy nor is he employed anywhere as a masseur.

In June 2013, a Cincinnati woman filed suit against the Massage Envy in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, alleging that during an appointment earlier that same month, a male massage therapist pressed his erect penis against her head before he tried to touch her vagina and kissed her on the leg. The suit, which sought damages in excess of $50,000, was settled for an unknown amount in March 2015.

An Elmhurst woman twice sued a franchise in Elmhurst after she alleged her massage therapist inappropriately touched her and made suggestive comments during a September 2014 appointment. The original suit, filed later that same year in DuPage County, was voluntarily dropped in early January 2015, but she filed a second suit against him several days later in Cook County. That suit was also voluntarily dropped in 2015, according to court records.

The franchise network, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has nearly 1,200 spas across the United States, collectively employs 20,000 massage therapists and has 1.6 million member clients nationwide.

Massage Envy in a statement Monday said the complaints documented by BuzzFeed News spanned a period of more than 15 years and said each account was heartbreaking.

“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,” the company said.

Except in some places where local laws might demand it, the company does not compel franchisees to notify law enforcement or to hire qualified investigators to help determine what happened, BuzzFeed News reported.

The company tells franchisees they must conduct their own “prompt, fair and thorough” investigation of any abuse or misconduct claims, but BuzzFeed News reported it provides little guidance on how to do so.

The Associated Press and Naperville Sun reporter Suzanne Baker contributed.

Alicia Fabbre is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.

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