Naperville Massage Envy among those hit with sex assault complaints across U.S.

and Contact ReporterNaperville Sun

A Plainfield woman who said she was groped during a massage at a Naperville spa is among the more than 180 people across the country who have filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports and other sexual misconduct complaints against Massage Envy spas, according to Will County court documents.

An investigation by the website BuzzFeed News this week reported that many of those who complained thought their claims were mishandled or ignored by employees and owners of individual Massage Envy spas and by the national company.

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.

Melanie Hansen, general counsel for Massage Envy Franchising, told BuzzFeed News 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," Hansen said in an email to BuzzFeed News.

The Naperville lawsuit describes how 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.

When the woman pulled up a sheet to cover herself, the therapist said, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be doing that," the suit alleges.

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."

"Plaintiff only pulled the sheet up to cover her breasts after the defendant became uncomfortable, apologized and stated that he shouldn't be making such contact with her," the defendant's attorney wrote in court filings.

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 masseuse.

More than 180 people have reported that massage therapists groped their genitals or breasts or committed other explicit violations, according to the Buzzfeed story.

Adam Horowitz, a lawyer who has handled more than two dozen sexual misconduct lawsuits involving Massage Envy, said Monday that he received 25 calls from alleged new victims following the BuzzFeed's publication.

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.

In court filings and in public statements, Massage Envy said it is not liable for sexual assaults that take place at the spas because of the nature of the franchise arrangement, BuzzFeed news reported. Spas control their own day-to-day operations, Hansen said, including figuring out how best to investigate inappropriate conduct.

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.

Employees undergo background checks and are told there is a zero-tolerance policy about inappropriate touching, but Hansen said "there are no policies in any business that can ensure that an employee of a business will not break the law."

The American Massage Therapy Association said massage therapists who inappropriately touch clients should face legal consequences and that people who think they have been victimized should call police.

The Associated Press contributed. Alicia Fabbre is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.

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