On May 2, 2015, Susan Ingram lay facedown in the dark at her local Massage Envy in West Chester, Pennsylvania, one of the franchise’s nearly 1,200 spas nationwide. It was her seventh session with James Deiter, a massage therapist whom the spa had enthusiastically recommended. By now, Ingram trusted Deiter, and she closed her eyes and relaxed as he worked her muscles. Then, without warning, Deiter ground his erect penis against Ingram’s body. He groped her breasts. He put his fingers in and out of her vagina.
Ingram lay there, frozen in fear and disbelief, until the session was over. After driving home sobbing, she called the spa to report the sexual assault. She was shocked when the manager refused to interrupt the session Deiter was having with a female client, Ingram said, or to connect Ingram with the spa’s owner.
“I said to her, ‘Nicole, he stuck his fingers in my vagina less than an hour ago,’” she later recounted in court. She begged the manager to get Deiter’s client out of the massage room immediately. “She said she could not do that, and she invited me in to talk about my services,” Ingram added.
Frustrated, Ingram called the police, who interviewed Deiter that afternoon. He quickly admitted to assaulting not just Ingram but other Massage Envy clients as well. “I need help,” he confessed. The next year, Deiter pleaded guilty to sexually molesting a total of nine women while working at Massage Envy from fall 2014 to spring 2015.
Two of those women had tried to warn the spa about Deiter before Ingram had, court records show. Three months before Ingram’s assault, one woman told the spa that Deiter had touched her genitals. One month before Ingram's assault, another woman reported he had touched her breasts. The spa decided their allegations weren’t credible, in part because, like Ingram, both women had made them over the phone and wouldn’t return to the spa to discuss the events in person. Lawyers would later ask the spa owner and another clinic manager why they would judge an alleged sexual assault victim on her willingness to return to the scene of the crime.
“I was following the policy of Massage Envy,” the owner said, “and therefore I thought it was appropriate.”
Massage Envy, the first and by far the largest chain of massage franchises in the country, is a billion-dollar business that promises trustworthy services at an affordable price. But BuzzFeed News found that more than 180 people have filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports, and state board complaints against Massage Envy spas, their employees, and the national company. Like Susan Ingram, many say their claims were mishandled or ignored by employees and owners of individual Massage Envy spas, and by the national company itself.
Dozens of women reported digital and oral penetration. One Oregon woman said her massage therapist forced his entire fist into her vagina before ejaculating in her face. In Florida, a woman said she tried to push away her massage therapist as he licked her vagina. Over 100 reported that massage therapists groped their genitals, groped their breasts, or committed other explicit violations, such as the California woman who said she opened her eyes during a prenatal massage to find her massage therapist sucking on her nipple.
These claims represent only a sliver of the tens of millions of services Massage Envy says its franchises have provided. Still, lawyers for aggrieved spa clients told BuzzFeed News that there are more cases where women report abuse by massage therapists to police but no arrest is made, and that Massage Envy spas sometimes offer a settlement before a suit is filed, leaving no public record. Statistically, most victims of sexual assault don’t report at all. Even Massage Envy’s own orientation manual, discussing client satisfaction in general, has warned new employees that "Only 4% of upset customers will tell you when there is a problem."
Massage Envy told BuzzFeed News that it would not be “appropriate to respond point-by-point” to questions “because of pending litigation” and the confidential documents involved. But overall, Melanie Hansen, general counsel of Massage Envy Franchising, said 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,” she said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
But a review by BuzzFeed News found the company’s policies on reporting improper conduct do more to protect the company brand than to ensure customer complaints are handled appropriately. Customers have been violated in shocking ways, then seen their reports brushed aside, while offending therapists have been allowed to keep their professional standing with no consequences.
In most states, massage facilities have no legal obligation to report sexual assault claims made on their premises. Still, leaders in the field say massage providers should recognize their inherent duty to address the issue as fully and as expeditiously as possible. The American Massage Therapy Association says it “strongly believes that any massage therapist who steps over the line to inappropriate touch should face the legal consequences.” The association stressed that victims should determine how to proceed but encouraged “anyone who feels there may be inappropriate behavior to call the local police immediately.”
Ben Benjamin, coauthor of the influential book The Ethics of Touch, puts it more bluntly: “If a person says, ‘Someone put their finger in my vagina,’ of course you call the police.”
Even if employees aren’t sure whether a client has been the victim of a crime, they should encourage the person to file formal charges with law enforcement or state regulatory boards, massage experts said. Victims’ rights advocates said facilities should prominently display their reporting policies and hire specially trained, independent consultants if criminal allegations arise.
Massage Envy Franchising doesn’t require its spas to take any of those steps. Except in the few places where local laws might demand it, the company does not compel its franchisees to notify law enforcement or to hire qualified investigators to help determine what happened. This holds true regardless of the seriousness of the allegation, even if it involves rape.
What the company tells franchisees they must do is conduct their own “prompt, fair, and thorough” investigation of any such claims. But it provides almost no guidance on how to do so.
Although experiences can vary widely from spa to spa, some former franchise owners and employees from California to Maryland said they didn’t feel capable of handling such cases themselves.
“Honestly, they don’t really prepare you for that serious of a scenario,” said Kendra Simone, who oversaw more than a dozen Massage Envy spas as an operations director from 2010 to 2016. Employees learned how to ensure incidents didn’t “escalate” into negative publicity, she said, but not how to investigate potential criminal behavior.
The internal review policy “is not in place to protect the client,” said Kate Hardy, who worked on and off as a front desk associate and then clinic manager in Montana from 2014 until June 2017. “It’s in place to protect the company. It’s centered around defusing the situation so the client doesn’t call the police. You don’t want cop cars showing up at your location the next day.”
Simone said her spas never faced any sexual assault allegations. “If it did happen, do I have complete faith that the managers working at those locations would handle it appropriately, and that they have the proper tools to do that?” she asked. “Probably not.”
In court filings and in public statements, Massage Envy corporate says it isn’t liable for sexual assaults that take place at the spas because of the nature of the franchise arrangement. Spas control their own day-to-day operations, Hansen said, including figuring out how best to investigate inappropriate conduct.
Attorneys for former Massage Envy clients have made a different argument. They say that though the spas are independently owned, it’s the parent company that trains employees in Massage Envy policies, sets operational standards such as the need to investigate internally, and monitors the progress of those investigations — and that as a result, the parent company should be held accountable for those policies’ failures.
It appears that Massage Envy Franchising has never had to answer in open court to a victim of sexual assault at one of its spas. Ingram's civil lawsuit may change that. Her trial is scheduled to start in January.
Meanwhile, clients continue to be sexually assaulted at Massage Envy spas. Some have kept massage therapists on staff even after multiple misconduct complaints. Others have quietly fired therapists without reporting their offenses to police or state regulatory boards, allowing the therapists to move on to new professional opportunities with a clean record.
Ingram still wonders whether Deiter would be working as a massage therapist today if she hadn’t decided to call the police herself.
“Massage Envy is a partner in crime,” Ingram said. “They had every opportunity, on multiple occasions, to remove him from his position, and they chose not to.”
In 2002, a massage therapist and the co-owner of a chain of health clubs wondered whether they could apply a recurring monthly membership model to the massage industry, offering an accessible alternative to luxury day spas or seedy parlors. Over the next decade, the multitrillion-dollar global spa and wellness industry exploded — Americans now spend more than $12 billion on massage therapy alone — and Massage Envy grew into the largest massage franchise in the world.
Roark Capital, a private equity firm that owns dozens of big-name franchises like Carl’s Jr. and Arby’s, bought Massage Envy in 2012. The Arizona-based franchise network now collectively employs 20,000 massage therapists, makes more than $1.3 billion in annual sales, has 1.6 million members nationwide, and recently expanded to Australia. Although competitors have popped up, Massage Envy still holds a 67% share of the franchised day-spa market, according to a 2016 study by research firm IBISWorld. The chain, which regularly tops “best franchises to buy” lists, excels at capitalizing on the “self-care” zeitgeist by advertising its services, which now include skin care, as “body maintenance” instead of a luxury. Massage Envy’s purple-logoed storefronts have become a strip mall staple.
Last year, a young woman sued a Massage Envy franchise in Winter Park, Florida, after her massage therapist put his finger in her vagina. She said in a deposition that she had trusted the brand completely.
“I thought of the fact that, you know, Massage Envy is such a reputable company and I've gotten massages from there before,” she said. “I mean, you know, they're kind of like Publix, you see them everywhere.”
Massage Envy advertises itself to potential owners and investors as “one of the fastest growing franchises” in a multibillion-dollar arena: “Now is the ideal time to capitalize on the unprecedented growth and demand,” its website says. But while Massage Envy and its competitors have created more jobs than ever before, research shows massage schools are graduating fewer qualified therapists to take them. Many industry observers say that as a result, franchises are not able to be as selective with whom they hire.
The company points out that the franchise model, which limits the role it can take in any spa's day-to-day operations, has a “long and honorable” history in American business.
“Many of the best-known service brands in the world operate in a franchise environment, including iconic businesses in the restaurant, hotel, senior care, daycare, education, auto repair, fitness, weight management and hair care sectors, in addition to the massage and skincare service sector,” Hansen said.
But Gina Liccardo, a New York City massage therapist, says that model doesn’t translate well to her field. “You can’t compare running a fast-food joint to laying your hands on someone’s body,” she said.
Hiring people straight out of school and placing them under the supervision of managers and owners who may have no experience with massage is a particularly dangerous combination, said Adam Horowitz, a lawyer who has sued dozens of Massage Envy spas.
“An inordinate amount of people are attracted to massage therapy because of sexual interest,” said Horowitz, who used to represent plaintiffs in sex abuse cases against the Catholic Church. “Just like there was opportunity in the priesthood, there’s opportunity in the massage room. When you get a massage, your guard is down completely. You’re not expecting to be violated.”
Kayla Seely, a former director of operations for four Massage Envy spas on the East Coast, rejected the idea that Massage Envy’s business model poses a particular risk. “There are bad eggs in every industry,” she said. “There’s never going to be something you can do to 100% prevent things from happening.”
In her experience, she said, Massage Envy corporate did everything it could to ensure therapists “knew every protocol inside and out.” All Massage Envy therapists undergo background checks and are informed of an extensive zero-tolerance policy toward, among other things, inappropriate touching and actions “that infer sexual suggestiveness or explicit sexuality.” Names of any therapists found to have violated the policy are entered into an internal database to keep them from working at a Massage Envy spa again.
Despite these measures, the company acknowledges that sexual assault remains a risk. “There are no policies in any business that can ensure that an employee of a business will not break the law,” Hansen said. Massage Envy requires franchisees to buy an insurance rider that protects them and the national company against at least three sexual assault claims per year, according to one franchise agreement reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
If franchisees fail to follow Massage Envy’s policies, “our right as a franchisor is generally limited to enforcement of our contractual rights under the franchise agreement (and other related agreements), including, when appropriate, terminating the franchise,” Hansen said. More than 20 franchise agreements have been terminated because of their policies on inappropriate conduct, she said.
The company’s leadership has long feared the media would realize the national scope of the problem, said a former corporate employee, who spoke anonymously because of a nondisparagement agreement. That person recalled executives discussing what would happen “if someone connects the dots of how many sexual assaults have occurred across the country.”
“But while I was there,” the employee added, “they never figured out a solution.”
In at least one risk management training, franchisees were told the goal when investigating claims is “to avoid police and keep membership,” according to one recently filed court motion in Susan Ingram's case.
A communication guide from 2014, obtained by BuzzFeed News, directs employees facing potential crises to consider questions such as “Who is responsible?” “Can it happen again?” and “How will it affect me, my guest/members, or the clinic?”
There’s only one question written in bold type and marked “critical”: “Could it negatively impact Massage Envy’s Spa Brand?”
In October 2015, Danielle Dick was assaulted at a Virginia Massage Envy when her therapist grabbed her by the scalp, placed his hand over her mouth, then put his fingers in her vagina. Afterward, he told Dick it was “our little secret.”
Dick immediately reported the assault to the desk manager. “It was clear that she had no idea what to do,” Dick told BuzzFeed News. “She was like a deer in the headlights.”
The manager told Dick they didn’t have to call the police because the franchise would handle it internally. The next day, a spa employee called Dick to tell her she understood she was “unhappy with the massage experience” and that they wouldn’t charge her for it.
“Then they went back to business as usual, and my entire life was turned over,” Dick said. She reported the therapist to the police herself. Although he was convicted of felony sexual battery the next year, Massage Envy still refers to the incident as an “alleged” assault, Dick said, because her lawsuit is pending.
In October, Dick wrote about her experience and launched a Change.org petition that received over 50,000 signatures. Afterward, Massage Envy corporate told local media that it had reached out to her “to continue to listen to and better understand her concerns and ideas.”
The company did reach out after Dick went public, she told BuzzFeed News — but it also let her know it was considering taking legal action. Hansen says she has an appointment to meet with Dick later this month and will listen to any suggestions the former client has to offer.
It might be an interesting conversation. “The way that Massage Envy has treated me,” Dick wrote online, “clearly indicates a company that issues statements saying the right things to protect its corporate brand, but is unwilling to do anything to support victims of assault.”
When new employees watch “Behind Closed Doors,” Massage Envy’s required training program, they’re greeted by a photo of Hansen. “Managers and franchisees must understand how to handle complaints of inappropriate conduct,” she tells them. “This training will help accomplish all those things.”
When a guest makes an allegation against a therapist, the immediate goal is to address the guest’s concerns “in a safe and secure environment in order to retain them as a valued client and avoid negative attention,” a voiceover explains.
Managers are directed to offer these guests water and observe their “demeanor or any other behavior that may go towards credibility.” While the manager investigates, any therapist accused of breaching Massage Envy’s zero-tolerance policy should be suspended.
As to how the investigation should be conducted, the video says nothing.
If, by whatever means, a therapist is found to have violated the zero-tolerance policy, that person must be fired. If on the other hand the facts are “inconclusive,” the manager is simply instructed to consider steps the spa “might take to ensure incidents of this nature do not happen again.”
Employees are tested on three scenarios. In the first, Chandler, a client, accuses Monica, his massage therapist, of pressing too hard on his back. In the second, another massage therapist named Ross offers to photograph the upcoming wedding of his client Rachel. In the third, a therapist named Joey texts his client Phoebe after-hours to tell her he thinks she is “really sexy.” The last of these three, employees are told, is a fireable offense.
None of these scenarios resemble anything close to sexual assault, which may help explain why managers are so often accused of mishandling it. It’s one thing to confront an employee about a text message, and quite another to determine what happened in a dark room, with no witnesses, when a coworker’s professional standing or even freedom hangs in the balance.
“When you work with people day in and day out, it can be hard to see them as capable of doing something like that,” said Christina, a massage therapist who has worked at multiple Massage Envy spas on the West Coast.
Further complicating matters, managers aren’t given any guidance on how to assess the credibility of accusers. For example, they aren’t instructed on the effects of shock, which often renders trauma victims unable to give full and accurate accounts right away of what happened.
Managers must file a report about their investigation using the franchise’s automated incident reporting tool, which copies the director of franchise operations, the regional director, and the corporate legal department. After that, Massage Envy closely monitors and reviews all incident reports for compliance with their brand standards, Hansen said.
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, Hansen said that “As a franchisor of a service brand, we are not experts in investigating criminal acts” so the company advises spas “to secure expert help as needed to investigate incidents.” That advice does not appear in the recent “Behind Closed Doors” training videos.
A 2017 policy obtained by BuzzFeed News clarifies that in “certain situations,” a franchisee “should consider” reporting an incident to local authorities. It does not say when during the investigation that should happen. No examples are listed, beyond observing any local laws that might require it.
Experts say that the nature of the massage profession — in which clients allow virtual strangers to touch their nearly naked bodies in private rooms — can make assault claims particularly hard to assess. It may be the client who is accused of inappropriately touching the therapist, or one employee who reports another.
Other complaints might have less to do with sexual predation than with individual sensitivities, such as discomfort with being massaged in more vulnerable areas. Some complaints turn out to be false. For all of these reasons, state regulatory boards and other agencies employ trained investigators who can step in, said Ahmos Netanel, CEO of the California Massage Therapy Council.
“It’s beneficial for all sides to have an experienced professional examine the situation and come up with professional and objective conclusions,” he said.
In January 2016, a Massage Envy client wanted to report that her therapist had groped her breasts and vagina during a session at a Sacramento spa two days prior — she was so shocked that she needed time to process, she told BuzzFeed News. She couldn’t figure out how to call the corporate office, so she sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org on Jan. 5, asking someone to call her back because she felt she had "been violated" by her massage therapist. “There was no corporate phone number on your website and I was instructed to email,” she wrote.
By Jan. 12, she hadn’t heard back, so she filed a complaint with the California Massage Therapy Council. The therapist was still working at the spa — in fact, on Jan. 16, another woman reported him to the council for misconduct, records show. But a regional manager from Massage Envy didn’t call the woman until Jan. 25, her attorney said.
Adding insult to injury, the woman said, Massage Envy continued to charge her membership fees for two months, even though she told the manager she never wanted to return.
Massage Envy says it doesn’t require spas to report allegations of sexual assault in jurisdictions that don’t require it in part because the company has consulted with experts who say victims should maintain control over that “critical decision.” Hansen, the company’s general counsel, said that approach is consistent with the position of leading organizations such as the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
But Kati N. Lake, an executive of that organization (which has never worked with Massage Envy), says its recommendations are not that simple.
A zero-tolerance policy is important, Lake said, but there are many other factors to consider, such as how easy a company makes it for clients to register complaints and how well it trains its managers to handle these investigations, which are difficult for all involved.
“You’re not prepared mentally,” said Amanda Owens, a former Massage Envy franchise owner in North Carolina. “What happens immediately when someone complains? How do you talk to the customer? If you’re a woman,” and the accused is a man, “how do you approach him and not feel threatened?”
Kandice Martellaro was a receptionist at a Los Angeles Massage Envy spa when she reported being sexually assaulted by a therapist. No action was taken, she said.
“I could never tell with our specific clinic administrator if she was being really clever and trying to brush it under the rug,” Martellaro said, “or she just sincerely didn’t know how to handle it.”
On Sept. 17, 2017, Tara Woodley visited a Massage Envy in Washington, DC, to celebrate a new job by getting a relaxing Swedish massage. While Woodley's eyes were closed, her therapist put his tongue on her vagina and started to lick her, according to a lawsuit she filed later that month. Woodley jumped up and covered herself, after which the therapist grabbed her hand and begged for forgiveness, she said, swearing he had never done that before.
In fact, two other women said they had reported the same therapist to Massage Envy spas. Three months earlier, when the therapist was working at a Maryland Massage Envy run by the same owner, a woman reported that he had touched her inappropriately. She asked to cancel her membership, she told her local NBC station, but the spa's management would only give her a free spa day as a courtesy — and told her the therapist had been transferred to DC.
Then, on Sept. 5, another woman reported the therapist to the spa that Woodley would later attend. The therapist had pulled the woman's underwear to the side and pressed his face to her vagina, according to the police report she later filed. Yet the therapist was still allowed to continue working there, up through his September 17 appointment with Woodley.
“It’s so gut-wrenching that women had reported him to management, trying to create change, and Massage Envy just turned a blind eye,” Woodley told BuzzFeed News. Her husband convinced her to call 911 right away, after which the other women came forward. “If he hadn’t, I may have done what those women did, and he could have assaulted more women in the future,” Woodley said.
Although Massage Envy Franchising says it leads the industry when it comes to sexual assault policies, it also argues in court filings that as a company that sells franchise agreements rather than employing individual massage therapists, it should bear no liability in clients’ sexual assault lawsuits. It’s hard to know how these cases are resolved, since they are settled under strict confidentiality clauses.
But a case scheduled to go to trial in January may shed some light.
Susan Ingram and seven other women have brought lawsuits against the West Chester Spa — the one where she was assaulted, and where she says the manager refused to halt the massage therapist's next appointment — and Massage Envy LLC. Ingram’s lawyers have argued that despite the company’s claims that it plays no role in investigations of inappropriate conduct, it in fact dictates the way they are conducted and followed, and oversees their progress. The West Chester spa had only reported one of the prior complaints to corporate headquarters, but in depositions, the manager said a regional supervisor approved of the way it was handled and didn't say to call police.
A franchise consultant who has worked with Massage Envy before said the company was in a particularly tricky position.
“There’s no way to prevent issues from arising at franchisees,” the person acknowledged. “But we’re talking about people getting sexually assaulted on tables in dark rooms, in national brands.”
“You have to be human first,” the consultant added. “You have to think if your daughter or mother or aunt or grandmother came to you with a claim, how would you react?”
Last year, Ingram helped US Rep. Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania introduce bipartisan federal legislation that would require owners and employees of massage spas to report allegations of sexual assault to police. "Reporting alleged assault will help victims understand their rights, like pursuing an investigation and pressing charges, and the resources available," Meehan said. The bill would also require owners to publicly display policies about preventing and responding to sexual assault.
If passed, the legislation “will protect women when billion-dollar companies like Massage Envy fail to do the right thing,” Ingram said.
Nearly every day, she drives past the Massage Envy where she was assaulted.
“It’s so hard to resist the urge to walk in that front door and say, How could you have let this happen?” she said. “And how can you continue to let it happen, over and over?” ●
Katie Baker is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Katie J.M. Baker at email@example.com.
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