Four women were sexually assaulted at four Massage Envy spas in New Jersey, their attorneys said Thursday, joining a growing group of massage clients alleging abuse at the nationwide chain.
In a suit filed Thursday in Superior Court, the women claim that Massage Envy therapists groped and digitally penetrated them during massages, and that the billion-dollar corporation "has a pervasive policy of documenting these sexual assaults but not reporting them to the proper authorities," and discouraging victims from going to police.
The lawsuits follow claims filed this week by 16 women in California and Florida with similar accusations. Last year, a Buzzfeed investigation revealed that more than 180 women had made sexual assault complaints against Massage Envy nationwide.
"We've been flooded with phone calls from men and women across the country telling us of similar instances of sexual assault at Massage Envy locations," M. Stewart Ryan, an attorney for the victims, said at a news conference in Center City.
The New Jersey complaints, filed in Middlesex County, cite Massage Envy spas in Mays Landing, Piscataway, Short Hills, and Closter.
The franchise chain continued to employ therapists suspected of sexually assaulting female customers and routinely transferred, reassigned, or rehired accused therapists at its various locations, the lawsuit alleges.
It also accuses the company of conducting "sham investigations" designed to avoid finding its therapists guilty, not informing customers about sexual misconduct, and not notifying authorities or state massage therapy board officials about assault accusations.
"According to a former corporate employee, the company's leadership has long feared the media would realize the national scope of the problem," the suit says. "That person recalled executives discussing what would happen 'if someone connects the dots of how many sexual assaults have occurred across the country.'"
Massage Envy has sought "to protect their name, their brand, and their profits over people who came to them," said Guy D'Andrea, another lawyer for the victims.
Because massage clients are semi-undressed or naked, are in a private room, and are often seeking to remedy stress or pain, they are particularly vulnerable to predators — and often, massage therapists see clients multiple times before sexually assaulting them, the attorneys said. Clients are "going into a room where they have a sense of security and safety and relaxation, where their guard is down, a prime place for a predator to prey upon people," D'Andrea said.
In an emailed statement, CEO Joe Magnacca said the company "is committed to providing a safe environment for members, guests, and service providers," adding that as a matter of policy any massage therapist accused of sexual misconduct would be taken off the work schedule immediately.
After the Buzzfeed report in 2017, Massage Envy apologized and vowed to improve. Multiple lawsuits were filed at the time, including in Pennsylvania. A Chester County massage therapist pleaded guilty to assaulting nine women at a Massage Envy in West Goshen Township.
The attorneys anticipate filing lawsuits on behalf of more alleged victims in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Massachusetts in the coming weeks. They also have received complaints from people who patronized Massage Envy in South Carolina, Texas, New Mexico, Illinois, and New York, said lawyer H. Nellie Fitzpatrick.
"This lawsuit will hopefully bring about … transparency so we can start to build accountability and create safer places for people to go, whether or not that's Massage Envy or to a church or to a school," she said.
According to the suit, the four women, whose alleged assaults occurred between 2015 and 2017, were groped by their male massage therapists, and two had the masseurs digitally penetrated their vaginas. In one case, the therapist also allegedly choked the woman; in another, the therapist put his erect penis on the client's body, it says.
At the Mays Landing spa, the accused therapist had been the subject of a sexual assault complaint from another customer a year earlier but had been allowed to continue working despite not being licensed in New Jersey, the suit contends. At the Short Hills location, the victim reported the assault to Massage Envy but allegedly was told that if she went to police, she would face "a lot of red tape" and no action likely would be taken.
The attorneys said they did not know whether the accused therapists still work for the company.