ENCINITAS, Calif. (CNS) - A lawsuit alleges that four women were sexually assaulted by therapists at four separate Massage Envy locations, including Encinitas, the plaintiffs' attorneys announced.
The suit, filed in San Mateo County Superior Court, accuses Massage Envy of negligently hiring and supervising five therapists accused by the plaintiffs, and ignoring the "known risk of assault they posed to customers" by allowing them to remain employed or transferring them to another franchise location.
The plaintiffs also allege that Massage Envy has a policy of concealing sexual assault reports, does not require that sexual assaults be reported to law enforcement or state massage therapy boards, and did nothing more than internally investigate each reported incident.
Massage Envy declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the Scottsdale, Arizona-based company adheres to established safety and best practice policies regarding sexual assault.
"We cannot comment on pending litigation, but we believe we have established best-in-class practices to address the types of issues alleged in this lawsuit, with the help of the Massage Envy Safety Advisory Council -- made up of leading experts -- and our work with RAINN, the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S," the statement reads. "These and other concrete actions underscore our commitment to promoting a safe environment for members, guests and service providers at each of our nearly 1,200 franchise locations, and we will never stop working to have industry-leading safety policies."
The lawsuit alleges the sexual assaults occurred at Massage Envy locations in Encinitas, as well as Corona in Riverside County, Daly City, near San Francisco, and Cotati, a community in Sonoma County.
In the Encinitas case, a therapist allegedly ejaculated onto the victim as she lay undressed on a massage table, according to the complaint. The suit alleges that the customer contacted the manager, who apologized to her and offered her a free massage.
"Employees who went to management were told not to complain, which sent a message to those speaking up that such conduct was acceptable," plaintiffs' attorney Elizabeth Graham alleged. "In at least one instance, male therapists shamed women clients, claiming they obviously wanted sex by seeking a massage, even though massage treatments are standard at virtually every spa and nail salon in the country. The misconduct itself is disturbing enough at franchise locations, but compounded by the parent company's lack of reporting and rooting out of the abusers -- not unlike the wider sex abuse scandals we've seen at the U.S. Gymnastics Association or even the Catholic Church.
"It's unconscionable that such brazen client abuse would take place in just one Massage Envy franchise -- let alone multiple locations across California," Graham said. "This is a by-product of a toxic work culture, where abuse persisted and was tolerated even after the problem was well recognized within the company, and yet customer complaints went smothered and unreported."
The lawsuit was announced the same day that Orange County prosecutors filed criminal charges against a massage therapist charged with sexually assaulting two women during massage treatments at a Massage Envy location in Mission Viejo. Russell Bernardino, who is also a licensed home health care provider, was additionally charged with raping a 77-year-old woman while serving as her caregiver at her home in an Orange County retirement community.