A chain of massage spas with almost 1,200 locations across the nation is facing hundreds of sexual assault complaints amid concerns that it ignored or mishandled the allegations.
At least 180 people have filed sexual assault civil suits, police reports or complaints to state boards against Massage Envy, its franchises and their employees, according to a Buzzfeed News investigation.
Massage Envy, responding to an inquiry from USA TODAY, called the incidents "heartbreaking" and said they occurred over 15 years among 125 million massages.
BuzzFeed, however, says lawyers for the victims maintain many more people have settled claims outside the courts with no paper trail. The article, by investigative writer Katie J.M. Baker, also points out that most sexual assault victims file no complaints at all.
Massage Envy does not compel franchisees to notify police of sexual assault complaints except where such reports are required by local laws. The company requires internal investigations but provides little counsel on how to conduct them, BuzzFeed says.
Part of the article focuses on James Deiter, a massage therapist who last year was sentenced to more than five years in prison after pleading guilty to assaulting nine women at a Massage Envy in Pennsylvania in 2014 and 2015.
One of Deiter's victims, Susan Ingram, told BuzzFeed she left the spa after being assaulted, then called back to complain. Unhappy with the response, she called police. Officers questioned Deiter, who quickly admitted to assaulting the nine women — some of whom had previously complained to the spa, BuzzFeed reports.
The company, in an email to USA TODAY, said it recommends franchisees "support and assist clients who choose" to report assaults to police. The policy is based on consultation with experts who say victims of sexual assault should have the power to decide whether to report the attacks, the company said.
Massage Envy also said it requires franchisees to conduct "prompt, fair and thorough investigations." Training on how to conduct them is made available multiple times each year, the company said.
Massage Envy says any violation of its zero-tolerance policy by a therapist requires termination. But BuzzFeed says some franchises have kept massage therapists on staff despite multiple misconduct complaints. Others have quietly fired therapists without reporting their offenses, allowing the therapists to move on to new professional opportunities with a clean record.
Ingram told BuzzFeed she thinks Deiter might still be working as a massage therapist if she hadn’t called police.
“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.”
The company said it is reviewing its policies.
"We believe that even one incident is too many," the statement said. "We are constantly listening, learning and evaluating how we can continue to strengthen our policies with respect to handling of these issues."