In December 2012, a Massage Envy employee touched a Coral Springs woman's vagina while she was getting a routine massage, she says. But when she filed a lawsuit in 2013, the company's lawyers blamed her for the sexual assault, insisting it was she who behaved negligently.
"The plaintiff conducted herself in a careless and negligent manner, and said negligence is a contributing and/or sole legal proximate cause of the injuries," attorneys with the firm Kubicki Draper wrote in court filings.
The lawyers' core argument: The woman should have known that getting a massage opened her up to sexual battery. "Plaintiff expressly or impliedly assumed a risk of injury which was well known and appreciated by her," the Massage Envy legal team wrote in an October 2013 filing in a case that was later settled out of court.
This past Sunday, BuzzFeed News published an investigation revealing the scope of sexual assaults on clients of Massage Envy, an Arizona-based chain with 35 locations in South Florida. The report detailed how the company covered its own tracks when more than 180 women reported rapes by Massage Envy employees during their appointments, instead of taking those complaints seriously by working with law enforcement or firing massage therapists.
Though BuzzFeed's story focused on how clients were mistreated by the company itself, it's clear from court filings reviewed by New Times that the company's attorneys also routinely blamed and harassed the victims in court. In cases filed in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, New Times discovered that in multiple sexual assault suits, Massage Envy lawyers were callous to alleged victims, all while denying the company had any culpability in the assaults.
In 2011, for instance, a Fort Lauderdale woman sued the Massage Envy at 1917 Cordova Rd. because she said an employee, Kamonte McNeill, touched her breasts and stuck his fingers in her vagina during a 50-minute massage in July 2010. The woman said flashbacks of McNeill, who was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison, gave her feelings of anxiety, depression, shame, and mental anguish. When she took Massage Envy to court, the company's attorneys deployed a series of tactics that she said revictimized her.
In December 2013, lawyers with Boyd Richards Parker Colonnelli tried to force the woman to undergo a mental examination, claiming they needed to evaluate her condition. The woman objected, saying it was a boilerplate request that had absolutely nothing to do with her case, and a judge shut the motion down, saying the company hadn't provided good enough reason. Massage Envy dropped the issue.
As the case dragged on, though, the attorneys' demands continued. In April 2015, Massage Envy lawyers asked the woman to hand over her username and password for every social media account she'd used over the past five years. The company claimed her social media footprint was "absolutely relevant to the subject matter" and said it was a simple enough request because "most social media sites, including Facebook, provide simple instructions to download all content into one file." The lawyers also cited case law saying the woman had no expectation of privacy on social networks.
In response, the woman's attorney called the request an "invasion of privacy intended to annoy, embarrass, and oppress a victim of sexual assault."
"The above request is pure fishing expedition with no factual basis," the woman's lawyer wrote. Despite the woman's objection, Circuit Judge Carlos Rodriguez ordered the victim to turn over a download of her Facebook information to Massage Envy. (The case was ultimately settled in August 2015.)
In a separate case in Miami-Dade County, a woman said a Massage Envy employee in Aventura pulled her panties to the side, stuck his fingers in her vagina, grabbed her breasts, and tried to kiss her at the end of a 90-minute appointment in January 2015. When she sued the company later that year, its lawyers claimed she had "released [Massage Envy] from liability" by signing a membership agreement. As in the Coral Springs case, they shifted the blame onto the victim.
“Plaintiff was negligent and that negligence directly and proximately caused or contributed to the injuries," attorneys with Bunnell & Woulfe in Fort Lauderdale wrote in court filings. (The case was settled in June 2017 but was reopened in August.)
The same lawyers defended Massage Envy in 2016 against a woman who said an employee in Brickell "stroked her vaginal area several times" during a September 2015 massage. In a deposition, the lawyers asked her if she knew “whether it was a slip up or was it intentional.”
“Of course I do,” she answered, “or I wouldn’t be here.” (The case was settled in August 2017.)
In a statement this week, Massage Envy says it continues to look for ways to reduce incidents of sexual assault of its clients.
"Each of these incidents is heartbreaking for us and for the franchisees that operate Massage Envy locations, and we will never stop looking for ways to help our franchisees provide a safe environment at Massage Envy franchise locations," the company says.
"The [BuzzFeed] article references 180 reported incidents. These occurred over a span of 15 plus years and 125 million massages. 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.”
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.