How The #MeToo Movement Could Help A Major Sexual Assault Case Against Massage Envy

By Brian Kent

A deluge of sexual assault accusations has gripped the entertainment industry and Congress, capturing the nation’s attention. Driven by the courage of others, thousands of assault survivors from every sector of our society are beginning to step forward with their own claims of sexual violence. Among these brave survivors are dozens of women who once called themselves clients of Massage Envy, the nation’s largest chain of massage spas.

The story first broke in Buzzfeed News, when reporter Katie J.M. Baker published an exclusive investigation detailing the allegations of more than 180 women (along with a few men) who say they were assaulted at a Massage Envy location.

Massage Envy boasts 1,170 franchise locations in 49 states. And since at least 2009, women have been coming forward to report sexual assaults committed by massage therapists employed by the company’s franchisees. Eight years later, nearly all of these women have filed civil lawsuits to hold Massage Envy accountable. As dozens of plaintiffs now allege, Massage Envy is accused of fostering a company culture that encourages employees to conceal reports of sexual assault, rather than promotes the safety of its clients.

Our attorneys at Laffey, Bucci & Kent filed some of the first lawsuits against Massage Envy in 2015. That year, we filed six complaints against a Massage Envy franchise in West Chester, Pennsylvania and the company’s corporate office. All six of our clients were assaulted during massage sessions by James Deiter, a man who worked at the West Chester location between 2014 and 2015.

One year after leaving the franchise, Deiter pleaded guilty to assaulting nine women, all of whom were Massage Envy clients. He was sentenced to at least 6.5 years in prison, but as our clients contend in their lawsuits, there is substantial evidence to suggest that Massage Envy failed, on repeated occasions, to prevent Deiter from harming women.

During his tenure at the West Chester location, Deiter assaulted at least nine women, law enforcement officials say. And at least one of these assault survivors reported her allegations to a franchise employee, who sent the complaint up the chain to Massage Envy’s corporate headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. That’s when company policy kicked in. Massage Envy instructed the employee not to tell the police or the Pennsylvania Board of Massage Therapy.

In the course of investigations, our attorneys discovered that Massage Envy company protocol encourages employees to handle sexual assault allegations “in-house,” rather than reporting potential crimes to local police or a State licensing board. Sexual assault complaints, the lawsuits of our clients say, are hidden from official scrutiny. That’s why James Deiter was allowed to continue working at the West Chester Massage Envy, where he would go on to assault multiple other women.

Deiter’s crimes serve as the focal point of the recent Buzzfeed report, but we’ve now seen this pattern repeated over and over. A massage therapist in Washington, D.C., Habtamu Gebreselassie, just pleaded guilty to charges of sexual abuse in the cases of three Massage Envy clients, ABC7 reports. Lawsuits filed by his victims accuse a D.C. franchise location of hiding at least two complaints against the man, and then transferring him to a second Massage Envy in Maryland.

The actions of Deiter, Gebreselassie, and other men, are certainly horrifying. But we believe Massage Envy has its own problem. Hopefully, with legal and public pressure, we’ll see change in the near future.



Brian Kent, Esq. is a plaintiffs’ attorney and founder at Laffey, Bucci & Kent. A former prosecutor for the Sex Crimes Unit of the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office, Brian now represents sexual assault survivors in private lawsuits, including the Massage Envy lawsuits. He is the lead attorney in several of the cases against Massage Envy which will be going to trial in early 2018.



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