CORAL SPRINGS (CBSMiami) – A woman who claims she was sexually abused at a Massage Envy franchise in Coral Springs is speaking out for the first time as her Fort Lauderdale attorneys have filed a lawsuit against the company.
The lawsuit filed by attorney Matt Weissing and his law firm alleges that Massage Envy franchising procedures direct employees not to inform police about complaints involving sexual misconduct. They say company protocol encourages employees to handle such issues “in house.”
The victim, who identified herself only as “Jane Doe 101” and who did not want to show all of her face, told CBS4’s Peter D’Oench that the incident from last June “was kind of like an out of body experience. I was in shock. It was like watching it from outside my belief. There was disbelief it was happening.”
The victim described what she said was done to her by 33-year-old licensed massage therapist Michael Ster, who was charged with two counts of sexual battery and whose case is still pending.
“I was completely relaxed and asleep when he removed the sheet covering my body,” she said. “He touched both of my breasts and my vagina. I was shocked and I froze. I was terrified. The next thing I knew he was performing oral sex on me.”
She said she pushed him away.
“After I pushed him away, he climbed on top of the table and began doing it again,” she said. “I kept pushing him away until he stopped and I got away.”
She said she contacted Coral Springs and they say they found corroborative evidence and arrested Ster. His case is still pending.
He faces another court hearing on June 26th.
“I hope that by coming forward I’m able to prevent other women from going through what I had to endure,” she said.
The incident happened at a Massage Envy franchise at 2828 North University Drive in Coral Springs.
Attorneys for the victim filed a lawsuit against Massage Envy on Thursday.
They said while the Massage Envy franchise has an “Inappropriate Touch Procedure” that encourages employees to handle complaints within the company instead of reporting to police.
Attorney Matt Weissing said, “There’s nothing in their protocol about reports to police or calling the police or leaving a paper trail.”
Weissing said the company protocol instructs franchise owners to put a guest who has a complaint in a private room and “to avoid admitting to anything or making any promise to do anything more to internally investigate the allegations, then to create an incident report and send it to the Corporate office.”
“There is no provision in the Massage Envy protocol/policy or procedure to notify police of any sexual misconduct,” Weissing said. “The complaint alleges that Massage Envy has created a procedure wherein a woman who was sexually victimized is sent out the door or a Massage Envy franchise with only the mere promise to investigate and take appropriate action.”
Weissing said there have been similar allegations at a number of the other 900 Massage Envy franchises in 49 states and he said he has heard from other victims.
“I was shocked to learn that Massage Envy corporate policy was not to report things to police or assist them in any way that can prevent criminal acts. I think that is pathetic.”
Attorneys mentioned a sum of $15,000 that they were seeking from their lawsuit, but that is a standard figure in initial filings of such lawsuits. A true dollar figure has not been set.
“We have done a statistical analysis nationwide of such cases and found that only four per cent of people will tell you when there is a problem,” said Weissing.
Massage Envy, which is headquartered in Arizona, released a statement to CBS4 saying, “Massage Envy has a zero tolerance policy against inappropriate conduct. Each franchisee, including the Coral Springs owner, is required to conduct criminal background and reference checks prior to hiring, which was done correctly in this case.”
“Our franchises are required that all licensed massage therapists must complete training prior to employment, which specifically covers our zero tolerance policy on inappropriate conduct.”
“In addition, all franchisees are instructed to notify law enforcement, as relevant, related to alleged incidents and to fully cooperate with authorities during their investigation,” said the statement.
The statement said, “These and other policies and procedures are well above the industry standard and designed to provide the millions of members and guests of our franchises an unmatched wellness experience in a safe and comfortable environment.”
The statement also said, “Massage Envy was horrified to learn of these allegations and we sympathize with the guest of the Coral Springs clinic. In fact we are considering filing a claim against Mr. Ster for his alleged actions while employed by the Massage Envy franchise.
Massage Envy said each franchise location is independently owned and operated. Massage Envy Spa franchisees provide 1.5 million massage and spa services every month to more than 1.5 million members in 49 states.
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