Skip to main content
Subscriber Exclusive License to abuse

Sexual abuse allegations continue to plague Arizona company Massage Envy

Adroit at protecting its own interests, Massage Envy still has trouble protecting its members.

Published Updated

Massage Envy location in Phoenix. Patrick Breen/The Republic

Warning: Contains sexually explicit language and graphic content.

Massage Envy, the nation's largest massage therapy chain, is credited with bringing affordable massages to the masses since its first location opened nearly 20 years ago in Scottsdale.

Once considered an occasional spa luxury, massages are now an essential part of many people's wellness routines – and the ubiquitous presence of Massage Envy, offering lower-cost massages across the country, is part of that trend.

With 40 locations across Arizona, Massage Envy therapists also have become no strangers to the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy, the licensing board that regulates massage therapists and investigates complaints against them. 

Of the more than the 100 sexual misconduct complaints filed since 2014 with Arizona regulators, at least 28 of them involved Massage Envy therapists. 

In turn, Kevin Ramsey, who works for the company that operates the most Massage Envy franchises in Arizona and who trains massage therapists for the chain, managed to get appointed to a seat on the Licensing Board in 2019. After The Arizona Republic asked him whether it was a conflict of interest for him to vote on the punishment of therapists from his own company, he resigned in June.

Since a 2017 BuzzFeed article detailed numerous sexual assault complaints against Massage Therapy therapists across the country, top company officials say they have revamped safety policies. But a five-month investigation by The Republic shows Massage Envy continues to be dogged by the same problems.

Though the company states on its website it requires franchises to background massage therapists, Arizona licensing records show at least two therapists with questionable backgrounds were hired. In one case, a Phoenix therapist's license was on probation after a client complained he exposed her breast and made inappropriate sexual comments at a previous employer, and he received a second licensing complaint while working at a Massage Envy spa in 2017.

In another case, a Glendale therapist was hired by a Massage Envy spa in 2018 despite being sued for an alleged sexual assault while working for a different massage company and after being investigated by police over sexual misconduct allegations while still in massage school. 

Massage Envy Franchising corporate offices in Scottsdale.
Massage Envy Franchising corporate offices in Scottsdale. Patrick Breen/USA TODAY NETWORK

Massage Envy says it is committed to the safety and well-being of its members. But at the same time, it takes steps to limit their legal options if they are sexually abused. Court documents detail how signing up for membership includes an agreement to settle disputes with the parent company through arbitration, rather than before a jury, unless clients opt out. Franchise employees have even gone as far as to take the side of a massage therapist against a client in a hearing before the state's  Licensing Board.

Massage Envy would not make anyone available for an interview and did not provide an estimate on the number of massage therapists who work at Arizona franchises. But a spokesman provided a statement, saying the company has pioneered and implemented brand standards to promote a safe, clean, professional, consistent and comfortable environment at every franchised location. 

"We take allegations of misconduct by franchisee employees very seriously and have developed our Commitment to Safety Program to outline the brand policies, protocols and actions in place at the more than 1,100 independently owned and operated franchised locations," the statement said. 

Franchises are required to hold employees to a rigorous code of conduct designed to foster a safe and professional experience for members and guests, according to Massage Envy's website.

Franchises must do background screenings of therapists before hiring and annually thereafter. The company uses a third-party system to track compliance on safety requirements and third-party investigators for allegations of inappropriate conduct. Therapists accused of inappropriate conduct are immediately removed from the schedule. If it is determined an offense occurred, the website statement says they must be terminated and are marked as ineligible for hire at any Massage Envy franchise. 

To be sure, the vast majority of customers never file complaints or lawsuits. But Florida attorney Adam Horowitz, who has been involved in more than 50 massage therapy lawsuits — many of them against Massage Envy — describes the response since the company revamped its safety policies in 2017 as "very uneven."

"They may have a road map on how to do things from corporate," Horowitz said. "The implementation is done locally."

Some of the women in this story are not being named because The Republic does not identify individuals who allege sexual crimes without their permission. 

Investigation: How massage therapists accused of sexual abuse keep working

Police investigations and a lawsuit 

The complaints filed against Massage Envy therapists with the state Licensing Board since 2014 include allegations of exposing clients' breasts or buttocks, touching breasts and genitals, digital penetration and rape. And the complaints have continued in recent years despite top company officials revising safety policies in 2017.  

Even a massage therapist like Phillip Dominguez, with serious red flags, was able to get a job at a Massage Envy franchise in 2018.

Arizona College in Glendale. Phillip Dominguez was a student at the school when two students alleged Dominguez touched them inappropriately while getting massages in the school’s training lab.
Arizona College in Glendale. Phillip Dominguez was a student at the school when two students alleged Dominguez touched them inappropriately while getting massages in the school’s training lab. Mark Henle/USA TODAY NETWORK

Two years earlier, Dominguez was a student in the massage therapy program at Arizona College in Glendale when a school official contacted Glendale police. Two students had said Dominguez touched them inappropriately while they were getting massages in the school's training lab.

One student refused to talk to police, saying she was afraid. The second student told police Dominguez pulled the sheet back, exposing her buttocks during a massage. A day later, she claimed he massaged her breasts and nipples. Dominguez denied the allegations. Glendale police said neither classmate wanted to prosecute and closed the case.

The school official told police that the school was considering discharging Dominguez. He told the Licensing Board he left Arizona College because he fractured his foot. He finished classes the following year at another school, Cortiva Institute.

Dominguez received his Arizona massage license in April 2017. That same month, a woman complained about him, according to court records. She was seeking treatment for her neck and upper back at City Health Services in Phoenix. During an April 7, 2017, massage, Dominguez was accused of sexual assault, according to a civil lawsuit filed in December 2017.

As the civil lawsuit worked its way through the court, Dominguez began working at Massage Envy in September 2018, according to a police report. 

At the time Dominguez was hired by Massage Envy, there were no complaints against him with the Licensing Board. But he was listed as a defendant in the civil lawsuit over the allegations at City Health Services. 

Phillip Dominguez
Phillip Dominguez Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy

Two months after he started work at Massage Envy, a woman identified as "A.C." booked a massage with him at Massage Envy Glendale, according to a police report. She asked him to focus on her shoulders and neck. Instead, she claims he began stroking her labia with his fingers. She felt violated, frozen and unsure what to do. 

Once the massage was over, she called her boyfriend from the car and posted a review online.

"Do not book with Philip if you are a female!!! I've never felt so violated by a massage therapist. Will be speaking to the manager ASAP. Was too uncomfortable to address it while I was leaving. I needed to get out of there."

A.C. spend the next day in bed, depressed. She told her mother and another massage therapist about what happened. She reported the incident to Massage Envy. She called Glendale police. 

A.C. was shocked to learn Dominguez had been investigated by police in 2016 while a student and that he had a civil lawsuit filed against him for a separate allegation in 2017. She decided to complain to the state Licensing Board.

"I hope this is taken seriously," she wrote. "After this incident, I was mortified to hear of his priors and to see his license with zero complaints. Phillip Dominguez is a predator and should not be allowed to continue this profession."

Her complaint went before the state Licensing Board in 2019, where Dominguez denied the allegations. State licensing records say the Massage Envy spa fired him immediately afterward.

Dominguez's attorney, Michelle Villaneuva-Skura, described the claims as a "he-said, she-said" narrative that didn't warrant taking his license. She called the civil lawsuit a "nuisance-value settlement" that was paid. She pointed out that the police investigations in 2016 and 2017 didn't result in criminal charges.

A complaint was filed against Glendale, Ariz., massage therapist Phillip Dominguez in 2018. He denied the allegations.
A complaint was filed against Glendale, Ariz., massage therapist Phillip Dominguez in 2018. He denied the allegations. Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy

Villanueva-Skura questioned A.C.'s motives, saying: "So you're familiar that Massage Envy likes to avoid conflict and pay the victims large sums of money to go away?"

A.C. told the board her motivation for filing the complaint was to keep the therapist from victimizing anyone else. Her testimony was persuasive. 

"In my opinion, something happened," the board's vice chair, Victoria Bowmann, said during the hearing. The board concluded there was enough information to demonstrate a pattern. They revoked his license.

Massage Envy Glendale referred questions about Dominguez's hiring to the corporate office, which declined to comment on specifics.

In a general statement, Massage Envy said company policy requires each franchisee to conduct background screenings for all service providers as a condition of hiring and annually. Massage Envy uses an automated, third-party system that tracks service providers' compliance with the brand's safety requirements. The system checks compliance in background checks, license verifications, required training completion and employment verifications.

"We would also like to emphasize that franchise locations are independently owned and operated by small business owners, and that Massage Envy Franchising LLC does not own or operate any of them," the statement said. 

Victoria Bowmann (right) and Mlee Clark, chair and vice chair  of the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy, listen during a public board meeting on Jan. 31, 2020, in Phoenix.
Victoria Bowmann (right) and Mlee Clark, chair and vice chair of the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy, listen during a public board meeting on Jan. 31, 2020, in Phoenix. David Wallace/USA TODAY NETWORK

Conflict of interest?

The state Massage Therapy Board licenses therapists and conducts investigations and hearings into allegations of incompetence or unprofessional conduct.

The board can dismiss a complaint if a majority don't find the allegations credible. They can give the therapist a warning letter or discipline by suspending, putting on probation or revoking the therapist's massage license. They can also order the therapist to take continuing-education classes beyond what’s already required annually.  

By August 2019, the five-member Licensing Board had dwindled to three members due to resignations, meaning if only one member was absent, the board would lack a quorum and wouldn't be able to hold a public meeting. Massage therapist Kevin Ramsey applied for a seat at this pivotal time. 

He came highly recommended. 

Kevin Ramsey, a board member of the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy, resigned in June 2021 after being questioned by The Arizona Republic about his votes related to Massage Envy therapists.
Kevin Ramsey, a board member of the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy, resigned in June 2021 after being questioned by The Arizona Republic about his votes related to Massage Envy therapists. David Wallace/USA TODAY NETWORK

At the time of his appointment, Ramsey worked for the Brovitz Group, a family-owned business that operated 13 Massage Envy locations in Arizona as well as a training facility for Massage Envy therapists. Ramsey's application for a board seat states that  Jon Brovitz referred him for a position on the Licensing Board. Brovitz is president of the Brovitz Group.

The governor appoints members to serve five-year terms. Campaign finance reports show that Brovitz and his wife, Bonnie, are contributors to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. They each gave $1,000 toward Ducey's successful run for governor, and Jon Brovitz gave another $1,000 in 2016 to Arizonans for Strong Leadership, a committee that helped a strategic group of Republican legislative candidates leading up to the general election, according to campaign finance reports.

Brovitz told The Republic he is a friend of Ducey's and worked with the governor in 2019 on license reciprocity, making it easier for California massage therapists to get licensed in Arizona.

"The market for massage therapists is extremely tight and there are not enough massage therapists in the state of Arizona," Brovitz said. "The governor was trying to make it easier."

Brovitz said he sold his 13 Massage Envy locations to another company, PCRK Group, a few months after referring Ramsey for a board seat.  

He said he didn't attempt to influence Ramsey on the board.

"I just wanted to help Kevin," said Brovitz. He said he retired after selling his Massage Envy locations in October 2019 and is no longer involved in the massage industry. 

Ramsey began working for PCRK in October 2019, according to his Linkedin account, the same month he began casting votes on the Licensing Board. The Phoenix-based company owns and operates more than 70 Massage Envy locations in 10 states, including several in Arizona. 

Over the next 20 months, board records show he failed to recuse himself on eight votes involving three Massage Envy therapists — Gabriel Houseal, Samuel Cartes and Luis Martinez. None of the therapists had their licenses revoked. Houseal was released from probation. Cartes got a six-month suspension. Martinez got an advisory letter. 

Ramsey even made the motion to give Martinez an advisory letter. Advisory letters are nondisciplinary; they are public record but don't show up next to the therapist's name on the state's online licensing directory.

A public board meeting of the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy in Phoenix on January 31, 2020. The board has been meeting virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A public board meeting of the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy in Phoenix on January 31, 2020. The board has been meeting virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic. David Wallace/USA TODAY NETWORK

A female client complained in July 2020 that Martinez exposed her breasts, massaged her genitalia and penetrated her vagina with his fingers. He tried to perform oral sex on her, she said. Martinez told the board he had no recollection of the massage, which allegedly happened in 2014 at the Massage Envy in Surprise. 

An ethics expert told The Republic that Ramsey's votes are a conflict of interest because of his connection to Massage Envy, and he should have refrained from discussion or voting on any discipline cases involving the company. 

By voting on those cases, he risks being perceived as acting on behalf of the therapists and company that employs them, said John Pelissero, a senior scholar in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. 

"You are placing private interests above public interests," he said.

Ramsey told The Republic in June that he operates a training program for PCRK Group. The company is the largest operator of Massage Envy franchises in Arizona.

He said Massage Envy is a large company and that he didn't know the therapists he voted on. On the one occasion he did know the therapist, he recused himself from voting, he said. Board records show he recused himself from a vote involving therapist Robert Boyle, whose license was removed from probation in November 2019. 

Ramsey said he didn't consider his votes to be conflicts of interest because he wasn't getting money from Massage Envy to vote a certain way. 

"I vote based on upholding the standards of ethics and quality of the massage industry in Arizona," he said. 

The Republic questioned why he voted on therapist Samuel Cartes, who licensing records show worked at Massage Envy Carefree in Scottsdale when he received a complaint in 2019. That franchise is operated by PCRK, the same company that employs Ramsey. 

"I'm not sure I'm comfortable answering this many questions for you, particularly if you are going to be writing about me," he told The Republic.

PCRK did not return phone and email messages seeking comment. 

The Republic asked Ramsey whether he had consulted with the Arizona Attorney General's Office about his potential conflict of interest. That office provides legal guidance to state licensing boards and has an assistant attorney general present at board meetings.

"They advised me to use my own judgment," Ramsey said. 

Board member Kevin Ramsey resigned June 10 after an Arizona Republic reporter questioned why he voted on Massage Envy therapists.
Board member Kevin Ramsey resigned June 10 after an Arizona Republic reporter questioned why he voted on Massage Envy therapists. Boards and Commissions office

The Republic requested comment and copies of any correspondence dealing with conflict of interest on the state Board of Massage Therapy but had not received a response back from the attorney general as of publication time. 

Ramsey resigned from the Licensing Board on June 10, right after The Republic questioned him about his voting record. 

Arizona’s conflict of interest law is designed to remove or limit the possibility of personal influence on public decisions. 

The state's definition of conflict of interest is broad. Essentially, an individual who has a "substantial interest" in any decision that comes before the board should declare the conflict in the public meeting and recuse himself from participating in the matter. Members of other regulatory boards, such as the Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, have interpreted this to mean if the business or an employee of the business they work for comes before the board for licensing approval or a disciplinary action, they don't participate in the discussion or vote.

The Funeral Board in July hosted a training session for its members on conflict of interest where members were told by Assistant Attorney General Justin Larson that violating the conflict of interest law can leave a regulatory board open to civil lawsuits, including civil rights lawsuits alleging due-process violations. If the plaintiff prevails in court, a judge could force the regulatory board to pay attorney fees, which could be costly, he said. 

Potential criminal violations also exist if the board member intentionally or recklessly violated the law. But the penalties aren't steep: The member could lose his board seat. 

Ramsey has already resigned.

Database: Tracking Arizona massage therapists accused of sexual misconduct

Subject of numerous lawsuits

Business entrepreneur John Leonesio and massage therapist Shawn Haycock modeled Massage Envy after fitness clubs, using a membership model that gives the company and its franchises predictable revenues. 

The first location opened off Loop 101 and Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale in 2002. By 2009, Entrepreneur Magazine ranked Massage Envy as one of the nation’s 20 fast-growing franchises. 

The chain connected by hitting the sweet spot for clients, massage therapists and franchise owners, according to a 2015 profile in Forbes. Clients get lower-cost massages at convenient times and locations. Entry-level therapists get job experience. And franchise owners get predictable revenue from the monthly memberships, Forbes said. 

A private equity firm acquired the company in late 2009, and it was sold again in 2012 to Roark Capital Group, another private-equity firm. The Atlanta-based company manages $33 billion in assets, including such well-known franchises as the Arby's fast-food sandwich chain, Cinnabon sweet rolls and Dunkin' donuts.

Massage Envy is modeled after fitness clubs, using a membership model that gives the company and its franchises predictable revenues.
Massage Envy is modeled after fitness clubs, using a membership model that gives the company and its franchises predictable revenues. Patrick Breen/USA TODAY NETWORK

Massage Envy saw its reputation rocked in 2017 when an investigation by BuzzFeed News revealed more than 180 clients across the country had filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports and state board complaints against Massage Envy spas, their employees and the national company.

The company responded with a six-point safety plan on its website, outlining how the company planned to screen therapists and handle sexual assault claims. 

Massage Envy, in its latest franchise disclosure document, says the company has been named as a defendant in "numerous lawsuits" by customers who allege their massage therapists engaged in sexual misconduct. The suits allege the company was negligent and is liable. The company says that it "strongly disagrees with the plaintiffs' allegations and intends to vigorously defend these actions."

It doesn't say how many lawsuits the company has faced. 

Franchise disclosure documents show the company takes steps to protect itself financially from claims. It requires each franchise to take out a minimum of $1 million in insurance per occurrence for allegations of sexual abuse or molestation. 

Franchises also must follow Massage Envy policies that are designed to prevent and handle inappropriate conduct during massage sessions. Franchise owners are warned that failure to comply with laws, regulations and policies, "may put your customers at risk and/or increase your risk of litigation associated with inappropriate conduct during massage therapy sessions."

Mounting lawsuits: At least 9 lawsuits in Maricopa County accuse Massage Envy therapists of sexual assault

Attempts to limit legal options

Court documents detail how Massage Envy also tries to limit a customer's right to a jury trial.

Brian Kent, a Philadelphia attorney who represents several women suing Massage Envy, says the company tries to force victims into arbitration by way of a "hidden" arbitration agreement. 

In Arizona, two women who claim they were sexually abused in 2018 by a massage therapist at Massage Envy Camelback in Phoenix sued the spa, the therapist and the parent company, alleging negligence. The spa, therapist and parent company deny the allegations. 

The women allege therapist Lane Berk massaged their breasts without permission and one claims he pinched her nipples. The Licensing Board revoked Berk’s massage therapy license after hearing about the allegations. Berk didn't appear before the board to defend himself, but he denied the allegations in a response to the civil lawsuit. 

Massage Envy Franchising in 2020 asked the judge to halt legal proceedings, arguing the women had agreed to settle disputes with the parent company through arbitration. Lawyers said the women checked the "I agree" box on iPads when they signed up for memberships. The "terms of use" included an agreement to settle all disputes with Massage Envy Franchising through arbitration. 

The first location of Massage Envy opened off Loop 101 and Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale in 2002.
The first location of Massage Envy opened off Loop 101 and Shea Boulevard in Scottsdale in 2002. PeopleImages/Getty Images

A hyperlink to the terms gave the women the right to opt out of arbitration, provided they send written notice within 30 days to an email address that was provided. The women chose not to opt out, lawyers for Massage Envy wrote in the court filing. 

But lawyers representing the women argued the arbitration agreement falls outside reasonable expectations, making it unenforceable. A reasonable user would not have known to click the hyperlink to view the document, they argued in court. 

Businesses like arbitration because it can be less expensive and faster to resolve than a lawsuit, said Katherine Burghardt Kramer, a New York City attorney at the firm of DGW Kramer LLP, who has served as an arbitrator and is not involved in the Massage Envy cases. The arbitration decision can't be appealed to a higher court, and arbitration is private, making it harder for potential plaintiffs to band together. 

She said courts generally enforce arbitration agreements.

Earlier this year, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge granted Massage Envy Franchising's request to force the two Arizona women into arbitration with the parent company. The women are now fighting on two fronts, according to court documents: a civil lawsuit against the spa and massage therapist and arbitration with Massage Envy Franchising. 

"That can be tough for plaintiffs," Kramer said. 

The women's attorney, Heather Bushor, did not respond to requests for comment.

Massage Envy, in a statement, said it will not comment on any particular case but said it is committed to the right of victims of sexual misconduct to speak out and have their claims heard and resolved in a fair manner.

The statement said that arbitration is widely used and is a standard process for presenting and deciding claims. 

"In addition to being widely used, it is a fair and reasonable process," the statement said. 

Massage Envy's decision to stick to arbitration comes as high-profile companies, such as Uber and Lyft, have removed mandatory arbitration to settle sexual harassment or assault claims and give customers the option to go to court. 

Speaking out: Arizona women sexually abused at Massage Envy come forward

Taking the therapist’s side 

Massage Envy lawyers argue in court filings that its franchises are independently owned and operated, therefore the franchises are responsible for day-to-day operations such as hiring and supervising massage therapists. 

The franchises, meanwhile, argue sexual assault is prohibited by company policy and illegal, making the therapist's alleged conduct "outside the scope of employment."

A portion of the complaint filed against massage therapist Michael Salas Felix with the state licensing board in 2017. He was fired after the allegations. He denied the allegations.
A portion of the complaint filed against massage therapist Michael Salas Felix with the state licensing board in 2017. He was fired after the allegations. He denied the allegations. Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy

Massage Envy therapists will sometimes bring their own attorneys when faced with a licensing board complaint in Arizona. In one case, Massage Envy franchise employees even took the therapist's side when they testified in his favor before the Licensing Board in 2018.

A woman identified as "A.M." claimed that a therapist who had been licensed for less than six months, Michael Salas Felix, touched her breasts, labia and clitoris during an October 2017 massage at the Massage Envy Arrowhead in Glendale. 

The woman said her first massage with him was uneventful. The second time he saw her, he asked about her sex life. 

"Which I thought was very creepy," she told the board.

About halfway through the massage, she felt his fingertips on her labia. She tried to redirect him to another area. But he would return and press deeper. She felt fingers on her clitoris. 

"That's enough," she told him. 

He laughed "like it was funny to him," she told the board.

The massage took place in the evening, when there weren't many people at the spa. She worried how he would respond if she ended the massage, so she told him to work on her neck for the remaining minutes. 

The therapist denied the allegations. He told the board he made mistakes with the way he draped her with a sheet. He was "going through a lot of things" in his life at the time. But he told the board he had worked hard for his massage therapy license and wanted to keep it. 

He said Massage Envy put him on suspension while the complaint was investigated and then fired him.

Despite being fired, the franchise's then-general manager Kelsey Nelson and then-service manager, Bernadette Richardson, showed up at the board meeting to be his witnesses at his disciplinary hearing. Richardson and Nelson no longer work at Massage Envy Arrowhead in Glendale and could not be reached for comment. Massage Envy declined to respond to questions surrounding the incident. 

Richardson, a massage therapist for 10 years, told the board she has sat in on many inappropriate conduct cases at multiple locations over the years. While she has strong sympathy for victims, she said "this is the one case where — without a doubt — I put my own license on the line to say that he is not guilty."

Richardson described him as exceptional, one of the best new massage therapists she had ever seen. She and Nelson told the board there were no red flags or complaints about his behavior. 

When asked why she didn't believe the allegations, Richardson said that A.M. "was laughing" when she gave her statement to Massage Envy about what happened. A.M. also didn't end the massage session right when the alleged sexual conduct occurred, she said. 

Richardson said she believed the therapist was innocent of the allegations, but acknowledged he was terminated because that's "policy." 

As the Licensing Board weighed whether to discipline him, the members were faced with a common dilemma when deciding such cases: Only two people were in the room. It was his word against hers. There were no witnesses, no DNA evidence. 

"I believe something did happen with A.M. There's no doubt about it," said board member Mlee Clark, who is a massage therapist. But she didn't feel the allegation warranted revoking his license. 

The vote was unanimous: His license was suspended for six months followed by a year's probation. He was ordered to take 20 hours of continuing education. 

A.M. told The Republic in a recent interview that the aftermath was worse than the sexual abuse she suffered. She is haunted that she never got to respond to the testimony given by the therapist's bosses. 

"These women," she said, "got to sit there and absolutely attack my character. Wow. When they don't even know me." 

Reach the reporter at anne.ryman@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8072. Follow her on Twitter @anneryman.

Published Updated