Atlanta Massage Envy therapist sexually assaulted client, lawsuit says

Nationwide, nearly 200 women say they were sexually violated at Massage Envy franchises.

Massage Envy therapists from at least four metro Atlanta locations have now been accused of sexually violating women, with the latest lawsuit filed this week in Fulton County State Court.

The lawsuit alleges that near the end of a massage at the Massage Envy on Howell Mill Road in Atlanta in 2016, the therapist inserted his finger into the woman’s vagina.

“What are you doing! What is going on!” she said.

His reply, “It was something about you,” according to the lawsuit.

Shocked, she dressed and left, but later she contacted the manager to tell him what had happened, the lawsuit says. About a week later, the manager told the victim that the therapist, identified in the lawsuit as Zebulun James Garner, had not denied the allegation and had been fired.

The suit alleges that franchise owner Atlanta Health Solutions was aware of prior sexual assaults on customers at Massage Envy locations he owned, but he had failed to properly screen, hire train and supervise Garner. The woman is seeking damages from Atlanta Health Solutions, owner Patrick Greco and from franchisor Massage Envy Franchising.

Garner is still actively licensed by the Georgia Board of Massage Therapists, its website shows. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

Greco wasn’t immediately available for comment Wednesday.

At a Massage Envy on Windy Hill Road in Cobb County, therapist Brandon Knox molested a woman during a massage in 2011, WSB-TV reported. The victim said she learned that Knox previously had been accused of inappropriately touching a client but was allowed to continue working.

He later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal battery.

His license lapsed in 2016, with apparently no public disciplinary orders from the Board of Massage Therapy.

In 2010, William Charles Stringfellow fondled a client at a Massage Envy on Camp Creek Parkway in Atlanta, then forcibly performed sex acts on her as she repeatedly told him to stop, the AJC reported. She called police from the hospital where she was examined after the assault, and in March 2014 he was convicted of aggravated sexual battery.

Later that month, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

After his sentencing, the state board ordered the summary suspension of his license.

Last summer, a woman told Roswell police that massage therapist Brian C. Sams inappropriately touched her at the Massage Envy on Holcomb Bridge Road in Roswell. After a three-month investigation, Sams was arrested in November and later charged with misdemeanor sexual battery. Following his arrest, Roswell police received a report of a second possible violation, police records obtained by the AJC show.

His case is pending in Fulton County State Court.

He is still actively licensed, the board website shows.

Across the nation, about 200 women have reported being sexually violated by therapists at Massage Envy franchise locations. Among those cases is one from Augusta, Georgia. Gilbert Maurice Harrell was convicted of sexual battery and in 2015 was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his crime.

Lawsuits have alleged that the corporate policies encouraged franchisees to conceal reports of sexual assault. The franchisees were not required to report assault allegations to police or to notify state massage therapy boards, the suits allege.

In response, in December the Atlanta private equity firm Roark Capital Group, which acquired Massage Envy in 2012, issued a plan to address the allegations. That plan calls for mandating updated background screening for all massage therapists annually. But it doesn't call for the franchisees to notify law enforcement. Instead, the plan said that the franchisee will provide the client with contact information for local law enforcement and a private room to make the call. Click here to read more about the plan.