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Woman sues Massage Envy over sexual assault
01:35 - Source: HLN

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Woman says she was sexually assaulted while getting a massage

Report alleges that more than 180 people have complained of sexual assault at Massage Envy franchises

CNN  — 

A woman says she was sexually assaulted while getting a massage at a Massage Envy in Washington in September.

Tara Woodley spoke publicly about the alleged incident a day after Buzzfeed reported that more than 180 people have “filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports, and state board complaints against Massage Envy spas, their employees, and the national company.”

Woodley filed a civil lawsuit against Massage Envy in September under the pseudonym Jane Doe, but publicly identified herself to reporters on Monday.

On September 17, Woodley said she was having a 90-minute massage at a Massage Envy in the city’s Tenleytown neighborhood. Near the end of the session, she said, she felt the sheet covering her lower torso being removed and the massage therapist started performing oral sex on her without consent.

“I was panicked, I was fearful,” she said at a news conference. “I didn’t even know how to respond in that situation.”

She covered herself and he started apologizing profusely, she said. He grabbed her hand and pleaded with her not to tell anybody, she said.

“I’ve never done this before. I don’t know why I did this,” she recalled him saying.

She reported the incident to police and the licensed massage therapist, Habtamu Gebreselassie, was arrested.

Gebreselassie has entered a not-guilty plea for second-degree sex abuse and first-degree sex abuse of a client pertaining to Woodley’s case. He is also accused of attempted second-degree sex abuse and attempted first-degree sex abuse of a client in another incident dated August 28 at the same spa, court documents say. He maintains his innocence, said his attorney, Sweta Patel.

“At this time, defense counsel will not be making any statements regarding defense strategy,” Patel said, when asked for comment about the allegations.

Woodley’s civil lawsuit accuses Massage Envy, which has nearly 1,200 franchises, of negligent hiring, negligent retention, negligent supervision and infliction of emotional distress, among other allegations. Her lawsuit alleges that Gebreselassie sexually assaulted another female customer at a Massage Envy in Maryland, and that the company and the DC franchise “arranged for Defendant Gebreselassie to be transferred” to the DC location “with full knowledge he had committed a prior sexual assault.”

CNN emailed Massage Envy’s media department to ask if the company was aware of allegations that Gebreselassie had assaulted another customer at a different location. A representative responded by saying the company could not “comment on open legal cases.”

The company did, however, issue a statement about the Buzzfeed report.

“The 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,” a Massage Envy statement said.

“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.”

Woodley’s lawyer said her allegations, along with the others reported in Buzzfeed, suggest a corporate culture that not only condoned but promoted sexual assault by covering it up.

“This is a national outrage,” Kim Brooks-Rodney told HLN’s Erica Hill.

Woodley was critical of Massage Envy’s handling of her allegations and its response to the growing controversy.

“It makes sense for a franchiser to say they have a zero tolerance policy,” she told HLN. In reality, however, their actions don’t reflect a zero tolerance.

“They’ll say what they need to say to make sure that they’re covered,” she said. “What happened is something that can never be undone, it is something I would wish upon nobody, and I don’t believe Massage Envy has handled it well at all.

Woodley said she was inspired to shed her anonymity by women who have brought allegations of sexual assault and harassment against high-profile Hollywood figures and politicians. By coming forward she hopes to raise awareness and hold corporations accountable for hiring practices that lead to repeated allegations of misconduct.

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Despite everything, she said she felt sorry for her massage therapist and called for compassion.

“While I don’t at all condone his actions I still think he’s a person with a soul,” she said. “Hopefully he can learn to be a good citizen in our society again.

“I think 2017 has a been a really hard year for our nation, so to lose compassion for your fellow man is probably the worst thing you can do right now.

CNN’s Chris Boyette contributed to this report.