Massanutten Not Liable for Massage Therapist’s Sexual Assault

Eric Paltell
Eric Paltell

Sometimes  even cynical employment attorneys like myself come across a case that leaves us shocked at what people will sometimes do in the course of their employment.  I recently found that to be the case with Lett v. Great Eastern Resort Management, a decision from the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia involving an alleged sexual assault by a massage therapist at Massanutten Spa in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Perhaps this one hit home because my wife is massage therapist; regardless, I found it to a fascinating read.

According to the court’s opinion, Wesley Veney was employed as  Licensed Massage Therapist at Massanutten.  Massanutten has very specific rules on proper behavior by its massage therapists.  Its Standards of Practice, Team Manual, and Code of Ethics included rules such as “refrain from engaging in any sexual conduct or sexual activities involving [] clients;” “use appropriate draping that protects the client’s privacy;” and “the areola must be covered at all times and never touched.”  Veney acknowledged he had read these rules and regulations.

In August 2014, Kristyn Lett visited Massanutten and scheduled a hot stone massage.  She scheduled a hot stone massage because Lett did not “really like for people to touch me a whole lot.”  Veney was assigned to be her massage therapist.  Veney told Lett she could either completely undress or leave her underwear on, and then instructed her to get under the drape.

According to Lett’s lawsuit, when Veney returned, he moved the drape “leaving her completely uncovered from the waist down.”  He then “fondled … her pubic area, breast and anal area and  kissed [her] on the mouth.” In her deposition, Lett testified that Veney commented on her nipple piercing and suggested she consider a vaginal piercing.  She also testified that Veney spent about 15-20 minutes “touching the private areas of her lower body,” and kissed her at the end of the massage.  According to Lett, the entire massage lasted about 45 minutes.

Later the same day, Lett complained to the spa manager about Veney’s behavior. Veney denied touching Lett inappropriately, but admitted to kissing her.  Veney told the spa manager “I thought she liked me.”

Not surprisingly, Massanutten fired Veney immediately.  Nevertheless, Lett sued Massanutten, alleging it was liable for battery by Veney under the doctrine of respondeat superior.  Massanutten moved for summary judgment, and Judge Dillon granted its motion. The Court found that there was no dispute that Veney was not performing a job related service when he touched Lett’s private areas, as Massanutten rules expressly prohibit such conduct.  Similarly, the Court found it to be undisputed that Veney’s motives were entirely personal, as his conduct was clearly not part of standard massage practice or any other service offered by the  spa.

From a legal perspective, the Lett decision is an excellent example of the value of having specific written workplace rules governing employee interactions with the public, especially when the employee works in a client-facing role. From a human-interest perspective, this case leaves me wondering what the massage therapist was thinking.  I find it shocking that a Licensed Massage Therapist would put their license – and career – in jeopardy by engaging in such foolish and reckless misconduct.

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