AVENTURA, Fla. – What was supposed to be a day of rest and relaxation with a friend brought a South Florida woman to tears and has led to a lawsuit against Massage Envy in Aventura.
Alecia Tramel claims that when an employee found out she was HIV positive, she was refused service.
The incident happened in August at Massage Envy, located at 20633 Biscayne Blvd.
"(The) first time in 19 years I feel devastated, but instead of it making me want to crawl under a rock, it fueled me," said a teary-eyed Tramel.
Tramel was diagnosed in 2000 with the virus. She said since her diagnosis, she has dedicated her life to helping others get over the stigma that goes with having HIV.
According to Tramel, she and a friend had appointments at the salon, and she was escorted back to a room by an unidentified woman who worked at the center.
"She asked me, 'Do you have any medical conditions?' I say, 'I'm HIV positive.' She said, 'Get undressed to your underwear, get on the table and cover up,' and she leaves out of the room," Tramel told Local 10 News Investigator Jeff Weinsier.
Tramel said when the woman returned 10 minutes later, she told her, 'We will not be able to provide you with a service because you need a doctor's consent.' "
Tramel told Local 10 News that she had a massage a month previous to her visit to Masssage Envy at the spa at the Fontainbleau. Her medical history had never been an issue. She said she is symptom-free.
"I was like, 'Wow, I know I was discriminated against. I don't need a doctor's note for a massage. That was their way of not servicing me," Tramel said. "I went to the car, sat in the car, and I said, 'This is what it feels like.' I think I was numb. I felt pain, isolation and fear from a place I went to get a service," Tramel said.
Attorney Courtney Cunningham is representing Tramel in a lawsuit filed against the owners of the franchise.
According to state records, Massage Envy in Aventura is owned by J&G Holdings of Aventura.
Its president is listed as Gene Sulton.
"You are telling me they basically didn't want to touch you?" said Cunningham. "Are you serious? Today? In this day and age? People are still discriminating like this? It was shocking and outrageous."
Weinsier called and left a message at the Aventura location. After two weeks without a response, he confronted a manager named Jessica in the store.
"Do you have a policy here? If someone is HIV positive, they need a doctor's note?" Weinsier asked.
"I'm not familiar with that information," Jessica said.
"You are the manager?" Weinsier asked.
"I am one of the managers. I can have my business manager reach out to you. She is more familiar with those concerns," Jessica said.
"But if someone comes in, and they are HIV positive, do you provide service to them?" asked Weinsier.
"I know we have medical forms they are expected to fill out; beyond that, I'm not familiar," Jessica said.
"Do they need a doctor's note?" asked Weinsier.
"If there are medical concerns, sure," Jessica said, and then asked Weinsier to leave the store.
In 1988, the State of Florida was one of the first states to pass protections for people with HIV.
Florida State statute 760.50 addresses the issue. There is a federal law as well.
"You can't discriminate in the provision of services, public accommodations, which Massage Envy is," Cunningham said. "You can't discriminate in providing services to people who are HIV positive just because they are HIV positive."
The Florida Department of Health's Florida Board of Massage Therapy requires three hours of HIV/AIDS education to be included in the curriculum of any massage training in Florida. People completing a Florida massage apprenticeship must also cover three hours of HIV education during the apprenticeship.
However, individuals who graduate from an out-of-state massage therapy school may not have had HIV covered in their curriculum.
"I'm surprised it is coming up as a concern, in all honesty," said Iris Burman, who has been a massage therapist for 43 years and owned a massage school for 37 of them.
Burman has been involved in the legislation and regulation of massage. Burman said even if Tramel had symptoms, there are precautions.
"It's called universal precautions: wear gloves. You make sure you're not in contact with broken skin, either yours or theirs," she said.
Attorney Margaret Mevers, who is representing J&G Holdings of Aventura, did not return a telephone call to Local 10 News.
According to court papers filed in response to the suit, J&G Holdings denies the allegations.