The state Attorney General's Office has so far failed to prove its case against a massage business with a Decatur location it alleged was involved in prostitution, sexual servitude and human trafficking, but a lawyer for the business said the seizure of the assets of the company and its owner was devastating.
Decatur Massage Therapy and Foot Care, operated by TY Green's Massage Therapy Inc., was closed by Decatur police and state authorities in April 2019. This week the business remained closed. A phone number on the door no longer belongs to the business. Its website includes nothing but a court filing advising that a receiver has full control of its assets.
A judge in Madison County — the county in which three of the four TY Green's massage businesses were located — granted the state's request for a temporary restraining order and for a seizure of assets before a hearing was held. The court later ruled against the state, however, upon hearing evidence from TY Green's employees and clients.
“After actually hearing evidence from witnesses other than agents of the state, the judge ruled against the state and dismissed the order permitting the seizure of my clients’ property,” Huntsville attorney Chris Messervy said. “The state couldn’t back up their allegations. We put the evidence out there and the judge dismissed the order without a trial.”
State Attorney General Steve Marshall appealed the Circuit Court ruling to the state Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court in February agreed with the Madison County Circuit Court's ultimate conclusion that the state had failed to prove its case, but that was almost two years after the state had seized personal property, homes and vehicles and frozen the financial assets of TY Green’s Massage Therapy Inc.’s owner Yuping Tang and manager Jiao Liu.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court wrote, "The State did not present any evidence to establish that the defendants knew that sexual contact was occurring between some employees and customers, much less evidence that they had induced, coerced or forced the employees to engage in such activity."
It also said the state failed to show the alleged victims were forced to work long hours, give up their salary or live in housing provided by Tang. The court noted that while TY Green's presented testimony from the employees who were allegedly victimized by the defendants, the state presented no victim testimony.
Messervy, who said the lawsuit had more to do with the fact that the owner of the company is Chinese than with any conduct at the business, said Tang may never recover financially from the state’s action.
“After almost two years without access to her home or bank accounts, my client is now permitted to return home (in Huntsville) and resume her life. This is a huge win for due process, limited government and basic fundamental human rights that should exist in any civilized society,” he said.
“What happened here is stuff that happens in Third World countries. This should never happen in America. The state had no right to seize the property prior to going to a trial. My clients have not been charged with a crime. ... In the meantime, my clients lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income from their businesses. The state has financially destroyed them.”
He said the state is wanting Tang’s TY Green business to pay for its investigation and the case’s receiver, the Miami law firm of Levine, Kellogg, Lehman, Schneider and Grossman LLP, is requesting Tang to pay about $150,000 for its work in the property seizure.
When asked for a comment on the Supreme Court's ruling, Marshall’s office sent The Decatur Daily an email stating: “The Attorney General’s Office is disappointed in the decision reached by the Alabama Supreme Court to uphold the lower court’s denial of a preliminary injunction against the operators of TY Green’s Message Therapy Inc. for violating Alabama’s human trafficking laws.
"The case has been remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. There is no further information or comment at this time.”
Messervy said his clients’ constitutional rights to due process were violated, and they are seeking options to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars the closed businesses lost in the past two years. He said he didn't know if his clients would reopen the Decatur business.
While the state's effort to obtain a preliminary injunction was blocked by the courts, it can still seek a permanent injunction in Circuit Court. It has filed no criminal charges. The only proceedings in the Circuit Court since the Supreme Court's ruling have involved the Miami-based receivership firm that still has control over the defendants' assets.
The defendants are fighting to get those assets back.
Messervy said his clients are preparing for a civil jury trial on the human-trafficking issue and he is limited on what he can say.
“The case is still open,” he said. “My clients look forward to their day in court defending themselves against the state’s allegations.”
The state attorney general’s 66-page complaint in 2019 listed 41 counts including 13 counts alleging first-degree human trafficking, 26 counts alleging second-degree human trafficking and two counts alleging deceptive trade practices.
“Under this business model, the business is presented as a single storefront that offers legitimate massage services from women from China that are in their mid-30s to late 50s. Traffickers use victims’ cultural background, coupled with psychological and/or financial manipulation, to coerce and/or deceive the victims,” the complaint said.
Messervy said he believes Asian massage businesses are targeted, however. “How many strip clubs have the state shut down? How many of those businesses have they seized property from? Zero,” he said. “They went to a seminar that said Chinese massage parlors are fronts for human trafficking.”
The state alleged that Tang, a native of China, hired Asian immigrants and then controlled them by making them work long hours for little or no pay and having them live in substandard housing conditions.
“(They) actually find themselves under the control of traffickers and being coerced to perform commercial sex acts and labor,” the state wrote in its complaint.
In the 2019 complaint, Marshall’s office wrote that Tang’s employees at the Decatur business as well as massage sites on South Memorial Parkway and University Drive in Huntsville and U.S. 72 West in Madison performed sexual favors for tips, mainly from white, middle-aged customers.
Marshall’s office said investigators noticed the male patrons parking “in conspicuously distant locations from the business entrance” to avoid “being seen patronizing the business.”
Most of the specific allegations asserted by the state came from "multiple undercover operatives" sent by the Alabama Board of Massage Therapy to the various locations in 2018 and 2019, including the Decatur business. The allegations were graphic, and included claims that Ty Green's employees removed agents' underwear and touched their genitals.
The Supreme Court noted the state produced no evidence that the employees were required to engage in sexual activity, and that the only employees to testify said they were instructed not to do so. Peepholes in the massage room doors were designed so management could make sure no such activity was taking place, according to the testimony.