The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a decision by the Minneapolis City Council to deny a license for Orchid Massage Spa, a massage and bodywork business that city inspectors believed was a thinly veiled house of prostitution.
Owner Julia Wang argued that her business was lawful and that inspectors were motivated by racial animus, but the Court of Appeals disagreed.
"We determine that sufficient evidence in the record supports the city council's denial of Wang's massage and bodywork license-renewal application," the court wrote in its decision, adding that Wang "failed to provide any evidence" that her plight was the result of racial prejudice.
The storefront near the corner of 50th Street and 34th Avenue S., in a neighborhood a few blocks west of Minnehaha Park, drew complaints from neighbors because customers were parking far away and the plate glass window on the front of the business was broken.
When inspectors visited in 2016, they found a male customer with a female masseuse who immediately closed the door to the room they were in, and they found "a large amount of food, cooking equipment, beds, clothing and personal effects inside," which they said were hallmarks of a commercial sex operation.
The business also advertised exclusively on BackPage.com with suggestive photos and written copy consistent with the selling of sex, such as the phrase "hot Asian masseuse."
Wang told the City Council last year that she couldn't guarantee that no one had paid for sex at the business, but she was "trying my best not to have anything like that happen in my store." She said she keeps food there because she and her employees — all independent contractors — like to make a hot lunch each day.
The City Council voted in August to deny her business license and Wang then took the matter to court.
Wang's lawyer, Ryan Kaess, called the ruling "a terrible decision," but said Wang hasn't decided whether to appeal.
He said that since the city stopped using undercover police to investigate commercial sex operations a few years ago, the job now falls to code inspectors, and in Wang's case, she was singled out because she's Chinese and the inspectors saw food and a cot in the building.