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The city of Burnsville opted not to renew a massage therapist’s business license in late August, citing her failure to disclose that the city of Minneapolis had previously denied her a license due to sexually suggestive ads and a job posting that city officials said attempted to lure Chinese women to Minnesota in a human trafficking scheme.

But Yuanping Huang, the self-described manager of Burnsville Bodyworks, says she’s been charged with no crime and that the intent of her ads was misunderstood.

“I just feel helpless,” said Huang, 41, a single mother from Edina who is now unemployed. “What am I going to do?”

The right to work in the business one chooses is guaranteed by the United States Constitution, said Matthew Streff, Huang’s attorney.

“The city of Burnsville has made an unfortunate decision,” Streff said. “It rides over Miss Huang’s rights.”

Burnsville city officials said Huang was denied renewal of both individual and business enterprise licenses because her business doesn’t meet the city’s high standards. The business is now closed.

“We want legitimate businesses that understand and follow the rule of law,” said Chris Forslund, licensing coordinator for the city of Burnsville. “In this case, there’s certainly some questions that arose.”

The Burnsville City Council voted 4-1 on Aug. 22 to affirm decisions by city staff and an administrative appeal panel to withhold the license. Cara Schulz was the only council member who voted against denial.

“I think in order to take away someone’s livelihood, the threshold needs to be exceedingly high,” Schulz said. “And just to cut to the meat of it, she hasn’t been arrested for prostitution and that’s kind of what we’re stepping around.”

Increased scrutiny

Burnsville issues massage therapy licenses for individuals and business enterprises. There are 28 storefront massage businesses licensed in the city, officials said, and 161 total massage therapy licenses, which includes both categories.

Huang was denied a license because she failed to disclose on her application that Minneapolis had denied her a license, Burnsville officials said. They said the denial was not based on allegations by Minneapolis that she had placed ads suggesting that her business, Uptown Bodyworks, had links to human trafficking and prostitution.

Simply being denied a license by another city in the last five years is enough for denial, according to Burnsville city code. The city has revoked or not renewed massage licenses five times since 2014, according to city staff.

The job posting cited by Minneapolis was written in Mandarin Chinese and posted on the website, NYChinaRen.com. The ad solicits applicants for the massage business, saying masseuses could make $7,000 a month — a sum Minneapolis officials cited as unrealistic. City officials concluded that she was trying to recruit women to Minnesota, where they would be trafficked for sex.

Streff, Huang’s attorney, said that allegation was “beyond the pale and unreasonable.” Huang said she didn’t even know what human trafficking was.

Huang said it’s common sense that you can’t actually make $7,000 a month in take-home pay doing massages. After expenses, she said, the take-home pay would be less than $3,000 a month.

As for the Backpage.com ads promoting scantily-clad, “very pretty and hot” girls, Huang said that she was advised by others in the massage business that everyone posts that kind of ad.

“There needs to be an understanding of what you can do in advertising and what you can’t,” said Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz.

There were issues in Burnsville as well, city officials said. Neighbors complained that people were coming and going at odd hours from the establishment.

Asked about that, Huang said, “I can’t clean my own place?”

Huang’s license denial came up in Burnsville Aug. 22, the same day that Minneapolis denied a license to another massage business, Orchid Massage and Spa, owned by Julia Wang, on grounds that it was actually a front for prostitution.

Forslund, the Burnsville licensing coordinator, said cities are looking more closely at massage businesses because of prostitution concerns. “The public has demanded that,” he said.

There’s no statewide regulation of massage businesses in Minnesota; cities enforce their own licensing rules. Professional associations have lobbied for state oversight.

“The cities are starting to really crack down,” said Erin Hewitt, president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Massage Therapists Association.

Huang said she moved to Minnesota several years ago because the air was good for asthmatics, like her 8-year-old daughter, she said. Now that she’s been denied a license in two cities, she said she has little chance of getting one elsewhere.

Huang said she wants to return to California, where she got a massage therapy license after graduating from Santa Ana Beauty College in 2012.

“So many people, they lie,” Huang said. “They were just connecting things together without any evidence.”

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781