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Charlottesville woman sues Ulta for defamation after she was mistaken for thief

A woman entered the Ulta Beauty shop in Barracks Road Shopping Center one day in early January, stuffed a silver bag with more than $1,000 in perfumes, and walked out without paying.

However, the Charlottesville woman arrested for this crime did not do it, according to court records, and now she’s suing the store’s parent company for defamation and malicious prosecution.

“I was devastated,” plaintiff Rita Michelle Massie told The Daily Progress. “I was walked down my driveway with handcuffs on.”

The 55-year-old works as a nanny and a certified nursing assistant and said she depends on her good reputation, something threatened when police led her away.

“I take care of two little girls; I go to these people’s houses every day taking care of their children,” she said. “How does that look? Like they’ve got a shoplifter in their house.”

Massie said that she has lived on Orangedale Avenue for 35 years.

“Kids in the neighborhood wanted to know what was going on,” she said.

Massie’s lawyer, Jeffrey Fogel, filed the suit Tuesday in Charlottesville Circuit Court and said they are seeking a jury trial and an award of $100,000 as compensation for the emotional and reputational damage.

“She’s a very straight lady, so this was particularly shocking,” Fogel told The Daily Progress.

Fogel said that police should have never arrested his client because her appearance didn’t match that of the woman caught on the store’s surveillance footage.

Fogel has uncovered a police document that shows that the woman who allegedly stole the perfumes was driving a vehicle registered in Woodbridge, nearly 100 miles away in Northern Virginia. He also found a list of what was taken. Among the items was a $72 bottle of Billie Eilish Eau de Parfum, an $87 ounce of Thierry Mugler’s Alien Goddess and 1.7 ounces of Tom Ford’s Costa Azzurra that retailed for $150.

“My client doesn’t even use cosmetics,” said Fogel. “And she’s never even been in that store.”

A spokesperson for the company indicated an awareness of the situation.

“The safety of our guests and associates remains our highest priority," Ulta Beauty public relations director Crystal Carroll told The Daily Progress in an email. "We’ve cooperated fully with law enforcement who investigated an incident involving our Charlottesville location and are unable to comment further."

Independent legal analyst David Heilberg said the case sounds like a viable lawsuit.

“Maybe they will dispute it,” Heilberg told The Daily Progress, “but it’s the kind of case that often leads to a confidential settlement.”

Heilberg said that suing the police isn’t a viable option because public officials are typically protected from all allegations except for gross negligence.

“They maybe did a negligent investigation,” said Heilberg, “but negligence is not enough.”

In this case, an employee currently described only as “Jane Doe” in the suit is the second defendant, and the lawsuit alleges that she’s the one who steered the investigation toward Massie. Heilberg said that an employee’s mistakes are often costly for the company. A publicly held company headquartered in Illinois, Ulta has roughly 1,200 stores nationwide.

“If it’s a big corporation, there’s a dual-edged sword,” said Heilberg. “They can afford to pay. At the same time, they can pay to defend.”

One thing that particularly outrages Massie is that she was arrested on a Friday without a phone, and she said she was told that she’d probably remain in jail until a hearing the following Tuesday unless she could come up with $1,000 in cash. In a world in which mobile phones have replaced human memory as the repository for phone numbers, she remembered her sister’s phone number when the time came for to use a public phone at the magistrate’s office.

“My family wouldn’t have known where I was, and my job wouldn’t know,” said Massie. “I would have been booked and been in jail.”

Under Virginia law, Ulta has 21 days to respond to the lawsuit.


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