A New York court has denied an appeal from director Paul Haggis, holding that rape amounts to a gender-based hate crime.
Haggis had sought to dismiss part of a lawsuit filed against him in 2017, in which he was accused of violating New York City’s law against gender-based violence. His accuser, publicist Haleigh Breest, alleges that Haggis raped her at his apartment in New York in 2013.
Haggis’ attorneys had argued that Breest’s lawsuit failed to allege “animus” against women in general. But a four-justice panel of the First Judicial Department Appellate Division rejected that argument, finding that the rape accusation by itself is sufficient to show animus under the city ordinance.
“Rape and sexual assault are, by definition, actions taken against the victim without the victim’s consent,” Justice Peter Moulton wrote for the court. “Without consent, sexual acts such as those alleged in the complaint are a violation of the victim’s bodily autonomy and an expression of the perpetrator’s contempt for that autonomy. Coerced sexual activity is dehumanizing and fear-inducing. Malice or ill will based on gender is apparent from the alleged commission of the act itself.”
The ruling is a departure from other cases, including those involving Jeffrey Epstein, music producer Dr. Luke and Fox Business host Charles Payne, in which courts have held that a sexual assault claim by itself is not enough to allege a hate crime.
“This is a historic ruling that breathes new life into the New York City law against gender motivated violence,” Breest’s attorney Zoe Salzman said in a statement. “This decision paves the way for a jury to hold Paul Haggis accountable at trial.”
The ruling did contain a win for Haggis. Breest’s suit includes allegations from three anonymous women who claim that they were also sexually assaulted by Haggis. The appeals court granted Haggis’ motion to strike those claims, finding they were unnecessary to show gender-based animus. That leaves some uncertainty as to whether those claims could be raised in a trial.
Seth Zuckerman, one of Haggis’ attorneys, asked the trial judge, Robert Reed, for a status conference to address how to proceed. Salzman argued that nothing in the appeals court’s ruling prevents those witnesses from being called to testify.
The appellate ruling, issued on Thursday, upholds Reed’s ruling from August 2018, in which he denied Haggis’ motion to strike the gender-violence claim, finding there was a sufficient showing to put the matter to a jury. Three of the appellate justices — Moulton, Ellen Gesmer and Cynthia Kern — agreed that the rape allegation by itself was sufficient to claim gender-motivated violence. The fourth justice, Peter Tom, wrote a concurrence agreeing with the outcome, but differing with the majority’s reasoning.
Breest has also filed a separate claim for assault and battery under New York state law, which was not challenged before the appeals court.
The New York City Council passed the Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Law in 2000. The ordinance came in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the portion of the federal Violence Against Women Act allowing victims to pursue civil claims against perpetrators in federal court. Local jurisdictions, including New York City, responded by creating their own civil remedies for gender-based violence.
There have been relatively few cases interpreting the New York statute in the years since.
In 2016, Judge Shirley Kornreich dismissed two claims filed against Dr. Luke — otherwise known as Lukasz Gottwald — by singer Kesha, who accused him of rape.
“Although Gottwald’s alleged actions were directed to Kesha, who is female, the (counterclaims) do not allege that Gottwald harbored animus toward women or was motivated by gender animus when he allegedly behaved violently toward Kesha,” Kornreich argued. “Every rape is not a gender-motivated hate crime.”
In 2018, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley dismissed similar claims brought by Scottie Nell Hughes, a former Fox pundit who claimed she was raped by Payne.
“While the alleged rape in 2013, if true, is despicable and undoubtedly constitutes ‘discriminat[ion] on the basis of sex,’ such an act was not a ‘hate crime,'” Pauley ruled. “Hughes offers no specific allegations that Payne harbored or expressed any animosity toward women.”
New York Justice Edward Lehner also dismissed a gender-based violence claim against Epstein in 2008, in which the financier was accused of forcing an underage model to perform oral sex. The judge held that the complaint “fails to state any facts showing that Epstein’s alleged acts demonstrated any hostility based on gender.”