We use cookies on this site to enable your digital experience. By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to our cookie policy. close

Haggis Case Tests Boundaries Of NYC Gender Violence Law

By Kevin Penton | May 12, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

An appellate case in New York involving rape allegations against movie director Paul Haggis is serving as a showcase for a New York City law against gender-motivated violence, which supporters of the accuser say covers a wider spectrum of crimes than Haggis wants the court to believe.

Several nonprofit organizations are urging a New York appellate court to preserve publicist Haleigh Breest’s claim that Haggis violated the Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act when he allegedly sexually assaulted her in his apartment. Haggis is appealing a lower court’s refusal to dismiss the case.

The 2000 law allows victims of rape and other forms of violence to file a civil claim against perpetrators for up to seven years after the occurrence of an incident, a longer statute of limitations than for related criminal claims, according to the April 17 brief by the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, Her Justice and other organizations.

But accusers must establish that perpetrators based their acts on their victims’ genders. Haggis contends that even if the court were to accept that he raped Breest, he is not liable under the civil claim, because she has failed to establish that the act was based on his “animus” toward her female gender, according to court documents.

“That’s nonsense,” reads the brief prepared by attorneys with Kirkland & Ellis LLP. “Contrary to defendant’s crabbed reading, the GMVA does what it says it does — provides a civil rights cause of action not only against rapists and assailants who hate women in the abstract, but against all women who commit crimes due ‘at least in part, to an animus based on the victim’s gender.'”

The New York law was instituted not long after the U.S. Supreme Court in a May 2000 opinion in United States v. Morrison struck down a provision of the Violence Against Women Act that allowed women to sue their attackers in federal court. The high court held in a 5-4 vote that while Congress violated the Commerce Clause through the provision, states and localities could enact their own versions.

The case between Haggis and Breest is the first known instance in which a New York appellate court is considering the New York City law and how it should be interpreted, Joseph Sanderson, a Kirkland attorney who worked on the amicus brief, told Law360 on Thursday.

Her Justice and the other organizations who support Breest believe the law should be broadly applied, as gender is typically a factor for those who use sex to control, punish or degrade others, the attorney said.

“It essentially ... cover[s] all or certainly very close to all sexual violence,” said Sanderson of the law.

Breest, an events publicist who was 26 in January 2013, alleges that the assault occurred after Haggis offered to give her a ride home and subsequently invited her to his place for a drink, according to court documents.

Breest asserted in her December 2017 complaint that Haggis “said in a menacing and intimidating voice: ‘You're scared of me, aren't you?’” according to the filing.

Breest also asserts that the director during the incident made “sexist and derogatory comments” about her female anatomy and contended that she had supposedly been flirting with him “for months,” according to court documents.

“This is an important appeal, not just for Haleigh Breest, but for all women and people in New York City and around the country who care about gender-motivated violence,” Zoe Salzman, an attorney representing the accuser, told Law360 on Friday.

Haggis, who was 60 at the time of the incident, does not dispute that he and Breest engaged in sexual conduct, but alleges that their actions were consensual, according to court documents. Haggis wrote the screenplay for 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” and wrote and directed 2005’s “Crash,” which each received an Academy Award for best picture.

Haggis urged a lower court last year to dismiss the case, arguing that Breest failed to establish that his actions in the sexual encounter were motivated by an “animus against women,” according to court documents.

Judge Robert R. Reed in July denied Haggis’ motion to dismiss, holding that it should be up to a jury to review the language purportedly used by the director that “indicates an enjoyment of some level of violence ... against women” before determining whether the director violated the New York City law, according to a transcript of the proceeding.

“The court believes that ... there is enough here, if we accept all those claims as true, that this is a matter of factual interpretation to be presented before the jury,” Judge Reed said.

According to a brief filed by Haggis in the case earlier this month, Breest cannot meet the threshold that Haggis demonstrated “animus” toward women simply by repeating what allegedly occurred during their sexual encounter, especially if the director did not use gender-specific slurs or other language or actions directed toward women in general.

“Tellingly, respondent does not dispute there are no facts alleged (such as slurs against women in general) that could establish appellant acted out of hatred toward women as a group,” Haggis’ brief reads. “At most, the allegations, if proved, could establish that appellant acted towards Breest out of lust, frustration and excitement, which does not amount to a hate crime.”

Priya Chaudhy, an attorney representing Haggis, told Law360 on Friday that additional information that is currently under seal will go toward establishing that her client did nothing wrong.

“Groups with a claimed commitment to due process and fairness should not be picking sides in a lawsuit between two private parties where they don't know any of the facts,” said Chaudhy of the organizations that filed the amicus brief.

Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW’s New York City chapter, said in a statement that the organization hopes the court will recognize that sexual assault is an inherently gender-based crime.

“Sexual assault is overwhelmingly targeted at women and LGBTQ individuals,” she said.

--Additional reporting by RJ Vogt. Editing by Bruce Goldman.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.