In advance of an upcoming trial for Paul Haggis, his rape accuser scored a precedent-setting victory Thursday before a New York appeals court. As a result of the decision, publicist Haleigh Breest will be able to proceed on a claim that the Academy Award-winning director committed a gender-motivated hate crime under the Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Law (VGM).
Breest alleges that Haggis raped her in his SoHo apartment in January 2013 following the premiere of Side Effects. Last year, New York Supreme Court Judge Robert Reed allowed Breest to move forward in her lawsuit, despite challenges to whether she sued in a timely manner. Notably, the judge also OK’d a separate claim alleging that the rape was an act of gender-motivated violence.
Why was this significant?
At the time, Haggis was represented by Christine Lepera, an attorney who is fighting for Dr. Luke (Lukasz Gottwald) in a dispute with Kesha Rose Sebert. In that case, the pop star filed counterclaims against Dr. Luke similarly alleging that he raped her, and that the alleged act was gender-motivated violence under the VGM. The counterclaim didn’t survive. In April 2016, a New York judge ruled, “Every rape is not a gender-motivated hate crime.”
Judge Reed came to a different conclusion in the legal war between Breest and Haggis, and that’s what led to appellate review.
The First Department of New York’s Appellate Division looked at the genesis of the state’s VGM, which was enacted in 2000 after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Violence Against Women Act — a federal statute — because it exceeded Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In short, a civil rights cause of action addressing domestic relations was properly the domain of states, not the federal government.
Still, that doesn’t settle what plaintiffs must allege to properly maintain a claim under the VGM.
On Thursday, New York appellate judge Peter Moulton writes for the majority and clears up some ambiguity.
“Rape and sexual assault are, by definition, actions taken against the victim without the victim’s consent,” states the decision. “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. Animus inheres where consent is absent.”
One appellate judge disagreed with the analysis in part.
Peter Tom writes, “I don’t see how such a semantic elasticity for the term animus makes sense. Animus equates with animosity; this strikes me as plain English…we need not reach to deem the sexual assault itself to satisfy the requirement of sexual hostility. That strikes me as a conflation of two somewhat different showings — that gender was the reason for the sexual assault, as rape obviously is, and that, additionally, an animus — a hostility — against the victim related to her gender, not the female gender generally, which motivated the sexual assault. “
Nevertheless, while perhaps wishing for a different standard, he too came to the opinion that Breest should move forward: “I think that the facts of this case, including defendant’s alleged satisfaction in inducing fear in plaintiff and his threatening accusation that she had, in effect, invited his sexual aggression, amply support both showings.”
The trial is currently scheduled for February.
In the meantime, Haggis scored a separate victory by yesterday’s decision, although the implications aren’t quite as clear.
In an effort to bolster her case, Breest’s complaint referenced sexual assault allegations by three other women — “Jane Does.” On appeal, Haggis argued that those allegations should be stricken as scandalous and prejudicial. The appeals court says the allegations weren’t really necessary to establish animus and agrees they should be stricken because they serve no purpose at this juncture and tend to prejudice the defendant.
Both sides immediately wrote to Justice Reed about the appellate opinion.
Haggis’ attorneys at Chaudhry Law, of course, stress the portion of the appellate ruling pertaining to the Jane Does.
Breest’s lawyers at Emery Celli hail “a historic ruling that ensures that the New York City Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Law offers real protection to victims of sexual assault,” and tell the judge that when it comes to the Jane Does, “The First Department was clear that it was not making an evidentiary ruling about the admissibility of the testimony of Haggis’s other victims.”
The witnesses and testimony at the upcoming trial figure to be the focus of the case in the weeks before trial.