Hollywood 2019: Oscar Winner Paul Haggis Must Face Sex Charges

New York court has denied an appeal from director Paul Haggis (Oscar winner for Crash), 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 had 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, as they were unnecessary to show gender-based animus.

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.

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.