The woman who is suing Academy Award-winning director Paul Haggis for allegedly raping her in his Manhattan apartment is bringing her claim under a little-used civil cause of action for gender-motivated violence created under an 18-year-old New York City law.
And, with Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Robert Reed’s ruling on Thursday allowing the claim to proceed, publicist Haleigh Breest’s suit, brought in the midst of #MeToo movement, is apparently the first time a claim brought under the local law has survived a motion to dismiss, attorneys and observers say.
“I wonder if, and suspect that, perhaps in the wake of the MeToo movement, there’s a heightened awareness of the harm that’s caused by gender-based violence and the need to use all available legal remedies for people who have been harmed to recover,” said Julie Goldscheid, a City University of New York School of Law professor who testified before the New York City Council in support of the Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act before its passage in 2000.
The local law was passed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a federal version of the law contained in the Violence Against Women Act was unconstitutional, but that states and cities could adopt their own versions.
Breest alleges that, following a movie premier in January 2013 on the Upper West Side, Haggis invited her to his apartment in SoHo for a drink. While there, he allegedly forcibly removed her clothes and sexually assaulted her.
In an amended complaint filed Friday, which adds claims of assault and battery, rape, criminal sexual act and aggravated sexual abuse, Breest said that since filing her original claim in December, three additional women have emerged with accusations of being sexually assaulted by Haggis. Breest accused him of being a “serial predator who has preyed upon women for many years” and that he is “sexually excited by women’s fear and pain.”
The three women are each identified in the complaint as Jane Doe. The first was a publicist who claims Haggis sexually assaulted her in his office in 1996; the second says Haggis attempted to force himself on her in 2008 while she was at his office pitching him an idea for a television show; and the third is a woman who met Haggis at a film festival and who alleges he forcibly kissed her while he had her physically restrained.
Haggis denies Breest’s allegations. Haggis said he has back problems that would prevent him from forcing himself on anyone, and that he and Breest never worked together.
Additionally, on the same day she filed her first complaint, Haggis launched a legal attack of his own, bringing a claim of intentional infliction of distress and claimed Breest’s attorney tried to shake him down for $9 million to make the lawsuit go away.
“This maelstrom of media attention, coupled with the immediate guilty verdict from the court of public opinion and the utter and complete damnation of anyone accused of any sexual misconduct, has created an opportunity for persons whose motives and intentions are not so pure, and who are looking for a ride on this cultural wave to take advantage of persons at the center of this narrative,” his complaint states. “That is this case.”
Breest argues that rape itself is a gender-motivated violent crime, noting that the New York City’s Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act creates a cause of action for “any person claiming to be injured by an individual who commits a crime of violence motivated by gender,” and that Haggis’ alleged victims are all women.
Haggis’ legal team fired back that Breest’s allegations fail to show Haggis harbors an animus toward women, citing a 2016 ruling by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich that dismissed the yearslong legal battle between pop singer Kesha and her former former producer.
“Every rape is not a gender-motivated hate crime,” Kornreich wrote.
But Reed sided with Breest and dismissed Haggis’ suit.
“It is this court’s view that it would serve as a chill on the ability of persons who believe another has committed sexual misconduct if they were unable to pursue pre-litigation discussions and settlement demands, even outrageous settlement demands,” Reed said, according to an article by the Hollywood Reporter. “In the court’s view, this would be in violation of public policy.”
Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady partners Jonathan Abady, Ilann Maazel and Zoe Salzman represent Breest.
“Justice Reed’s ruling gives real meaning to the the Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act,” Salzman said. “This victory is not only a victory for Ms. Breest, it’s also a victory for all victims of gender-motivated violence in New York City.”
When asked if Haggis intends to appeal Reed’s rulings, Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp partner Christine Lepera said Haggis and his legal team are still considering their options and declined to comment further.
Haggis is also represented by Mitchell Silberberg partner Jeffrey Movit and associate Lillian Lee.