In a significant ruling that could make it easier to file sexual assault lawsuits in New York City, an appeals court ruled this week that a city law prohibiting “animus based on the victim’s gender” can apply to any accusation of forced sex.
A four-judge panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled unanimously on Thursday that plaintiffs can use the law to pursue sexual assault claims even if there is no other evidence that the defendant has shown hatred of the victim’s gender.
The city law comes with a seven-year statute of limitations; without the law, accusers would have to file suit within one to five years of the alleged assault, depending on its severity. In addition to the extra time, the law also allows greater financial penalties and recovery of legal fees for victorious plaintiffs, potentially removing a barrier for accusers who do not have money to hire a lawyer.
Lawyers involved in the case said the ruling could be a watershed in New York City in the #MeToo era.
“This is a particular moment in history when judges, just like the rest of us and the public, are very aware that there is a huge social problem for victims of gender-motivated violence, and the concerns that motivated the City Council to pass this law in 2000 are sort of even more present today than they were then,” said Zoe Salzman, a lawyer for the plaintiff in the case.
The ruling came in a sexual assault lawsuit against Paul Haggis, the film director and writer, filed by a young publicist, Haleigh Breest. Mr. Haggis contends their encounter was consensual, and the court did not rule on whether Ms. Breest had proven her case, which could be headed for a jury trial.
The question before the court was whether Ms. Breest could sue Mr. Haggis under New York City’s Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Law, which says that a violent crime “committed because of gender or on the basis of gender, and due, at least in part, to an animus based on the victim’s gender” is a civil-rights violation.
Mr. Haggis argued that the law should not apply to his case, because, he said, there was no evidence of hatred against women as a group. But the court rejected that argument, saying that the act of forcing sex alone was enough to qualify as gender-based animus.
“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,” Justice Peter H. Moulton wrote in the opinion. “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.”
Seth Zuckerman, a lawyer for Mr. Haggis, said the director maintained his innocence, but Mr. Zuckerman did not say if he would appeal the ruling to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
Ms. Breest first went to court in December 2017 against Mr. Haggis, the director of “Crash” and writer of “Million Dollar Baby,” both of which won Oscars for best picture.
According to her lawsuit, Ms. Breest and Mr. Haggis attended a New York premiere party in January 2013. Afterward, Mr. Haggis, then 59, invited her to his apartment, where Ms. Breest, then 26, said he forced her to have sex.
New York City passed its law after a similar provision in a federal law was struck down by the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that Congress did not have the authority to enact it. One earlier ruling on the city’s law came in a suit filed by the pop singer Kesha. In that case, Justice Shirley W. Kornreich of State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled in 2016 that a rape alone was not evidence of animus toward all women. “Every rape is not a gender-motivated hate crime,” she wrote. On Thursday, the appeals court concluded the opposite.
Ms. Breest and her lawyers said they did have other evidence that Mr. Haggis had animus toward women, including statements she claimed he made during the encounter, and allegations of misconduct from three other women. But the appeals court ruled on Thursday that no further evidence was necessary, and it ordered that the three women be removed from the case, at least for now. Mr. Haggis had argued that the women’s accounts were vague and would unfairly hobble his defense against Ms. Breest’s accusations.
Several women’s and civil rights organizations had filed a brief supporting Ms. Breest’s case.
“This decision was so powerful because it says you don’t need quote-unquote additional facts,” said Sunu Chandy, the legal director of the National Women’s Law Center, one of the groups that participated. “You don’t need additional people. Sexual assault is a gender-based crime. And that very simple, powerful comment is what the law should be.”
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