Victims of sexual assault and workplace sexual harassment in New York City have a new means of financial recovery as a result of a precedential appellate court ruling in December 2019. In Breest v. Haggis, the First Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court held that plaintiffs can use the Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act (VGMVPA) to pursue sexual assault claims even without evidence that the defendant had shown hatred toward the victim’s gender.
This case involves a sexual assault lawsuit against film director Paul Haggis brought by publicist Haleigh Breest in 2017. According to her lawsuit, Ms. Breest and Haggis attended a New York premiere party in January 2013. Afterward, he persuaded Breest to join him for a drink in his apartment where he forced her to have sex.
The appellate court did not rule on whether Ms. Breest had proven her allegations, but whether she could sue Haggis under the VGMVPA, which provides a private cause of action for victims of a violent crime motivated by gender. Under this law, a violent crime committed on the basis of gender and due, in part, to an animus based on the victim’s gender, is a civil rights violation.
The VGMVPA broadly defines a crime of violence as an act or series of acts that would constitute a misdemeanor or felony under state or federal law if the conduct poses a serious risk of physical injury to another, regardless of whether those acts actually resulted in criminal charges.
Haggis argued that the VGMVPA could not be applied to this case because there was no evidence of his hatred against women as a group. The appellate court disagreed:
“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.”
Because the term “violent crimes” is so broadly defined under the law and turns on the phrase “animus based on the victim’s gender,” the court was able to apply the law to any claims of forced sexual activity. In short, the appellate court found that rape constitutes a gender-motivated hate crime under the VGMVPA because forced sex qualifies as gender-based animus.
In addition, acts that fall under the VGMVPA may also constitute sexual harassment. While sexual harassment is considered a form of unlawful sex discrimination under the New York City and New York State Human Rights Laws, the VGMVPA has a 7-year statute of limitations, which gives victims additional time to file previously time-barred claims of sexual assault. Finally, the law also allows for significant financial recoveries, including emotional distress, punitive damage and attorneys’ fees and costs.
Why This Matters
At this juncture, it is unclear whether the appellate court’s ruling in Breest v. Haggis will be appealed to the NYS Supreme Court. In the meantime, employers in New York City face potential liabilities for claims brought under the VGMVPA. The best way for businesses to protect their interests given this precedential ruling is to consult an experienced employment lawyer.