Content Warning: Discussions of Sexual Violence

New York City skylineA well-known Hollywood director, with a history of sexual assault, is accused of raping a young woman and making sexist and derogatory comments to her during the assault.  But his abuse did not end there.  He went on to not only sue her for having reported the assault, under a theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress, but to argue that she couldn’t sue him under the New York City Victims of Gender-Motivated Violence Act – a law designed to expand legal protections for survivors of sexual assault – because his rape was not motivated by her gender and was a “private” matter.

It’s an unfortunate reality that, in most states, survivors of sexual assault have limited legal options.  In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) — which would have allowed for legal claims of gender-motivated violence — in the case of United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000). Decades later, survivors still have little recourse outside of criminal statutes or common law tort claims to seek justice for sexual assault, and even within those protections they face significant barriers like short statutes of limitations (usually 1 year) and high legal fees.  Some jurisdictions, however, have tried to fill in the gaps in the law – for example, by offering survivors expanded civil remedies for gender-motivated violence, akin to what was originally contemplated in VAWA.

New York City is one such jurisdiction.  In New York City, victims of gender-motivated violence may file a civil action against their assailant under the GMVA.  Importantly, the GMVA grants a 7-year statute of limitations for survivors of gender-motivated violence to bring a claim; by contrast, tort claims typically must be filed within one year.  The GMVA also addresses some of the financial barriers for survivors.  For example, it allows recovery for attorney’s fees – and thus brings down the financial costs to survivors of bringing a legal claim – and allows survivors to seek punitive damages, which are usually not available for tort claims.

There is power, too, in the simple naming of rape as gender-motivated violence, and in the framing of gender-motivated violence as a civil rights issue.  Survivors of gender-motivated violence are statistically more likely to be women and part of the LGBTQ community, communities which we know are systemically silenced, disbelieved, and abused.  Importantly, the GMVA protects survivors of gender-motivated violence no matter the gender of the assailant or survivor.  Framing gender-motivated violence as a civil rights issue attaches civil rights protections to a survivor’s gender identity and validates the experiences of survivors of sexual assault – all of which gives them an additional piece of armor against being silenced, dismissed, and further abused.

These are critical and much-needed protections for survivors of sexual assault – and other cities and states would do well to follow New York City’s lead.  The National Women’s Law Center is proud to have signed an amicus brief, submitted on April 17, 2019, in the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, First Department, in the case of Breest v. Haggis the case involving the Hollywood director who sued the woman he raped.  This case marks the first time that this court, the court of last resort in the majority of appeals in New York State, will review the GMVA and offers a critical chance to establish that this survivor’s assault is exactly the type of gender-motivated violence the GMVA was designed to address.  NWLC is proud to have signed Her Justice’s important brief and to take a firm stance in explaining to our courts the unique challenges faced by survivors of sexual assault and advocating for survivors to have the full protections available to them under unique and much-needed laws like the GMVA.

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