What to know about Robert De Niro’s trial over a workplace dispute

A four-year legal battle between actor Robert De Niro and a former employee went to trial Monday in federal court in Manhattan, where competing claims of gender discrimination and inappropriate spending were aired in open court.

A former employee, Graham Chase Robinson, who started as Mr. De Niro’s executive assistant in 2008 and ended up as vice president, has sued Mr. De Niro and his company, Canal Productions, for gender discrimination. She said in her lawsuit that Mr. De Niro treated her like an “office wife,” required her to wash his sheets and scratch his back, and paid her less than an employee whose job required no greater skill or responsibility than hers. king.

Canal Productions sued Ms. Robinson, accusing her of improperly transferring more than $450,000 in airline miles to her personal account and spending tens of thousands of dollars of company funds on food, travel and other personal services.

The jury will decide the validity of both sides’ claims at the same time. In court papers, Ms. Robinson denied making unauthorized purchases or improperly transferring airline miles, and Mr. De Niro denied her allegations of “stereotypically feminine” work assignment.

On Monday, Mr. De Niro, 80, an Oscar winner who is currently in the spotlight for his role in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” took the stand as the trial’s first witness.

Ms. Robinson, 41, who is often called Chase, began working for Mr. De Niro as an executive assistant when she was 25, eventually becoming vice president of production and finance at Canal Productions before resigning in 2019. Although Despite her promotions, Mr. De Niro, the suit alleged, constantly referred to her as his assistant and assigned her duties that were not consistent with her job description, such as vacuuming his apartment and mending his clothes.

She alleged that she was paid less than a male employee because of her gender, and that Mr. De Niro made derogatory comments based on sex, including calling her a “bitch” and a “brat,” her lawsuit said. (Mr. De Niro denied this in court papers.)

The jury will consider two specific claims under the New York City Human Rights Law: gender discrimination and retaliation.

The retaliation lawsuit revolves around a dispute between Ms. Robinson and Mr. De Niro’s current girlfriend, Tiffany Chen, in which they worked together in 2018 and 2019 to prepare an Upper East Side townhouse for the couple to move into.

In opening arguments on Monday, Ms. Robinson’s lawyer, Brent Hanavan, said Ms. Chen expressed concerns to Mr. De Niro that Ms. Robinson had romantic interests in him, which led to tension while they worked together on the home.

After Ms. Robinson raised the issue to Mr. De Niro, Ms. Chen sent an email stripping her of her job duties, including her duties at home, Mr. Hanavan said. Ms. Robinson resigned soon after.

“There was no one more loyal to Canal and to Mr. De Niro than Chase Robinson,” Mr. Hanavan said. (He said Ms. Robinson never had any romantic interests with her boss.)

Lawyers for Mr. De Niro and his company framed Ms. Robinson’s rise at Canal Productions differently: Although she requested the vice president position in 2017, they said her job duties in coordinating Mr. De Niro’s personal and professional lives had not changed. . They also said that the employee she was underpaid — Mr. De Niro’s personal trainer — had worked for the actor much longer than she had.

In opening arguments, Richard C. Schoenstein, a lawyer for Mr. De Niro and his company, said that the job of personal assistant to a high-profile actor and employer, such as Mr. De Niro, could sometimes be unattractive. But he maintained that Mr. De Niro was a kind and generous boss, and positioned Ms. Robinson as someone who “benefited” from access to money and fame by charging “extraordinary” amounts of personal expenses and the cost of a trip to Los Angeles under the law. weak excuses.

“This was all a serious violation of trust,” Mr. Schoenstein said, adding later: “None of the things that happened happened because she was a woman.”

Canal Productions’ claims against Ms Robinson, who was on a salary of $300,000 when she resigned, include breach of fiduciary duty, breach of duty of loyalty and shunting – a reference to the dispute over airline miles.

The suit also accused her of watching Netflix shows while working — an allegation that made headlines in 2019 — although Mr. De Niro’s lawyers did not bring up that allegation on the first day of the trial.

Mr. De Niro spent about 90 minutes on the witness stand Monday afternoon, answering questions from Ms. Robinson’s lawyers about the rigors of her job — she claimed she had to be “on call” at all times — and the specifics of her duties.

He said he would contact Ms. Robinson only at “civilized” hours, allowing her to work remotely when she wanted, and that her duties sometimes included scheduling and arranging travel and managing the purchase of gifts for loved ones.

“It’s not like I’m asking her to go out and scrape the floors and mop them,” said Mr. De Niro, who was wearing a dark jacket, a gray polo shirt and sneakers.

Mr. De Niro also addressed the feud between Ms. Robinson and his girlfriend, Ms. Chen, saying that when he introduced the two in 2018, “I wanted everything to work out. “I wanted everyone to be happy and play well.”

Mr. De Niro is expected to continue his testimony on Tuesday.

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