A four-year legal battle between the actor Robert De Niro and a former employee went to trial on Monday in federal court in Manhattan, where competing claims of gender discrimination and improper spending were aired in open court.
The former employee, Graham Chase Robinson, who started as Mr. De Niro’s executive assistant in 2008 and ended up with the title of vice president, sued Mr. De Niro and his company, Canal Productions, for gender discrimination. She said in her lawsuit that Mr. De Niro had treated her like an “office wife,” directing her to wash his sheets and scratch his back, and had paid her less than a male employee whose job required no greater skill or responsibility than her own.
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 money 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 converting airline miles, and Mr. De Niro denied her allegations of assigning her “stereotypically female” work.
On Tuesday, 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 for the second day as the trial’s first witness. He participated in hours of testimony that culminated in a tense back and forth about his former assistant’s allegations, leading Mr. De Niro to burst out on the stand: “Shame on you, Chase Robinson!”
What is Graham Chase Robinson claiming?
Ms. Robinson, 41, who often goes by Chase, started working for Mr. De Niro as an executive assistant at 25, ultimately becoming vice president of production and finance at Canal Productions before resigning, in 2019. Despite her promotions, Mr. De Niro continually referred to her as his assistant, she claimed in the lawsuit, assigning her duties that were inconsistent with her job descriptions, such as vacuuming his apartment and mending his clothing.
She claimed that she was paid less than a male employee because of her gender, and that Mr. De Niro made demeaning gender-based comments that included him calling her a “bitch” and a “brat,” her lawsuit said.
The jury will consider two specific claims under New York City’s Human Rights Law: for gender discrimination and retaliation.
The retaliation claim revolves around a dispute between Ms. Robinson and Mr. De Niro’s current girlfriend, Tiffany Chen, as they worked together in 2018 and 2019 to prepare a townhouse on the Upper East Side for the couple to move into.
In opening arguments on Monday, a lawyer for Ms. Robinson, Brent Hannafan, said Ms. Chen had expressed concerns to Mr. De Niro that Ms. Robinson had romantic interests in him, leading to tension as they worked together on the townhouse.
After Ms. Robinson raised the issue to Mr. De Niro, Mr. Hannafan said, Ms. Chen sent an email stripping her of her job duties, including on the townhouse. Ms. Robinson resigned shortly after.
“There was no one more loyal to Canal and Mr. De Niro as Chase Robinson,” Mr. Hannafan said. (He said Ms. Robinson never had any romantic interests in her boss.)
What are Robert De Niro and his company claiming?
Lawyers for Mr. De Niro and his company have framed Ms. Robinson’s ascension in Canal Productions differently: Although she asked for the vice president title in 2017, they have said, her job duties coordinating Mr. De Niro’s personal and professional life did not change. They also said that the male employee she was paid less than — Mr. De Niro’s personal trainer — had worked for the actor for significantly longer than she had.
In opening arguments, Richard C. Schoenstein, a lawyer for Mr. De Niro and his company, acknowledged that the job of a personal assistant to a high-profile actor and business owner, like Mr. De Niro, could sometimes be unglamorous. But he asserted that Mr. De Niro had been a kind and generous boss, positioning Ms. Robinson as someone who “took advantage” of access to money and fame by charging “extraordinary” amounts of personal expenses and expensing a trip to Los Angeles under false pretenses.
“All of this was adding up to a serious breach of trust,” Mr. Schoenstein said, later adding, “None of the things that happened occurred because she was a woman.”
Canal Productions’ claims against Ms. Robinson, who was making a salary of $300,000 when she resigned, include breach of fiduciary duty, breach of duty of loyalty and conversion — referring to the dispute over the airline miles.
The lawsuit also accused her of binge-watching Netflix shows on the job — a claim that made headlines in 2019 — though Mr. De Niro’s lawyers did not bring up that allegation on the first day of the trial.
What did Mr. De Niro say on the stand?
Mr. De Niro spent about 90 minutes on the witness stand on Monday afternoon, answering questions from one of Ms. Robinson’s lawyers about the rigor of her job — she claimed that she had to be “on call” at all times — and the specific details of her duties. Mr. De Niro said that he only called her at “civilized hours,” and that her tasks sometimes involved scheduling, arranging travel and managing gift purchases for loved ones.
On Tuesday, his exchange with the opposing side’s lawyer grew significantly more heated, as Mr. De Niro was asked directly about the behavior that Ms. Robinson alleges in her lawsuit. When the lawyer, Andrew Macurdy, asked Mr. De Niro about Ms. Robinson’s claim that he sometimes urinated on phone calls with her, the actor swatted it away, saying: “Give me a break with that nonsense. You get us all here for this?”
He acknowledged that he may have called Ms. Robinson a “spoiled brat” and said it was possible that he used the word “bitch” with her, but he said the behavior never crossed a line, saying: “I was never abusive. Period.”
His irritation escalated further when Mr. Macurdy asked him about Ms. Robinson’s allegations that he would ask her to scratch his back. Mr. De Niro acknowledged that it might have happened once or twice but rejected any suggestion that there was anything “lewd” or “disrespectful” to it.
The actor was also questioned at length about his company’s claims that Ms. Robinson had improperly used her company credit card, including more than $12,600 at a Manhattan restaurant, Paola’s, over about two years, and about $32,000 in Uber and taxi rides over the same time period. Mr. De Niro said that when it came to expenses, there were no written rules or policies but that he had put trust in Ms. Robinson to not abuse the company card.
“It goes back to common sense,” he said. “I trust you. Use your best judgment on that.”