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Robert De Niro's company is found liable for gender discrimination

New York: A federal jury in Manhattan on Thursday found Robert De Niro’s company liable for gender discrimination against a former employee who claimed that the actor assigned her “stereotypically female” job responsibilities such as washing his sheets and attending to his home even as she climbed the ranks of his company, awarding her $1.3 million in damages.

De Niro and his former employee, Graham Chase Robinson, had been locked in a legal battle for the past four years over her claims, as well as the assertions by Canal Productions that Robinson had improperly spent tens of thousands of dollars of company money on food, travel and other personal charges, and had also co-opted roughly 4.5 million airline miles using company credit card points.

The jury of seven people, who reached a unanimous decision, did not find Robinson liable for Canal’s claims against her.

After five hours of deliberations, the jury also found De Niro’s company liable for Robinson’s claim of retaliation, which revolved around a dispute in 2019 between her and De Niro’s girlfriend that ultimately resulted in Robinson’s resignation from the company she had worked at for more than a decade. The jury did not find De Niro as an individual liable for either gender discrimination or retaliation.

Outside the courtroom, a lawyer for De Niro and his company, Richard C. Schoenstein, said he was pleased that the jury did not find De Niro himself at fault, saying, “Mr. De Niro has been exonerated.” He said he was not yet sure whether Canal would appeal the ruling. De Niro was not in the courtroom for the verdict.

Robinson hugged a member of her legal team after the verdict was read. She declined to comment to reporters afterward.

“Not only did Ms. Robinson win her case against Canal, but the jury completely vindicated Ms. Robinson by finding Mr. De Niro’s claims against her to be without merit,” said David Sanford, chair of the law firm that represented Robinson.

The trial put on public display the business practices and personal life of De Niro, who is one of Hollywood’s most recognizable actors and is currently in theaters with a prominent role in Martin Scorsese’s film “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

In more than six hours of sometimes colorful and explosive testimony, De Niro fiercely denied any wrongdoing and dismissed Robinson’s claims as “nonsense,” though he acknowledged that he could have called Robinson a “bitch” and a “brat” when she was his employee. He also addressed Robinson’s claim that De Niro asked her to scratch his back on occasion, saying that it may have happened one or twice, but that there was never any “disrespect” or “lewdness” attached to it.

“It is so ridiculous — it is every little thing she is trying to get on me,” De Niro testified. “It is like she implies that she is out in front of the building scrubbing the floors on her knees.”

Over an eight-day trial, the trove of evidence — including dozens of text messages and emails to and from De Niro — painted a picture of a deteriorating relationship between Robinson, who started in De Niro’s office as his assistant in 2008, and his girlfriend, Tiffany Chen, who started dating De Niro after meeting him on the set of the movie “The Intern,” in which she had a role as a tai chi instructor.

In 2018, when De Niro and Chen were preparing to move into a town house on the Upper East Side, Robinson was assigned to help set up the rental — a responsibility that she testified was outside the job description she and De Niro had discussed when he promoted her to vice president of production and finance. She testified that she grew increasingly unhappy with doing the “personal taking-care-of-people work” for De Niro, including picking out sofa fabrics and setting up for a birthday party for Scorsese.

“I kept on being given these jobs and objecting to them, objecting to wanting to be involved in setting up his home,” Robinson testified. “You do that with your girlfriend. Do that with your wife. You don’t do that with your female VP of production.”

After a series of disputes with Chen over Robinson’s work on the town house, she told a lawyer for the company that she felt she was the target of “downright harassment” by De Niro’s girlfriend, later raising the conflict directly to De Niro. In an email to De Niro about the issue that Robinson had raised, Chen said it was “so manipulative and nasty that she has the gall to place blame on me for her lies,” adding, with obscenities, that Robinson “needs to get put in her place.”

Not long after, she was taken off the town house project, and Chen sent emails to other Canal employees instructing them to limit their communications with her, which she testified had only been intended to narrowly remove her from work involving Chen. Robinson resigned soon after.

Lawyers for Robinson argued that Chen’s direction was retaliation fueled by gender discrimination, citing text messages from Chen to De Niro accusing Robinson of imagining a “fantasy relationship” with her boss. (Robinson said she never had any romantic interest in De Niro.)

“She thought she was your wife,” Chen texted De Niro in 2019 after Robinson informed her former employer that she would be seeking legal representation unless the company resolved her request for severance pay, recommendation letters and other items. “I saw it from the beginning.”

“The balls, the nerve, the chutzpah,” De Niro responded. “The sense of entitlement. How dare her.”

Lawyers for De Niro, 80, portrayed Robinson, 41, as someone who exploited the trust and generosity of her boss, who had already given her significant perks and gifts — including a Rolex watch and part of a vacation in Hawaii — while also agreeing to pay her a salary of $300,000 per year in 2019, far more than other Canal office workers were paid. They argued that even though she received title changes, per her own request, her job responsibilities remained that of a personal assistant throughout her 11-year employment, and they repeatedly underscored the fact that she had not made any formal complaint over gender discrimination until she had been accused of financial improprieties.

After Robinson’s resignation, Canal employees scrutinized her spending on a company Amex card; the company ultimately alleged in its lawsuit that in the final two years or so of her employment, Robinson improperly spent more than $12,600 of the company’s money at an Italian restaurant near her home on the Upper East Side, about $32,000 on car services and nearly $9,000 on personal food items. The company also objected to her charging it for 62 vacation days that she claimed were unused over about three years.

Several current and former employees at Canal testified that there were no written policies around expenses, with De Niro testifying that his policies included “common sense” and the “honor system.”

Robinson asserted that nothing she charged had been unauthorized and that her company credit card also reflected charges by and for others at the office. She testified that she and her boss had had several discussions about the perks she was allowed, which she said included converting Canal’s credit card points into personal airline miles and ordering Ubers instead of using the subway so she could always be available for his calls. (Once, she testified, he called about 11 p.m. asking for a martini from Nobu, the upscale restaurant franchise of which De Niro is a founder.)

She also testified that De Niro had agreed to let her transfer all of the company’s credit card points over to airline miles, though the actor acknowledged allowing only a certain number of miles, testifying that it had perhaps been “a million or two.”

“I wanted her to do it within reason,” he testified, “not to take 5 million miles.”

Punctuated by evidence of name-calling on both sides, the trial was animated by audio of phone calls between Robinson and former colleagues whom, she acknowledged, she recorded without their knowledge as her position at Canal became increasingly tenuous.

The jury made its decision based on the preponderance of the evidence, a lower standard than for criminal trials, which asks jurors to decide who has established the greater weight of the evidence. The gender discrimination and retaliation claims were brought under New York City’s Human Rights Law.

Testifying for nearly 13 hours, Robinson told the jury that she had been consumed by stress and anxiety since leaving Canal, and that she had had trouble eating, sleeping and getting another job — particularly because of the headlines when the lawsuit by De Niro’s company made claims of financial improprieties.

“I’ve been so humiliated and embarrassed, and I feel so judged,” she testified. “I feel just so damaged, in a way.”

(Published 10 November 2023, 04:54 IST)

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