Last week, a jury in New York found Robert De Niro’s production company, Canal Productions liable for gender discrimination and retaliation against De Niro’s former assistant, Graham Chase Robinson.
The jury awarded Robinson $1.2 million in damages but found that De Niro was not personally liable. This legal battle stems back to 2019 when De Niro filed a lawsuit against Robinson for breach of fiduciary duty related to the alleged misuse of company funds, and Robinson countersued, alleging gender discrimination and retaliation. Let’s get into what happened.
Chase Robinson started working as Robert De Niro’s assistant in February 2008, when she was twenty-five. She became vice president of production and finance for Canal Productions in 2017 and left the company in April 2019. According to reports, her annual salary was $3000,000.
On August 17, 2019, Canal Productions filed a complaint against Chase Robinson for breach of fiduciary duty. The complaint alleged that Robinson abused her position by misappropriating her employer’s funds and property for personal gain. Specifically, the complaint alleged Robinson “charged hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses on Canal’s American Express Card; used and converted millions of Canal’s frequent flyer files for her personal use; improperly ‘reimbursed’ herself from Canal’s petty cash account for personal and luxury items; submitted false information in order to be paid for cash account for personal and luxury items; submitted false information in order to be paid for 96 days of ‘unused’ vacation time; and loaded during work hours, binge-watching astounding hours of TV shows on Netflix.”
Canal Productions sued Robinson for $6 million, and the complaint documents provided examples of Robinson’s alleged unauthorized use of company funds. In response to the complaint, in October 2019, Robinson countersued De Niro and Canal Production “on multiple counts, including gender discrimination, retaliation, and equal pay.”
Robinson alleged in her complaint that De Niro engaged in inappropriate, demeaning conduct and “gratuitous physical contact.” The complaint also alleged that De Niro underpaid her because of her gender. Additional allegations include claims of retaliation against Robinson by De Niro. After Robinson raised concerns about her working conditions, De Niro reportedly refused to provide her with a letter of recommendation for business school and denied her a reference. Furthermore, Robinson accused De Niro of instructing Canal Productions to file a retaliatory lawsuit against her following her departure from the company.
Robinson sought $12 million in damages for reputational harm and emotional stress, alleging she was unable to recover from the trauma she experienced at her job, which prevented her from gaining further employment.
What is Employment Discrimination?
This legal battle is a striking example of the many nuances involved in employment discrimination lawsuits. Employment discrimination is defined as a differential or less favorable treatment against a person because of their race, color, national origin, disability, age, genetic information, and sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation).
Discrimination can occur in the workplace, at school, and in public spaces and can be facilitated by employers, teachers, managers, coaches, and business owners, to name a few. Federal and state laws protect against employment discrimination, ranging from unfair treatment, harassment, retaliation, denial of a reasonable workplace accommodation, and improper questions about disclosing generic or medical information.
Historically, employees tend to be wary of making claims of employment discrimination, fearful of worsening workplace conditions or retaliation on the part of the employer. However, in recent times, employment discrimination has been spotlighted in the media –especially cases concerning sexual harassment in the era of #metoo.
Robinson Confronted De Niro in Court
Facing intense media scrutiny, Robinson testified against De Niro in a Manhattan federal courthouse. Over 11 days, jurors heard completing claims of discrimination and improper spending. Let’s breakdown the discrimination claims.
Robinson testified that she was a loyal and hard-working employee who loved her job despite the long hours and demanding environment. However, she stated she became disillusioned toward the end of her employment due to the kind of work she was expected to do and how De Niro treated her.
Robinson testified that De Niro assigned her work centered on taking care of him and his house. She specifically claimed, “Mr. De Niro had treated her like an ‘office wife’ directing her to wash his sheets” and other household tasks. She felt she was deliberately given “typical female” oriented tasks.
Additionally, she stated that De Niro made “demeaning, gender-based comments” and made her do inappropriate things, like scratch his back and talk to him on the phone while he went to the bathroom. Robinson also alleged she was paid less than a male employee because she is a woman. She argued the male employee’s “job required no greater skill or responsibility than her own.”
Robinson’s retaliation claim centered on a dispute with De Niro’s girlfriend, Tiffany Chen. Robinson and Chen worked together from 2018 to 2019, preparing a townhouse that De Niro and Chen were to live in. Allegedly, tensions grew between the two, and a series of disputes arose. Chen expressed concern to De Niro that Robinson “had a fantasy relationship with her boss,” at one point texting De Niro, “She thinks she’s your wife.”
According to Robinson, she wrote to Chen asking to be taken off the townhouse project to ease tensions between the two, which led to Chen emailing Canal Production employees suggesting that Robinson be stripped of all her responsibilities. Robinson resigned shortly after this.
De Niro’s lawyers framed Robinson’s position with Canal Productions differently. They argued that Robinson asked to be promoted to vice president in 2017, but her job duties coordinating De Niro’s professional and personal life remained the same.
When De Niro testified, he argued that Robinson’s claims made him sound like someone he was not. He said everything he asked her to do was “within the confines of her job working for [him] as [his] assistant.”
He denied allegations that he made her perform duties outside her job description, and when confronted about the back-scratching, he replied, “OK twice? You got me!” De Niro also denied ever yelling at Robinson, though he admitted he did berate her, but that he was never abusive.
At one point, while testifying during the trial, De Niro looked at Robinson and shouted, “Shame on you, Chase Robinson!”
The jury deliberated for around four hours over a single day before they reached a verdict. They awarded Robinson $1.26 million (roughly the amount she lost while unemployed after resigning as De Niro’s assistant). They found Canal Productions liable for gender discrimination and retaliation, but De Niro was not personally liable.
Regarding De Niro’s claims, the jury found them to be without merit. “Robinson was completely exonerated and not found guilty of any claims against her.”
Robinson smiled while the verdict was read, and after the trial, her lawyer stated, “We are delighted that the jury saw what we saw and returned a verdict in Chase Robinson’s favor against Robert De Niro’s company, Canal Productions. Not only did Ms. Robinson win her case against Canal, but the jury completely vindicated Ms. Robinson by finding De Niro’s claims against her to be without merit.”
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