UPDATED, 4:27 PM: A calmer Robert De Niro, facing friendlier questioning from one of his lawyers Tuesday, testified that he would give his departing personal assistant a job recommendation when she left but not the draft letter she submitted for him to sign after she abruptly quit in 2019 despite an earlier deal to stay on longer.
“I said, ‘There’s no way I can sign that now,’” De Niro said on the stand during Day 2 a civil trial in New York City pitting him against ex-employee Graham Chase Robinson, who has accused her former boss of gender discrimination, wage theft and retaliatory behavior. Jurors in the Manhattan federal courtroom also is weighing De Niro’s counterclaim that Robinson misused a company credit card for personal expenses and absconded with more than 5 million frequent-flier miles.
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The draft of a recommendation letter for graduate school, written as if in De Niro’s voice, made “preposterous” claims about the work Robinson did in her 11 years at De Niro’s business and personal services company Canal, the actor testified in his last turn on the stand before he was excused as a witness and left the courtroom. Earlier in the day De Niro shouted, “Shame on you, Chase Robinson!” while disputing accusations of sketchy behavior toward her.
De Niro also denied suing Robinson knowing his claims would attract news coverage harmful to her. He testified that he just wanted back the company property she took.
Robinson’s lawsuit characterizes De Niro’s refusal to give her a recommendation as payback for quitting. She later requested a separate job-recommendation letter along with a severance package, a press release announcing her departure and payment of unspecified legal fees — none of which she ever got. She hasn’t held a job since, according to her lawyers, who said she was left “damaged” by the falling-out with De Niro and wary of even leaving her home.
The draft letter for the London School of Economics credited Robinson for her team leadership at Canal, which had fewer than five employees, and with boosting morale by tackling a problem with employee health care. Asked by his lawyer, Laurent Drogin, about company morale under Robinson, De Niro said, “My understanding was that it was not good.”
The draft letter said Robinson helped to negotiate film budgets, which De Niro clarified only meant the “perk packages” covering his accommodations on movie shoots.
“She also excelled at handling the production work for my films,” it read — a claim De Niro flatly disputed, noting earlier that Canal isn’t his film production company.
“There’s so many things wrong with this letter,” De Niro said as he looked at the draft — written on Canal letterhead — projected on a video screen. In a final round of re-direct questioning, a Robinson lawyer pointed out that in her cover email she wrote that De Niro was free to modify the letter as he saw fit and that it was De Niro’s own in-house lawyer at Canal, Tom Harvey, who instructed her to draft it.
Day 2 of the trial also covered De Niro’s up-and-down relationship with Robinson. He allowed that he might have called Robinson a “bitch” on one occasion to her face and said she was “finished” because she failed one time to call him from Europe — where she sometimes worked remotely — and wake him in time for an important appointment.
“I berated her,” De Niro testified. “I wasn’t abusive. I was annoyed.”
But he said he had no intention of ever firing her and had struck a deal in late 2018 for her to stay on for two more years at an increased annual salary of $300,000, and with a promise of a recommendation letter.
He said he was also mediating a deteriorating relationship between Robinson and his girlfriend, martial arts instructor Tiffany Chen. “I was making excuses for Chase, and Tiffany was really trying to be friends with her,” De Niro said. In the end, he told her in early April 2019 that she would no longer be working on matters related to a Manhattan townhouse that De Niro and Chen were moving into together.
Robinson quit days later, not long after she had voiced qualms in an email about being caught in “the middle” between the two-time Oscar winner and Chen. In August, De Niro sued Robinson for theft of company property after an internal investigation of her spending whose findings Canal also turned over to the Manhattan D.A.’s office for possible criminal charges. None ever was brought.
Robinson’s suit followed De Niro’s lawsuit. On Tuesday Drogin asked De Niro if, before she quit, there was “any mention by Chase Robinson of any form of gender discrimination or retaliation?” De Niro said there was none.
Tuesday’s last witness was a longtime accountant for De Niro and Canal, Michael Tasch, who said that he couldn’t recall anyone ever questioning Robinson’s use of a company credit card.
Tasch also had to listen back to himself on a secret phone call recording made by Robinson — one of scores she made with coworkers and associates of Canal — in which he referred to Chen as a “psychopath.”
Tasch said beforehand that he had been “pretty hard on Tiffany” because she was adamant that the townhouse had a mold infestation and “was very demanding on it.”
“We did not believe her at first,” Tasch said, but Chen turned out to be right about the mold, and he and Robinson arranged to have it removed.
PREVIOUSLY, 11:13 AM: Robert De Niro erupted on the witness stand Tuesday at his former personal assistant during the civil trial in New York City that will decide if, among other allegations, he harassed her on the job.
“Shame on you, Chase Robinson!” the actor shouted toward the plaintiff in a Manhattan federal courtroom filled with spectators as he was questioned by a lawyer for Graham Chase Robinson about the actor’s conduct. The inquiry that set him off was whether he ever audibly urinated while in a bathroom on a phone call with his assistant.
“Give me a break with this stuff,” De Niro said toward the end of his second day of fielding questions from the lawyer, Andrew Macurdy. “You got us all here for this?”
“I don’t take liberties with people who work for me,” he said, describing the implication that he had done so was “so ridiculous, I don’t know what to say.”
De Niro was then asked if he had required Robinson to scratch his back. He protested, gesticulating on the stand as if to demonstrate that he was asking for help with a hard-to-reach spot. He then mocked Robinson for depicting her life in De Niro’s employ as one of endless servitude.
“She implies that she’s out in front of the building on her knees scrubbing the floor,” he said.
“There was never any lewdness or disrespect or weirdness that you’re trying to imply,” De Niro said to Macurdy, his voice rising. Then came the cry of “shame” hurled toward Robinson as she sat facing him in the well with her lawyers.
Judge Lewis J. Liman intervened to ask whether Macurdy would finish his questioning in time for lunch.
De Niro by that point had spent about five hours on the stand in all between Monday and Tuesday being grilled about his workplace policies — which he repeatedly said weren’t written down but were based on maxims such as “trust” and “do the right thing” — and the conflicts between Robinson and his girlfriend, martial artist Tiffany Chen.
Earlier Tuesday he said, “This whole case is nonsense,” as he was confronted with a text to Chen in which he wrote, “The balls, the nerve … how dare her,” after Robinson demanded a settlement and refused to waive legal claims against De Niro once she had quit the job.
“Tom will get her,” Chen wrote back, meaning Tom Harvey, the in-house lawyer at Canal, the company that manages De Niro’s business and personal affairs. At Chen’s urging, and with De Niro’s assent, Harvey was spearheading an internal investigation into Robinson’s use of a company card for personal expenses, and the alleged theft of items belonging to Canal.
Macurdy sought to attack the basis for De Niro’s own lawsuit seeking repayment of Robinson’s salary in her last three years at Canal, and monetary damages for her use of a company charge card for expenses including meals and ride shares. Robinson’s countersuit calls the De Niro suit retaliatory.
The frosty relationship between De Niro’s new girlfriend and his longtime personal assistant came to a head with the new couple’s move into a Manhattan townhouse and hastened the end of an 11-year working relationship between the Oscar winner and Robinson.
Who to blame for their professional split in 2019 is one more issue in the federal civil trial that got underway Monday. Robinson is accusing her ex-boss of gender discrimination, wage theft and retaliatory behavior. De Niro is suing Robinson for allegedly stealing from the company. The workplace theft included 5 million frequent-flier miles that Robinson transferred from Canal to herself on her way out the door, according to De Niro’s lawsuit.
On Monday, a De Niro attorney wasted no time depicting Robinson as a toxic employee. “Her fellow employees are going to tell you the truth: She was condescending, demeaning, controlling, abusive,” lawyer Richard Schoenstein told jurors in opening statements. “I could go on, but it would be better to hear from them directly when they take the stand.”
She was also “a good worker,” her former boss said on the stand Monday. “I relied on her, I trusted her,” De Niro testified under questioning from Macurdy. That trust was shattered, according to De Niro and his lawyers, when Robinson quit without notice in April of 2019 as an internal investigation of her company spending was getting underway at the urging of Chen, who De Niro met on the set of his 2015 movie The Intern.
The trial pulls together both De Niro’s initial suit and Robinson’s countersuit, and on day one it opened a window on the privileged life of the celebrated actor, Tribeca Film Festival founder, and owner of the Nobu restaurant and hotel chain. Before Robinson quit, she was making $300,000 a year as De Niro’s director of production and finance at Canal — a lofty title De Niro said he gave her “because she wanted it” — and working remotely from Los Angeles, London and Spain, with her vacations paid for by the company.
Robinson’s portfolio covered everything from family gift-giving to scheduling, press interviews and hotel bookings. She was named De Niro’s primary emergency contact, and the person De Niro called at 4:30 a.m. when he injured his back falling down stairs in his home.
Robinson was, in her own version of events, the employee on call at all hours who worked 80- to 90-hour weeks for less pay than De Niro’s personal trainer of nearly 40 years, Dan Harvey – lawyer Tom Harvey’s brother – and who put up with her boss’s crass behavior, uncomfortable requests and sexualized jokes.
“Mr. De Niro is one of the most well-known, wealthy, and powerful individuals in the entertainment industry,” Robinson lawyer Brent Hannafan told jurors Monday. “Chase was worried that if he wouldn’t give her a recommendation, she would not be able to get another job.”
All parties agree that the relationship finally collapsed over the “townhouse project,” as it was referred to in court. Robinson helped find the four-story property near Central Park for De Niro, Chen and several De Niro children. She was tasked with furnishing, decorating and child-proofing the interior before she was taken off townhouse duty by the couple. The last straw, by all accounts, was a delay in taking down artwork by De Niro’s father to accommodate some interior repainting.
Jurors saw texts and emails Monday from Chen to De Niro objecting to Robinson’s central role in the new home planning and an inflated, almost maternal sense of her standing with De Niro’s children. “She’s so out of line and lost in her fantasy she talks like she is the stepmother,” Chen emailed. She criticized Robinson’s “persistent manner and demented, imaginary intimacy with you.”
Robinson was furious at the demotion, according to De Niro’s lawyers, and quit soon after. Robinson has countered that she quit because De Niro and Chen made her working environment unbearable.
“I didn’t want her to break everybody’s chops and create a big chaotic problem,” De Niro said of Robinson, who looked on from her seat between her lawyers. “Of course I wanted it all to work. I wanted everybody to be happy and play nice, and unfortunately it didn’t happen.”