Sanford Heisler Sharp Partner and Trial Practice Group Co-Chair Brent Hannafan served as one of the lead attorneys in the firm’s representation at trial of Graham Chase Robinson against actor Robert De Niro and his company, Canal Productions (“Canal”). In addition to garnering worldwide media attention, the nine-day trial, which began on October 30, 2023 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, resulted in the jury finding Canal liable for gender discrimination and retaliation and awarding Ms. Robinson $1.2 million in damages.
Q: Beyond the attention-grabbing headlines, what was this case about, at the end of the day?
Brent: As I told the jury at the start of our closing argument, this case is about civil rights. The civil rights laws of our country protect employees from discrimination and retaliation. Regardless of who your employer is or how much you are paid, everyone has the right to a workplace free of discrimination and retaliation. As the jury said with its verdict in favor of Chase Robinson, her employer discriminated against her on the basis of her gender, and then retaliated against her when she complained of that discrimination. This case is also about Ms. Robinson’s courage. She knew that when she chose to stand up and assert her rights against one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the entertainment industry, there would be repercussions for her both personally and professionally. But she stood her ground and fought for herself and her rights under the law. And when the trial was over, the jury completely vindicated her.
Q: Can you talk about why “protected activity,” as a matter of employee rights, was so vital to this case.
Brent: Protected activity are activities which an employee can take to raise a concern or allegation of discrimination with an employer without fearing retaliation. In Chase’s case, her protected activities included alerting her boss, Robert De Niro, that she believed (correctly) that she was being discriminated against based upon her gender. Taking those protected activities was vital to Chase’s case because, shortly after she raised her concerns, her employer retaliated against her for doing so. As a result, the jury found not only that she was discriminated against, but also that she was retaliated against for raising that discrimination. As a result, the jury awarded her approximately $632,000 on her gender discrimination claim, and awarded her approximately $632,000 on her retaliation claim as well.
Q: Are there particular actions that Chase Robinson took as an employee with a potential legal claim that are instructive for others in situations like hers?
Brent: Absolutely. Chase took several steps to alert her employer that she believed she was being discriminated against. She spoke with and sent a text to Canal Productions’ general counsel complaining of what she correctly believed to be harassment based upon her gender. She also emailed Mr. De Niro on multiple occasions and stated she was concerned about being discriminated against. Those notifications were critical pieces of evidence at trial. They were critical because they documented what she had complained about, to whom she had raised those complaints, and when she made them. An instructive lesson is that if you believe you may be the subject of discrimination, you should not only speak up, but you should also document your notifications to the best of your ability. That documentation would include what you said, whom you notified, and when you raised your concerns.
Q: Ultimately, the jury had to decide the following: Were Robert De Niro and Canal Productions liable for gender discrimination and retaliation against Ms. Robinson, and was Ms. Robinson liable on Canal’s counterclaims of conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of the duty of loyalty. In its verdict, the jury rejected the counterclaims against Ms. Robinson, and found that Canal was liable for gender discrimination and retaliation but that De Niro was not. Can you explain the difference?
Brent: Under the law, and as the evidence at trial showed, Mr. De Niro had placed his girlfriend, Tiffany Chen, in charge of directing and supervising Chase’s work as a Canal employee on a particular project he had assigned to Chase. Under the law of this particular case, because Ms. Chen discriminated and retaliated against Chase, Ms. Chen was essentially functioning as an agent of Canal and therefore the company was liable for her actions.
Q: This was your first civil trial after dozens of trials as a federal criminal prosecutor, including six years as Chief of the Criminal Division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee. Did your approach to preparing for trial and presenting the evidence at trial change?
Brent: Not at all. What is critical to success in any trial – whether criminal or civil – is the same: exhaustive preparation and professional presentation. As with all of my trials as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I focused on giving an opening statement that told a persuasive story the jury could understand. The same went for presenting Chase’s testimony on direct examination. She had to tell her story in a way the jury could easily understand and follow. With my closing argument (referred to as “summation” in the Southern District of New York), I wanted to focus on the most critical pieces of evidence before the jury and link it to the law the Judge would instruct them on, and also to what I told the jurors they’d hear during my opening statement.
Thankfully, the trial team did a fabulous job of presenting the evidence during the trial and I was able to present those links and connections in closing that allowed the jury to quickly find in Chase’s favor on her claims and against Canal on its claims.