De Niro Lawsuit

Case Type: Gender Discrimination, Hostile Work Environment, Retaliation, Wage & Hour

Filed in: U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

Docket: Case No.: 1:19-cv-09156

**Update: On November 9, 2023, a jury found Canal Productions liable for discrimination and retaliation and awarded Graham Chase Robinson $1.26 million in damages. The jury also rejected Canal’s counterclaims of conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of the duty of loyalty. 

Sanford Heisler Sharp is representing Graham Chase Robinson, a former longtime employee of actor Robert De Niro, in her claims of gender discrimination and retaliation against Mr. De Niro and his corporate alter ego, Canal Productions, Inc. (“Canal”). The civil trial began Monday, October 30, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The lawsuit was filed on October 3, 2019.

Ms. Robinson was employed by Mr. De Niro and Canal for 11 years, from 2008 to 2019, rising from a role as the actor’s executive assistant to become Director of Productions at Canal and then Vice President of Production and Finance. The Complaint alleges that despite these titles, Mr. De Niro and Canal continued to assign her the duties of an “assistant” and under-paid her based on her gender. According to the Complaint, when Ms. Robinson pushed for pay equity in 2018 and 2019, Mr. De Niro, invoking gender-laden stereotypes, implied that a male breadwinner deserved more pay than Ms. Robinson, a woman without children.

The lawsuit also alleges that Mr. De Niro and Canal subjected Ms. Robinson to unwelcome physical contact, sexually charged comments, verbal abuse, and sex-stereotyping. One among many of Mr. De Niro’s tirades against Ms. Robinson was captured in a voicemail in which he berated and cursed at her. (WARNING: GRAPHIC LANGUAGE)

The Complaint further alleges that upon learning that Ms. Robinson had retained legal counsel for her protected claims, Mr. De Niro and Canal retaliated against her by filing a pre-emptive, baseless lawsuit that was designed to inhibit her claims, intimidate her into silence, destroy her reputation, and obliterate her job prospects.

Ms. Robinson’s federal Complaint is brought under the New York City Human Rights Law.

See below for day-to-day summaries of the trial, and click here to read a Q&A with Sanford Heisler Sharp Partner Brent Hannafan, who served as one of the lead attorneys at trial.

Trial Day 8

On the final day of testimony, Defendants called their expert psychiatric witness, Dr. Kimberly Resnick, who was questioned on direct examination by Gregory Bennett of Traub Lieberman. Andrew Macurdy of Sanford Heisler Sharp cross-examined Dr. Resnick.

The final witness of the trial was Dan Harvey, Robert De Niro’s personal trainer. On direct, Mr. Harvey testified about his work with De Niro. He was questioned by Laurent Drogin of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin. Mr. Macurdy cross examined Mr. Harvey.

Both parties presented closing arguments on Wednesday. In Defendants’ closing statement, Richard Schoenstein of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin stated that Mr. De Niro’s use of derogatory terms toward Ms. Robinson was “not a huge deal.”

Brent Hannafan of Sanford Heisler Sharp presented closing argument on behalf of Plaintiff Graham Chase Robinson. Mr. Hannafan discussed the evidence that Ms. Robinson had been a victim of gender discrimination by De Niro, including being berated, asked to scratch his back, and assigning her stereotypically female responsibilities. Furthermore, the evidence in the case showed that both De Niro and his girlfriend, Tiffany Chen, used derogatory and gendered language both to and about Ms. Robinson. Ms. Chen made multiple remarks about how she thinks Robinson was romantically interested in Mr. De Niro and wanted to be De Niro’s wife, despite Plaintiff’s testimony to the contrary. The evidence also shows that Ms. Robinson engaged in protected activity when complaining about the disparate treatment she was experiencing at Canal to De Niro and Canal’s General Counsel Tom Harvey, including referring to Ms. Chen’s treatment as “down-right harassment.” In response to these complaints, Defendants took away job responsibilities from Ms. Robinson and told Canal employees and others not to engage with Ms. Robinson related to the townhouse, demonstrating clear retaliatory intent. On Defendants’ claims, Mr. Hannafan reaffirmed that De Niro had approved the perks and benefits of Ms. Robinson’s job while she worked for the actor. For the 11 years she worked there, Plaintiff’s expenses were reviewed by Mr. De Niro and Canal’s accounting firm. For those 11 years, neither De Niro nor the accountants raised concerns regarding her spending and perks. De Niro testified that he left many of these benefits up to Ms. Robinson’s discretion.

Mr. Hannafan ended his closing statement by thanking the jury for their time and attention and asked them to return a verdict in Ms. Robinson’s favor on all counts. Tomorrow, the jury will be given instructions by the Judge between 9:30 and 11 am will then deliberate until they reach a verdict.

Trial Day 7

Plaintiff Graham Chase Robinson continued on cross examination by Richard Schoenstein of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin. Ms. Robinson gave additional testimony on purchases she made while working for Robert De Niro at Canal Productions and again testified that the charges were proper and approved. On redirect, Brent Hannafan of Sanford Heisler Sharp, questioned Robinson about her fear that if she sued Mr. De Niro, people would not believe her story over the word of a celebrity actor.

Kate MacMullin of Sanford Heisler Sharp questioned the Plaintiff’s psychiatric expert, Dr. Robert Goldstein. Dr. Goldstein testified on the severe mental and physical health problems Robinson has experienced, which he attributed to be the result of De Niro and Canal’s discrimination behavior and retaliation against Robinson. On cross examination by Laurent Drogin of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, Dr. Goldstein testified about the conclusions he reached regarding Ms. Robinson’s mental state.

Robinson’s mother, Andrea Robinson, took the stand today and was questioned by Brent Hannafan of Sanford Heisler Sharp. Chase Robinson has been living with her mother in Manhattan for the past several years. Her mother testified about the long hours her daughter had to work for Mr. De Niro, and the ways in which she has observed her daughter’s health decline since 2019. She was cross examined by Mr. Schoenstein.

Tomorrow, Defendants are expected to call their psychiatric expert, Dr. Kimberly Resnick. Defendants may also call Dan Harvey, Mr. De Niro’s personal trainer.

Trial Day 6

Richard Schoenstein of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin continued his cross examination of Plaintiff Graham Chase Robinson. Robinson testified about her oral agreements with Robert De Niro regarding airline frequent flier miles and use of uber and meal allowances, affirming that her actions were authorized by the actor.

Robinson also testified about multiple attempts she made to resign from Canal Productions. On each occasion, Mr. De Niro left her in a “lurch” by ignoring her requests, asking her to remain at the company for a longer period, and promising things would improve, only to repeat that cycle when she tried again to resign from Canal. Robinson testified about her job duties related to De Niro’s townhouse where he was living with his girlfriend, Tiffany Chen. Robinson spoke about feeling targeted by Chen while working on the townhouse project, even though she had an agreement with De Niro that she would shift away from tasks that related to De Niro’s personal life.

Robinson also testified that she was mentally and physically exhausted and debilitated in her final days at Canal, exacerbated by her interactions with Ms. Chen. She elaborated on her desire to obtain a recommendation letter from De Niro so she could apply to business school and advance her career. In her prior attempts to resign from Canal, Robinson had asked for a letter of recommendation from De Niro, a promise De Niro led her to believe he would keep.

Robinson will continue on cross examination tomorrow morning, followed by a redirect by Brent Hannafan of Sanford Heisler Sharp. Plaintiff will then call their psychiatric expert, Dr. Robert Goldstein, and Robinson’s mother will take the stand.

Trial Day 5

Plaintiff, Graham Chase Robinson, continued her direct examination conducted by Brent Hannafan of Sanford Heisler Sharp. Ms. Robinson testified that when she attempted to resign in November of 2018, Mr. De Niro became angry with her and even threatened to give her a bad recommendation, leaving her feeling as though her career was in his hands. She testified that by April of 2019, she was so exhausted in her role, having been harassed for months by the actor’s girlfriend Tiffany Chen, that she felt she had to resign from Canal Production and her position with Mr. De Niro.

Ms. Robinson spoke about feeling humiliated by the lawsuit filed by Mr. De Niro, and the fact that she has been unemployed for the past four years despite applying to 638 jobs. On Canal’s counterclaims, Ms. Robinson testified on the agreements she had made with Mr. De Niro, regarding the use of Delta SkyMiles, meal reimbursements and the use of Ubers while she was working. Ms. Robinson also testified to being called derogatory terms by the actor on multiple occasions.

Cross examination began midday and was conducted by Richard Schoenstein of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin. He questioned Ms. Robinson about her compensation compared to a male employee at the company. She also spoke about her responsibilities at Canal, and how Mr. De Niro “broke his promise” when they had agreed to shift her focus from matters relating to Ms. De Niro’s personal life to production responsibilities at Canal.

Ms. Robinson will continue her cross examination on Monday.

Trial Day 4

To begin the morning, Andrew Macurdy of Sanford Heisler Sharp, questioned Thomas Harvey, General Counsel for Canal Productions, on the lack of action into Chase Robinson’s complaint of being harassed by Robert De Niro’s girlfriend, Tiffany Chen. Laurent Drogin of Tarter, Krinsky & Drogin conducted direct examination of Mr. Harvey.

Ms. Chen, Mr. De Niro’s girlfriend of five years took the stand today. Cross was conducted by Vince McKnight of Sanford Heisler Sharp, Ms. Chen testified that she felt threatened by Chase Robinson’s relationship with Robert De Niro, was concerned that the relationship was impacting her private home life with De Niro, and believed that Chase Robinson wanted to be “the lady of the house” and was striving to be De Niro’s wife. There was testimony from Ms. Chen where she made it clear to De Niro that keeping Ms. Robinson would create serious problems in their relationship. Ultimately, Ms. Chen orchestrated matters in ways that allowed her to get what she wanted: Chase Robinson departed after eleven years of employment with Robert De Niro. Richard Schoenstein of Tarter, Krinsky & Drogin took Ms. Chen’s direct examination, further inquiring into her strained relationship with Ms. Robinson.

Plaintiff began her direct examination today, taken by Brent Hannafan of Sanford Heisler Sharp. Ms. Robinson testified to never being interested in a romantic relationship with her former employer. She further testified on her role working for Mr. De Niro, who required her to be available at all times. She testified that being available at all times included during her grandmother’s funeral, when she was taking her mother in the emergency room, and on one occasion when De Niro requested that she deliver him a Nobu martini at 11pm. Ms. Robinson testified that if ever she was not available to immediately respond to his needs, Mr. De Niro would continue to call and ultimately would berate Ms. Robinson.

Ms. Robinson will continue her direct testimony tomorrow and is expected to be on the stand the entire day and possibly into Monday morning.

Trial Day 3

Canal’s accountant Michael Tasch was questioned on cross examination by H. Vincent McKnight of Sanford Heisler Sharp. Tasch mostly testified concerning procedures for reviewing charges at Canal. Laurent Drogin or Tarter Krinsky handled direct examination.

Michael Kaplan, an employee of Canal, who overlapped at Canal with Ms. Robinson, was questioned by Andrew Macurdy of Sanford Heisler Sharp on cross examination. Kaplan testified that Chase was a head assistant and that De Niro relied on her to get things done. Kaplan’s direct was conducted by Gregory Bennett of Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry.

Sabrina Weeks-Brittan, another assistant at Canal, was questioned on cross examination by Vince McKnight. She testified about merely adding up categories of expenses on Canal’s American Express without having any knowledge about what Ms. Robinson was doing at the time of the charges. Brittany Lazzaro of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin conducted direct.

Thomas (Tom) Harvey, general counsel for Canal, was questioned by Andrew Macurdy on cross examination and will finish his testimony tomorrow beginning at 9 am.

Trial Day 2

On the second day of trial in Robinson v. De Niro, Andrew Macurdy of Sanford Heisler Sharp continued and completed his cross examination of actor Robert De Niro.

Mr. De Niro testified on the tumultuous relationship between Chase Robinson and De Niro’s girlfriend, Tiffany Chen. De Niro acknowledged that Chase Robinson was his go-to person for over a decade relating to his personal and professional life. He acknowledged using misogynistic language and berating Robinson; admitted to requiring Robinson to be available to him early morning till late at night; having Robinson take an Uber to bring him a Nobu martini at 11 pm; and calling her twice while she was out for her grandmother’s funeral, justifying the calls by explaining that it wasn’t during a time when the body was going into the ground. It also became clear through De Niro’s testimony that Chase Robinson ran into De Niro’s apartment during a fire to save his dogs, took him to the ER at 4:30 am because De Niro did not want to wake his wife, and made Robinson his emergency contact instead of a family member.

Mr. De Niro further testified on the Defendants’ counterclaims, including accusations of taking Delta SkyMiles and improperly charging for Ubers, taxis, and meals. However, De Niro admitted he had no personal knowledge of even one impermissible charge.

On direct examination, taken by Laurent Drogin of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, De Niro further testified on Defendants’ claims, as well as the letter of recommendation Ms. Robinson had asked Mr. De Niro to write on her behalf after she resigned from Canal Productions.

Vince McKnight of Sanford Heisler Sharp began cross examination of Michael Tasch, who largely oversaw accounting procedures at Canal Productions. Mr. Tasch testified to reviewing spending on Canal’s AMEX with De Niro during Ms. Robinson’s employment.

Trial Day 1

Eight jurors (5 women and 3 men) were seated today in New York federal court in the trial involving famed actor Robert De Niro. De Niro’s longtime executive assistant, Graham Chase Robinson, claims that De Niro and his company, Canal Productions, engaged in gender discrimination and retaliation against her. Brent Hannafan of Sanford Heisler Sharp gave an opening statement for Ms. Robinson. Rich Schoenstein of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin gave the opening statement for defendants Robert De Niro and Canal Productions.

Andrew Macurdy of Sanford Heisler Sharp began cross examination of Robert De Niro. Mr. De Niro was questioned about his relationship with his girlfriend, Tiffany Chen. Numerous emails were shown to the jury demonstrating that Ms. Chen felt threatened by Ms. Robinson’s role as De Niro’s assistant. Plaintiff expects to continue cross examination of Mr. De Niro tomorrow and defense will question him as well.

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