NEW YORK — A jury awarded more than $1.2 million to Robert De Niro’s former personal assistant Thursday, finding that a company he formed to look after his personal needs was liable for gender discrimination and retaliation after the former assistant accused the actor of subjecting her to a toxic work environment.
While the jury found De Niro was not personally liable for the abuse, they said his company, Canal Productions, should make two payments of $632,142 to his longtime personal assistant, Graham Chase Robinson.
De Niro, who spent three days at the two-week trial — including two on the witness stand — has been ensnared in dueling lawsuits with Robinson since she quit in April 2019. He was not in the courtroom when the verdict was read aloud on Thursday afternoon.
Robinson, 41, testified that De Niro, 80, and his girlfriend, Tiffany Chen, teamed up against her to turn a job she once loved into a nightmare. She smiled and hugged all her lawyers after the jury exited the room. She also smiled as the verdict was being delivered.
De Niro attorney Richard Schoenstein said outside court that lawyers will try to reduce the size of the award with post-trial motions.
De Niro and Chen each testified that Robinson became the problem when her aspirations to move beyond Canal Productions, the De Niro company that employed her, led her to make escalating demands to remain on the job.
In two days on the witness stand, the actor told jurors that he boosted Robinson’s salary from less than $100,000 annually to $300,000 and elevated her title to vice president of production and finance at her request, even though her responsibilities remained largely the same.
When she quit, De Niro said, Robinson stole about $85,000 in airline miles from him, betrayed his trust and violated his unwritten rules to use common sense and always do the right thing.
At times, De Niro acknowledged from the witness stand many of the claims Robinson made to support her $12 million gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit, including that he may have told her that his personal trainer was paid more than her in part because he had a family to support.
He agreed he had asked her to scratch his back on at least two occasions, dismissing a question about it with: “Ok, twice? You got me!”
He admitted that he had berated her, though he disputed ever aiming a profanity her way, saying: “I was never abusive, ever.”
He also denied ever yelling at her, saying every little thing she was trying to catch him with was nonsense and that, at most, he had raised his voice in her presence but never with disrespect. Then, he looked at her sitting between her lawyers in the well of the courtroom and shouted: “Shame on you, Chase Robinson!”
De Niro said Robinson was wrong to take 5 million airline miles from his company’s accounts, but he acknowledged that he had told her she could take 2 million miles and that there were no strict rules.
Robinson testified that she quit her job during an “emotional and mental breakdown” that left her overwhelmed and feeling like she’d “hit rock bottom.”
She said she has suffered from anxiety and depression since quitting and hasn’t worked in four years despite applying for 638 jobs.
“I don’t have a social life,” she said. “I’m so humiliated and embarrassed and feel so judged. I feel so damaged in a way. … I lost my life. Lost my career. Lost my financial independence. I lost everything.”
De Niro’s lawyers sued Robinson for breach of loyalty and fiduciary duty even before her lawsuit was filed against him in 2019. They sought $6 million in damages, including a return of the 5 million airline miles. The jury flatly rejected the claims.
In a closing argument Wednesday, Schoenstein said the miles that were taken were worth about $85,000. He said jurors could order Robinson to return some of her salary, but, he added: “We’re not looking for you to punish her.”
In his closing, Robinson attorney Brent Hannafan called the two weeks of court proceedings a civil rights trial and urged jurors to return a verdict “not just for Ms. Robinson, but for all civil rights litigants.”
De Niro has won two Oscars over the past five decades in films such as “Raging Bull” and “The Deer Hunter.” He’s in the Martin Scorsese film “Killers of the Flower Moon” that’s in theaters now.