A four-year legal battle between the actor Robert De Niro and a former employee went to trial on Monday in federal court in Manhattan, where competing claims of gender discrimination and improper spending were aired in open court.
The former employee, Graham Chase Robinson, who started as Mr. De Niro’s executive assistant in 2008 and ended up with the title of vice president, sued Mr. De Niro and his company, Canal Productions, for gender discrimination. She said in her lawsuit that Mr. De Niro had treated her like an “office wife,” directing her to wash his sheets and scratch his back, and had paid her less than a male employee whose job required no greater skill or responsibility than her own.
Canal Productions sued Ms. Robinson, accusing her of improperly transferring more than $450,000 in airline miles to her personal account and spending tens of thousands of dollars of company money on food, travel and other personal services.
The jury will decide the validity of both sides’ claims at the same time. In court papers, Ms. Robinson denied making unauthorized purchases or improperly converting airline miles, and Mr. De Niro denied her allegations of assigning her “stereotypically female” work.
On Monday, Mr. De Niro, 80, an Oscar winner who is currently in the spotlight for his role in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” took the stand as the trial’s first witness.
What is Graham Chase Robinson claiming?
Ms. Robinson, 41, who often goes by Chase, started working for Mr. De Niro as an executive assistant at 25, ultimately becoming vice president of production and finance at Canal Productions before resigning, in 2019. Despite her promotions, Mr. De Niro continually referred to her as his assistant, she claimed in the lawsuit, assigning her duties that were inconsistent with her job descriptions, such as vacuuming his apartment and mending his clothing.
She claimed that she was paid less than a male employee because of her gender, and that Mr. De Niro made demeaning gender-based comments that included him calling her a “bitch” and a “brat,” her lawsuit said. (Mr. De Niro denied doing so in court papers.)
The jury will consider two specific claims under New York City’s Human Rights Law: for gender discrimination and retaliation.
The retaliation claim revolves around a dispute between Ms. Robinson and Mr. De Niro’s current girlfriend, Tiffany Chen, as they worked together in 2018 and 2019 to prepare a townhouse on the Upper East Side for the couple to move into.
In opening arguments on Monday, a lawyer for Ms. Robinson, Brent Hannafan, said Ms. Chen had expressed concerns to Mr. De Niro that Ms. Robinson had romantic interests in him, leading to tension as they worked together on the townhouse.
After Ms. Robinson raised the issue to Mr. De Niro, Mr. Hannafan said, Ms. Chen sent an email stripping her of her job duties, including on the townhouse. Ms. Robinson resigned shortly after.
“There was no one more loyal to Canal and Mr. De Niro as Chase Robinson,” Mr. Hannafan said. (He said Ms. Robinson never had any romantic interests in her boss.)
What are Robert De Niro and his company claiming?
Lawyers for Mr. De Niro and his company have framed Ms. Robinson’s ascension in Canal Productions differently: Although she asked for the vice president title in 2017, they have said, her job duties coordinating Mr. De Niro’s personal and professional life did not change. They also said that the male employee she was paid less than — Mr. De Niro’s personal trainer — had worked for the actor for significantly longer than she had.
In opening arguments, Richard C. Schoenstein, a lawyer for Mr. De Niro and his company, acknowledged that the job of a personal assistant to a high-profile actor and business owner, like Mr. De Niro, could sometimes be unglamorous. But he asserted that Mr. De Niro had been a kind and generous boss, positioning Ms. Robinson as someone who “took advantage” of access to money and fame by charging “extraordinary” amounts of personal expenses and expensing a trip to Los Angeles under false pretenses.
“All of this was adding up to a serious breach of trust,” Mr. Schoenstein said, later adding, “None of the things that happened occurred because she was a woman.”
Canal Productions’ claims against Ms. Robinson, who was making a salary of $300,000 when she resigned, include breach of fiduciary duty, breach of duty of loyalty and conversion — referring to the dispute over the airline miles.
The lawsuit also accused her of binge-watching Netflix shows on the job — a claim that made headlines in 2019 — though Mr. De Niro’s lawyers did not bring up that allegation on the first day of the trial.
What did Mr. De Niro say on the stand?
Mr. De Niro spent about 90 minutes on the witness stand on Monday afternoon, answering questions from Ms. Robinson’s lawyer about the rigor of her job — she claimed that she had to be “on call” at all times — and the specific details of her duties.
He said that he would call Ms. Robinson only at “civilized” hours, allowing her to work remotely when she wanted, and that her tasks sometimes involved scheduling, arranging travel and managing gift purchases for loved ones.
“It’s not like I’m telling her to go out and scrape floors, mop floors,” said Mr. De Niro, who wore a dark blazer, a gray polo shirt and sneakers.
Mr. De Niro also addressed the dispute between Ms. Robinson and his girlfriend, Ms. Chen, saying that when he introduced the two in 2018, “I wanted it all to work. I wanted everyone to be happy and play nice.”
Mr. De Niro is expected to continue his testimony on Tuesday.