Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Robert De Niro and Ex-Aide Take Every Different to Courtroom Over Workplace Conduct

Robert De Niro is in a legal battle with an ex-employee after his company filed a lawsuit accusing her of running up expenses and binge-watching Netflix during working hours. On Thursday, she fired back with her own accusations that the actor subjected her to “gratuitous unwanted physical contact” and saddled her with domestic tasks that male employees were not asked to do.

The former employee, Chase Robinson, filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Manhattan accusing Mr. De Niro of asking her to perform such duties as scratching his back, buttoning his shirts, prodding him awake in his hotel room, doing his laundry and vacuuming — making her effectively an “office wife” even as she was promoted. Ms. Robinson’s suit also said that he berated her, often while intoxicated, calling her names including “bitch” and “brat”; and that he underpaid her compared with a male employee doing similar work.

“When he was verbally abusive he would be cursing and calling me names,” Ms. Robinson, 37, said in an interview, “he would hang up just to call back and do it all over again.”

In a statement, Tom Harvey, a lawyer for Mr. De Niro, called the accusations in Ms. Robinson’s suit “beyond absurd.”

The lawsuit comes more than one month after Mr. De Niro’s company, Canal Productions, alleged Ms. Robinson enriched herself by charging hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal expenses on a company credit card, spending, for example, more than $12,000 at an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side over two years and about $32,000 on Uber and taxi rides. It accused her of reimbursing herself or receiving direct payments for unauthorized purchases like a Louis Vuitton handbag and a dog sitter.

The accusation that dominated the headlines, however, was that Ms. Robinson had spent “astronomical” amounts of time watching television on the company’s Netflix account, including 55 episodes of “Friends” over four days in January. According to that lawsuit, such behavior was common for Ms. Robinson. It said that she “loafed” during work hours, streaming shows like “Schitt’s Creek” and “Arrested Development.”

In presenting her own account of her falling-out with her ex-boss, Ms. Robinson’s suit shifts some of the focus onto Mr. De Niro, 76, an intensely private A-list actor who has been in the public eye lately because of his role in the critically acclaimed film “The Irishman,” and his frequent four-letter denunciations of President Trump.

Ms. Robinson’s lawsuit denies the claims in Canal’s suit, filed Aug. 17 in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, and asserts that it was meant to intimidate Ms. Robinson after her lawyer warned Mr. De Niro’s lawyer that she had legal claims including discrimination.

Ms. Robinson’s lawsuit asked for at least $12 million, double what her former boss’s lawsuit demanded.

In 2008, Mr. De Niro hired Ms. Robinson, then 25, as his executive assistant at Canal Productions. The company “contracts the services of Robert De Niro to third parties,” according to its suit, and is separate from Tribeca Enterprises, an entertainment company that Mr. De Niro started with others in 2003. At Canal Productions, Ms. Robinson said, she assisted Mr. De Niro on films including “Hands of Stone” and “The Comedian.”

It is common for high-profile celebrities to hire people to handle personal matters, but Ms. Robinson said some of what she was asked to do crossed into inappropriate territory. Several times, she said, Mr. De Niro would ask her to scratch his back, sometimes requesting that she do so in a private bathroom adjoining his office.

Ms. Robinson said that several times when they were on the phone together, she could hear him urinating. Once, when he had asked her to purchase a television for his bathroom, Ms. Robinson said he asked her to imagine him sitting on the toilet so that she could figure out a good place for the television. She did not say his behavior ever rose to the level of groping or sexual propositioning.

Her lawsuit alleges gender discrimination, asserting that Mr. De Niro’s treatment of Ms. Robinson, including his name-calling, was gendered and that she was paid less than a male counterpart.

In an audio file of a 2012 voicemail message posted on the website of the law firm representing Ms. Robinson, Mr. De Niro can be heard berating her about a work-related matter, calling her a “spoiled brat” and saying “you’re history,” with an added expletive.

Ms. Robinson said that even as she took on new job titles throughout her 11 years at the company, eventually becoming vice president of production and finance, Mr. De Niro required that she do domestic work, such as vacuuming the floors and setting the table in his private home. She said that she complained to Mr. De Niro about his behavior and that, at times, things would improve temporarily.

Twice, Ms. Robinson’s lawsuit mentions an unnamed “paramour” of Mr. De Niro’s who is described as “disparaging” Ms. Robinson and assigning her “demeaning job duties.” Mr. De Niro is currently in divorce proceedings with his wife Grace Hightower.

Ms. Robinson said in an interview that, in April, she decided to resign over email because the work environment had become “so unbearable.”

Mr. De Niro’s lawsuit painted a starkly different picture of Ms. Robinson’s time at Canal Productions. The lawsuit described her as a once-trusted employee who used her operational knowledge to benefit herself. Ms. Robinson was paid generously for her work, the lawsuit said, and her salary climbed from about $175,000 in 2017 to $300,000 in 2019.

“The duration of her relationship with Mr. De Niro and the trust he had instilled in her resulted in her having autonomy as to the means and manner her services were performed,” according to the lawsuit filed by Mr. De Niro’s company.

Ms. Robinson said that the detailed expenses documented in Mr. De Niro’s lawsuit were made at the direction of the actor himself (the Louis Vuitton handbag was a gift for one of his employees, she said) or allowed under company policy. She said that other employees at the company and sometimes Mr. De Niro’s family members made use of her company credit card and that not all of the charges were hers.

As for the alleged binge-watching, Ms. Robinson said that she and her colleague put on “Schitt’s Creek” in the background while they were working on a monotonous task in the office. She said she would sometimes turn on “Friends” for “white noise” as she was falling asleep but that she has “never binge-watched during working hours.”

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