Robert De Niro attends closing arguments in civil trial over claims by ex-VP, personal assistant

NEW YORK (AP) — Robert De Niro looked on Wednesday as a lawyer for a woman who worked for him for over a decade urged a jury in closing arguments to award her millions of dollars for emotional distress and reputational harm because the actor discriminated and retaliated against her.

Attorney Brent Hannafan argued on Graham Chase Robinson’s behalf in Manhattan federal court after De Niro’s lawyer, Richard Schoenstein, told jurors that Robinson was a disloyal employee who stole $85,000 worth of airline miles and owes De Niro damages.

“This is a civil rights trial,” Hannafan said. “Your verdict will have meaning when you return it, again, not just for Ms. Robinson, but for all civil rights litigants.”

He urged jurors to award Robinson “significant damages” of at least seven figures and “possibly up to eight figures,” a request consistent with her $12 million claim asserting gender discrimination and retaliation.

Schoenstein said De Niro, 80, was the victim of a woman who caused “drama and conflict” at his company and lashed out with a lawsuit when he didn't meet her demands to continue paying her $300,000 salary after she quit in April 2019 at the height of a feud with De Niro's girlfriend.

“This trial is the ultimate version of drama and conflict,” he said.

Robinson, 41, worked for one of De Niro’s companies, Canal Productions, beginning in 2008 as a personal assistant for less than $100,000 in salary. By 2019, De Niro had agreed to pay her $300,000 annually and elevated her title, making her vice president of production and finance.

The actor testified last week that her duties largely remained the same, though he gave her the boost in title at her request.

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.

De Niro sat relaxed in a chair between two of his lawyers during closing arguments. He declined to comment as he left the courthouse in a mask that protects against the coronavirus. It was the first time he'd been in court since he testified for two days early last week.

During his testimony, De Niro admitted that he had asked her to scratch his back and had used profanity, but he said he never did anything out of “disrespect or lewdness.”

He also said he never yelled at her, only to lean forward in the witness chair soon after and glare at her as he shouted: “Shame on you, Chase Robinson!”

When she testified, Robinson said she found it “creepy” and “disgusting” when De Niro told her that he liked the way she scratched his back when she suggested that he use a back scratching device instead.

Robinson said she quit after suffering an “emotion and mental breakdown” as she clashed with his new girlfriend in 2019 over preparations for a townhouse that was going to be a home for the couple.

Tiffany Chen, De Niro’s girlfriend, told De Niro in a series of emails that she thought Robinson was having “imaginary intimacy” with him and was a “mean, insecure, territorial girl” who “thinks she’s your wife” and “wants to be the lady of the house.”

Questioned about the emails when she testified last week, Chen did not back down, saying, “She’s crazy.”

In his arguments, Schoenstein asked the jury to compensate De Niro for his legal claims, which allege breach of loyalty and fiduciary duty requirements.

He said 5 million airline miles pocketed by Robinson were worth about $85,000 and that his client just wants “stuff back.”

“Use your common sense,” Schoenstein told jurors. “Nobody’s here to ruin the plaintiff."

“We’re not looking for you to punish her,” he later added.

Jurors were expected to begin deliberations on Thursday.