Roberto De Niro trading blows in £15m court case battle

One’s his former PA who says she faced humiliation as Robert De Niro’s ‘office wife’. The other’s his partner who calls her nemesis a ‘dangerous psychotic’. Now they’re trading blows in a £15m court case

  • Veteran performer is suing his former assistant of 11 years for $6 million
  • Insisting she exploited terms of her employment by ‘feathering her own nest’
  • Graham Chase Robinson, 41, claiming $12 million (£9.8 million) in damages from former employer

As workplace disputes go, the one unfolding within the austere walls of New York’s Federal Court this week was always going to be notable.

It does, after all, feature one Robert De Niro — an 80-year-old double Oscar winner with a roster of some of the most impressive acting roles in film under his belt — and his opponent, a 41-year-old by the name of Graham Robinson, although she prefers to be known by her middle name, Chase.

As is customary in acrimonious employment disputes, both parties have a long list of grievances. But it is the mesmerising level of detail in them that has left the citizens of New York — not to mention just about everyone in the world — agog. 

Not least is the suggestion that De Niro might have found himself unwittingly in the middle of a jealous love triangle, at an age when most men are gently embracing their declining years.

The veteran performer is suing his former assistant of 11 years for $6 million (£5 million), insisting she exploited the terms of her employment by ‘feathering her own nest’, syphoning off corporate airline miles to her personal account and spending tens of thousands of dollars of company money on food, travel and other personal services, as well as watching ‘astounding hours of TV shows on Netflix’ when she should have been working.

Robert De Niro is suing his former assistant of 11 years for $6 million (£5 million), insisting she exploited the terms of her employment by ‘feathering her own nest’

The veteran actor’s opponent, a 41-year-old by the name of Graham Robinson, although she prefers to be known by her middle name, Chase

De Niro appeared frailer on the stand than he appears in his latest role in Martin Scorsese’s epic western drama Killers Of The Flower Moon

In turn, the 41-year-old college graduate is claiming $12 million (£9.8 million) in damages from her former employer, claiming she is a victim of gender-based harassment and discrimination who was treated as De Niro’s ‘office wife’. Among other indignities, she claims she was directed to wash his sheets and scratch his back.

These dizzying claims and counterclaims must be assessed by an eight-strong jury made up of five women and three men.

For everyone else, however, the legal case gives a tantalising glimpse behind the usual iron curtain of privacy that surrounds the veteran star — as well as the chance to goggle at the increasingly toxic relationship between Robinson and De Niro’s 45-year-old partner, Tiffany Chen, which is laid bare in a series of fascinatingly rude emails in which the latter calls the assistant ‘f****** rude’ and a ‘f****** b***h’.

When Chen testified in her partner’s defence on Thursday, she went one step further, calling Robinson a ‘dangerous psychotic’ and fantasist, and likening her to the lead in Single White Female, the 1992 psychological thriller about a woman who forms a dangerous obsession with her roommate.

Then there’s the small matter of De Niro’s performance on the stand. Somewhat frailer in the flesh than he appears in his latest role in Martin Scorsese’s epic western drama Killers Of The Flower Moon, he started to appear testy and out of sorts.

‘Shame on you!’ he yelled at Robinson at one point, after another bad-tempered exchange with her legal team.

‘Everyone who was in court is talking about it,’ one court observer told the Mail this week. ‘The general feeling was that on Monday he came across like the grumpy grandad figure he played in the comedy Meet The Fockers, and then he went full Godfather.’

Certainly, De Niro will not be enjoying his latest turn in the spotlight, given he is almost as dedicated to guarding his private life as he is to his craft (he famously moved to Sicily to learn Italian fluently for his role in The Godfather Part II, and worked as a New York cabbie for a month before filming the cult 1976 film Taxi Driver).

What we do know about his personal life is that it isn’t without complications. Twice married, De Niro has six adult children — two with first wife, actress Diahnne Abbott; twin sons with model Toukie Smith; and two with second wife, Grace Hightower. In April this year, he became a father for the seventh time at the age of 79, after Chen gave birth to daughter Gia.

He first met Chen, a martial arts instructor, in 2015 while filming The Intern, in which he starred. They officially became a couple three years after his 2018 divorce from Hightower.

Tiffany Chen, De Niro’s partner, had an incredibly toxic relationship with Robinson

He first met Chen, a martial arts instructor, in 2015 while filming The Intern, in which he starred

Less is known about his former employee’s personal life. Single and without children, she grew up in New York and graduated from St Lawrence University, 20 miles from the Canadian border, with a degree in English. She worked at Vanity Fair magazine between 2006 and 2007.

The following year, she joined De Niro’s production company, Canal, as his personal executive assistant, climbing to the role of director of productions and then vice-president of production and finance on a salary that rose to $300,000 (£246,000) a year by the time she left in April 2019. In her LinkedIn profile, she describes herself as an ‘entertainment professional’.

For many years, it seems the pair had a good working relationship: in court, De Niro acknowledged that despite being married to Hightower for the first few years of Robinson’s employment, it was his assistant who had, for a time, been listed as his emergency contact. He had relied on her to do everything from decorating the Christmas tree at his Manhattan townhouse to buying greeting cards for his children.

So far, so standard in the world of celebrity PAs, but there were other, more irregular requests. Earlier this week, during questioning from Robinson’s lawyer Andrew Macurdy, De Niro acknowledged he’d once asked his assistant to go to Nobu, the iconic New York restaurant he co-owns, at 11pm to fetch him a ‘particular martini’.

On another occasion, he telephoned her twice while she was attending her grandmother’s funeral to ask her to help him buy bus tickets for his son.

‘I don’t know if they were putting the body in the ground or at a wake or something,’ he responded, insisting Robinson had told him it would be OK to call her.

When, in 2017, the actor hurt his back falling down the stairs, it was Robinson he summoned at dawn to help get him to hospital. (Asked in court why he didn’t ask his then-wife, Hightower, to help him, he responded that ‘she was sleeping, I didn’t want to bother her’.)

Yet it seems relations remained cordial until 2018, before deteriorating markedly during the actor’s new relationship with Chen. The couple went public in August 2021 when they were photographed on holiday in the south of France.

By then, Robinson was long gone, having resigned from her role on April 6, 2019, following months of increasing tensions between her and Chen.

De Niro acknowledged he’d once asked his assistant to go to Nobu, the iconic New York restaurant he co-owns, at 11pm to fetch him a ‘particular martini’

De Niro’s latest film – Killers of the Flower Moon – was released in UK cinemas on October 20 

In the eye-popping texts and emails presented to the court, Chen emailed De Niro accusing Robinson of having ideas above her station, telling him ‘she thought she was your wife. I saw it from the beginning. I told you.’

While there was no suggestion of any romantic interaction between the two, Robinson’s lawyer, Brent Hannafan, put it to De Niro in court this week that his partner was ‘jealous’ of the close relationship he shared with his assistant, and that she believed Robinson was ‘in love’ with him. ‘I said I could not believe that, but now, looking in hindsight, maybe she had a point,’ De Niro told the court.

Either way, by November 2018 relations between the two women were sufficiently noxious for Robinson to proffer her resignation — a request that, as she subsequently claimed in an email shown to the court, the actor refused, saying he would ‘give a bad recommendation’ if she did. De Niro vehemently denies this claim.

Instead, Robinson negotiated a $100,000 (£82,000) pay rise to $300,0000, although by January 2019, an agreement had been reached that Robinson would have a phased exit over two years with full benefits and a positive reference.

None of this seems to have improved matters between the two women. By the end of March 2019, Chen emailed De Niro to tell him that if he continued to employ the ‘dismissive’ and ‘f****** rude’ Robinson, ‘you and I will have problems’.

‘I’m not going to be happy until you tell me she’s looking for a replacement,’ she added. ‘Keeping her around is just a slap in my face’.

Her mood was not improved on learning that her nemesis had suggested she continue to work for De Niro, but away from his New York home, prompting Chen to respond: ‘This b***h needs to get put in her f****** place.’

In the event, Robinson beat her employer to it, resigning four days later.

It was not long before lawyers were involved. After Robinson suggested she would need to retain legal counsel to renegotiate her exit package, De Niro and Canal filed their own lawsuit, branding her a ‘disloyal’ employee who repeatedly and methodically abused her position to misappropriate her employer’s funds for personal gain.

Among the myriad accusations laid out in their initial claim are that Robinson charged hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal expenses on Canal’s American Express card, and converted millions of Canal’s frequent flyer miles for her own use, as well as ‘reimbursing’ herself from Canal’s petty cash account for personal and luxury items.

De Niro’s girlfriend Tiffany Chen (pictured) dismissed Robinson as ‘obsessive, psychotic and dangerous’ in a fiery testimony earlier this week, when jurors were shown a series of hostile messages between her, Robinson and De Niro

De Niro’s former assistant Graham Chase Robinson pictured leaving federal court this week

Claiming that their suspicions had arisen in early 2019, their lawsuit stated that after her ‘sudden’ resignation, they initiated a review of their books and found, among other things, that she had reimbursed herself ‘under false pretences’ for personal services including a Louis Vuitton handbag and a dog sitter.

They also found she used Canal’s air miles and ran up a tab of $4,700 (£3,800) to fly to LA to attend a birthday party in the guise of a business trip in which she would distribute a number of books autographed by De Niro to be donated to charity.

She also spent thousands of dollars at a local flower shop and at Paola’s, a popular Italian restaurant close to her home, and accessed 55 episodes of Friends on Canal’s Netflix account between Tuesday January 8 and Friday January 11, 2019, which the lawsuit suggests equated to ‘loafing’ during working hours.

READ MORE: PLATELL’S PEOPLE – If De Niro was such a monster, why did his PA stay with him for 11 years?

Robinson firmly denies these accusations, and as we have seen, her detailed counterclaims are no less inflammatory. She alleges that De Niro made sexual jokes in her presence, talked to her on the phone while using the bathroom, and that one of her tasks as personal assistant was to scratch his back on the basis that ‘I like the way you do it’.

She also claims the actor would joke with her about his Viagra prescription and would lash out at her when drunk, using abusive and intimidating language. In one voicemail transcribed for the court, he screamed that she was a ‘f****** spoiled brat’ for failing to wake him for an appointment that he missed. De Niro also robustly denies these claims.

He was equally irritated when it was suggested to him that Chen had issued him an ultimatum to fire Robinson. In a line that could have come straight from one of the mobster movies that helped make his name, he bristled that ‘no one tells me what to do in my office. Period.’

What the jurors make of it all remains to be seen: the case is expected to last another week at least before they retire to consider their verdicts.

In the meantime, De Niro and Robinson will doubtless be anxiously awaiting what few can deny is a sorry outcome of a long working relationship.

‘I am very sad that this is where we find ourselves after 11 years of working so closely together,’ Robinson wrote to De Niro in a June 2019 email as legal letters traversed back and forth. ‘This is not what I wanted.’

Amid this unedifying public fallout, it is likely the Hollywood star will agree, at least, with this statement.

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