The “sabbatical” that former Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies was on has proven to be far more complicated than it first appeared.
When Kotaku reported that Benzies had left Rockstar North back in January, the company told us he’d been on a sabbatical for several months and had “decided not to return to work for the company.”
Update 4:55 pm: Rockstar has issued a statement about the lawsuit:
“Leslie Benzies was a valued employee of our company for many years. Sadly, the events that culminated in his resignation ultimately stem from his significant performance and conduct issues. Despite our repeated efforts to address and resolve these issues amicably both before and after his departure, Leslie has chosen to take this route in an attempt to set aside contract terms to which he previously agreed on multiple occasions. His claims are entirely without merit and in many instances downright bizarre, and we are very confident this matter will be resolved in our favor. A core ethos since Rockstar’s inception has been the concept of ‘the team’. It is deeply disappointing and simply wrong for Leslie to attempt to take personal credit for what has always been the tremendous efforts of the entire Rockstar team, who remain hard at work delivering the most immersive and engaging entertainment experiences we can for our fans. We do not intend to comment further on this matter.”
Benzies paints a more complicated story. In a press release announcing a lawsuit against his former employer, Benzies claims he was “enticed by Rockstar” to take a sabbatical after the launch of Grand Theft Auto V. During that time, he reportedly discovered “numerous deceptions” designed to push him out of the company and deny him royalty payments to the tune of $150 million.
In December 2008, Rockstar parent company Take-Two Interactive announced long-term employment contracts and a “profit sharing arrangement” with Benzies and Rockstar co-founders Dan and Sam Houser.
“This new chapter in our successful relationship further aligns the interests of our creative teams with those of our shareholders,” said Take-Two chairman Strauss Zelnick at the time.
Benzies’ lawsuit says the agreements were identical for all three, and Sam Houser’s actions to remove Benzies from the arrangement was “the product of what turned out to be a lengthy deception” driven by “mounting resentments after many years of high praise.”
Benzies specifically called out the statement Rockstar issued to Kotaku about his sabbatical, calling it “out-of-bounds and inaccurate.” At the time, Benzies and Rockstar were in the midst of a “lengthy mediation” to find a middle ground, and Benzies disputes that he chose to leave:
“When attempting to resume his duties upon conclusion of his sabbatical on April 1, 2015, Mr. Benzies found himself unable to enter the Rockstar North office because his facilities access device had been deactivated. After being let inside by building security, Mr. Benzies was then ordered to leave by the Rockstar North office manager without reason.”
Since Benzies filed his lawsuit, Rockstar has countersued, claiming Benzies isn’t owed any additional money, due to breach of contract.
On March 23, 2015, Rockstar says Benzies sent a letter to the company asking for “exact financial parity with his co-Principals, prospectively and retroactively as of the Effective Date of the 2009 Royalty Plan.” In other words, he wanted to be on equal financial footing with the Housers.
On April 2, Benzies reportedly sent another letter asserting termination of his employment for “good reason,” in which the employee argues the employer has negatively impacted the employee’s ability to do their job. Alternatively, Benzies argued he’d been fired “without cause,” arguing he was due a compensation package involving royalties, even if he left.
Rockstar confirmed the group had been in mediation with Benzies, but negotiations were “unsuccessful” and disagreed with his “good reason” argument for leaving the company. Furthermore, Rockstar argued the royalty arrangement was such that Benzies was barred from even making the argument, as he had “no right to contest the royalty allocation” and even doing so was a “breach” of the plan he’d signed years ago.
The only way Benzies could be awarded the royalties he’s asking for, claims Rockstar, is by a group called the Allocation Committee, which includes Houser. “Sam Houser would have the sole authority to determine what, if any, royalty percentage should be allocated to Benzies,” reads the suit.
This lawsuit is a thorny situation, and it’s just getting started. We’ll be keeping an eye on it as it develops.