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Former Rockstar North head sues company for $150M in unpaid royalties (update)

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Cites company's 'deception' for reason he left

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Leslie Benzies, former president of Rockstar North and one of the lead producers on the Grand Theft Auto games, is suing Take-Two Interactive for $150 million in unpaid royalties, alleging that the company tried to force him out after he took a sabbatical.

Reports that Benzies had left the company emerged in January, following a sabbatical that began in September 2014. But according to a statement provided by Christopher Bakes, partner at the law firm Locke Lorde LLP, "while on sabbatical, Mr. Benzies discovered numerous deceptions on the part of Take-Two, Rockstar, Rockstar North Ltd, Sam Houser and Dan Houser, who sought to force him out of the company and terminate his portion of royalty payments based upon arbitrary actions by the company's royalty Allocation Committee, a committee that may or may not have actually ever met."

These alleged deceptions, according to Bakes, include unpaid royalties worth over $150 million. The lawsuit specifically cites the "mounting resentments" of Sam Houser, one of the co-founders of Rockstar Games, which allegedly led to Benzies' denial of compensation and eventual ousting.

In 2008, Benzies, along with Sam Houser and Dan Houser, entered a long-term agreement with Take-Two Interactive and Rockstar North after years at the company. They signed that contract alongside Take-Two's introduction of an "incentive compensation program" that was based on profit sharing, according to a press release. In the statement detailing his legal complaint, Benzies' contract with and payment from Take-Two was said to be identical to that of the Housers until his departure.

Also in question is Benzies' sabbatical, which Take-Two and Rockstar previously said ended with Benzies' departure from the company. After the January report that the president had parted ways with Rockstar North, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick confirmed the reports on a February conference call with investors.

"I can confirm that Leslie Benzies went on sabbatical in September of 2014," Zelnick said, according to a transcript of the call. "He's decided not to return to Rockstar Games." Zelnick went on to say he could not comment further on Benzies' future plans.

Benzies tells it differently. In the statement about the lawsuit, he claims to have attempted to return to work on April 1, 2015, only to find that his key had been deactiviated.

"After being let inside by building security, Mr. Benzies was then ordered to leave by the Rockstar North office manager without reason," according to the statement.

We've reached out to Take-Two Interactive regarding Benzies' allegations, as well as Benzies' legal team for clarification of the timing of events described in the lawsuit.

Update: Take-Two Interactive and Rockstar Games have filed a counter-suit against Benzies, citing a "breach of contract." In a document obtained from the United States District Court, the plaintiffs claim that Benzies officially left the company on April 2, 2015.

The company disputes Benzies' reason for terminating his employment, according to the documents; Take-Two Interactive claims that Benzies left the company without "Good Reason," thus excluding him from collecting the pre- and post-termination royalties otherwise promised in Take-Two's compensation plan.

"Benzies, however, continues to demand parity with respect to pre-termination royalty payments and post-termination royalty payments," Take-Two claims in the document. "The parties to this action have sought unsuccessfully to resolve this issue through mediation and now seek judicial clarification that would resolve this controversy."

Update 2: "Leslie Benzies was a valued employee of our company for many years," a representative for Rockstar Games told Polygon in an email. "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."

The full court document from Take-Two Interactive's counter-suit is embedded below.

TAKE-TWO INTERACTIVE SOFTWARE and ROCKSTAR GAMES v. LESLIE BENZIES