LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A judge said today she is inclined to allow a countersuit to proceed in its entirety against two former members of Lab Zero's board of directors who started the legal battle by suing the studio behind the ``Skullgirls'' and ``Indivisible'' games, alleging they were wrongfully fired in 2020 from the board by the lead designer.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yolanda Orozco issued a tentative ruling denying a motion by Mariel Cartwright and Francesca Esquenazi to dismiss Lab Zero's countersuit claims for intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, defamation and unfair business practices or acts in violation of the Business and Professions Code. The motion, which cited First Amendment grounds, did not challenge the other seven causes of action in the countersuit, which include breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets.
Orozco is scheduled to hear arguments Tuesday before issuing a final ruling.
Cartwright, who had a background as a game animator, and Esquenazi, a longtime producer, were fired from the board of directors in August 2020, their suit brought last April 1 states. The two women allege lead designer Mike Zaimont punished them for standing up to his alleged sexual harassment of employees. They also allege Zaimont made an insensitive comment after George Floyd's death that ``sparked an internet outcry'' and embarrassed other Lab Zero workers.
``This case is about retaliation by Lab Zero and its sole shareholder, Mike Zaimont, against two long-term employees who had the temerity to stand up against Mr. Zaimont's rampant sexual harassment of Lab Zero employees,'' the suit states.
Although the suit's allegations focus on the alleged misconduct of Zaimont, Lab Zero's lone shareholder, it does not name him as a defendant.
Throughout their Lab Zero employment, Zaimont subjected plaintiffs to a ``pervasive campaign of sexual harassment,'' including frequent unwanted touching, discussion about the size of his private parts, his sex life and his libido, the suit states.
He also made unwelcome comments about the bodies and dress of the two women, according to the suit.
Zaimont admitted his conduct was inappropriate, but complained that ``now I have to seriously consider whether the company needs to undergo sexual harassment seminars and have a dress code and an office code of conduct, and that sucks, I don't want to become one of those places,'' the suit states.
Zaimont said in jest that he was Lab Zero's human resources department and that he could fire employees who challenged him, the suit states.
A month after the May 25, 2020, death of Floyd in Minneapolis, Zaimont participated in a live-streamed gaming event as a representative of Lab Zero -- in which, while commenting on the match while a player was ``killing'' another game, jokingly said, ``I can't breathe,'' according to the suit.
The comment ``sparked an internet outcry'' and ``deeply embarrassed many on Lab Zero's team, who viewed them, as did much of the internet, as making light of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement,'' according to the suit.
Although Zaimont apologized, the incident caused employees of Lab Zero and others in the gaming community to break their silence about harassment they allegedly experienced at his hands, both publicly and privately, the suit states.
In the countersuit brought last May 20, Lab Zero alleges that throughout their employment, Cartwright and Esquenazi facilitated conversations with Zaimont about sex and related topics and later publicly mischaracterized those conversations as harassment.
The countersuit also alleges the two women began a competing business and discussed recruiting Lab Zero employees.
``After falsely accusing Zaimont of harassment and making public statements against him, (Cartwright and Esquenazi) destroyed Lab Zero's and Zaimont's public images, causing Lab Zero to break up and perish,'' the countersuit states. Cartwright and Esquenazi alleged that the Lab Zero resignation letter that Cartwright wrote with Esquenazi's help involved sexual harassment, a topic of public interest. But in her tentative ruling, the judge said Cartwright ``only generally touches on the issues of sexual harassment -- to explain, in part, why Cartwright had chosen to leave Lab Zero -- and is not closely enough linked with any ongoing public interest that might exist with respect to Zaimont.''