Leslie Hoffman has been battling the SAG Pension & Health Plans for years, fighting for the benefits she earned during her long and bruising career as one of Hollywood’s top stuntwomen. After she became disabled and unable to work in 2002, she began collecting SAG disability pension benefits. But after a slipshod investigation, the plan trustees determined that she had worked and held herself out for work while collecting those benefits and ordered her to repay $123,827.50 in benefits she’d received over a 13-year period, plus another $8,457.72 in interest on those payments.
Hoffman filed suit, and her case has been rattling around in the courts for years, but it turns out that the trustees and the Plans’ attorneys have known all along that she never worked under SAG’s jurisdiction while disabled. In fact, the Plans’ own records, obtained by Deadline, show that she has had no SAG earnings at all, except residuals, since 2001.
The only exception during all those years was the $332.86 she received in April 2005 from her work as a stunt coordinator on a film called Everything Put Together. But that film actually was shot in 1999 and released in January 2000, two years before she qualified for SAG and state disability – something the trustees knew all along.
And yet, despite knowing that she had no earnings under the union’s contract as a stunt performer or coordinator during all those years, the Plan’s trustees accused her of having “been engaged on certain projects as a stunt coordinator during the course of your claimed disability.”
Minutes of a board of trustees meeting show that while reviewing a spreadsheet of her work history, one trustee pointed out, “She got hired for active work of some sort. She was able to work in 2005. And she’s … correct?”
“I don’t know,” said another trustee.
“I don’t think so,” said another. “Those were in ’99.”
Indeed, those were the earnings from the work she’d done on Everything Put Together. And though the work had been done in 1999, that $332.86 in earnings was listed in 2005 because that’s when SAG forced the company to pay all the stunt performers an upgrade – six years after the low-budget film was shot. Other than that, she received no SAG income, other than residuals, during the years she was collecting SAG disability pay.
But you’d never know it by reading SAG Pension Plan attorney Jeffrey Kravitz’s reply to Hoffman’s opening brief, filed with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That reply, filed on June 15, goes into great detail about the history of the case but leaves out one key detail – that she hadn’t earned a dime under SAG contracts since 2002, even though Kravitz told the court that she had, while knowing that she hadn’t.
“Hoffman was holding herself out as available to work and did in fact work as a stunt coordinator, whether in a professional or an amateur capacity,” Kravitz wrote.
Minutes of another trustees meeting show that one of the trustees wondered “if there was a conclusion there is no work under a SAG contract that she could be … you know, be a telemarketer from home or something like that?”
In fact, during all those years, she never once worked in a “professional” capacity as a stunt coordinator, which is born out by the Plans’ own records. Her income tax records, which were provided to the Plan, also show that she received no pay at all as a stunt performer or coordinator during those years.
Her tax records were provided to the Plan’s benefit appeals committee, but in her brief, her attorney, Charles Fleishman, alleged that the committee “did not review Ms. Hoffman’s tax returns.” Kravitz, however, artfully argued that “in fact, the tax returns and a summary there of were made available to the committee, and even had they not been, the returns would not necessarily reveal that she had held herself out to work. Her website revealed that.”
Kravitz noted that in 2014, her website said that “Leslie is now coordinating stunts for Starship Farragut fan series.” He failed to tell the court, however, that she received no pay for this “work.”
Known for her stunt work on the Star Trek series Deep Voyager and Deep Space Nine, Hoffman had been invited to come “play” on the fan film, and paid her own expenses. “I’ve been a Trekkie since the ‘60s,” she said in a telephone interview. “Now I’m not allowed to be a Trekkie anymore?” Then, upset, she threw up.
As more proof of her alleged work history on unpaid fan films, Kravitz cited a recommendation from what he called a “client” of hers who appeared on her LinkedIn profile in 2014. It was written by Thomas Dahl, a Swedish fan filmmaker. “Leslie Hoffman,” Dahl wrote, “is hired as a stuntwoman, a stunt coordinator/advisor and an actress in the largest MTC production to date, and although the project has just started, I’d very much like to point out what a joy she is to work with.”
Trouble is, she was never hired by Dahl and was not a “joy to work with” because she never worked with him, and she was never Dahl’s “client,” as Kravitz told the court. Dahl had asked her to come to Sweden to work on his project, but she declined, citing ill health. And it was Dahl – not Hoffman – who posted that comment on her LinkedIn profile – something he now deeply regrets. “They have twisted the truth to a degree that in my country would mean jail time for those in charge,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
In a letter dated today, Dahl expressed his “utmost concern” that his mistake is being used against Hoffman in court. Read the letter here.
And this isn’t the first time the Plans have used inaccurate information as evidence to deny her benefits. It their initial ruling, the trustees offered a smudged printout from her IMDb page that listed her stunt work on a 2006 short film called Far as the Eye Can See as proof that she’d worked while receiving disability payments. As it turns out, that film, like the one for which she’d received the $332.86 upgrade, was shot in 1999 – years before she claimed disability. Proof that the Plan recognized that mistake is evidenced by the fact that Kravitz doesn’t mention it as evidence in his court filing; nor does he mention that it was once used as the basis for denying her benefits.
And yet he claims that “Hoffman has perpetrated a fraud upon the court and upon the Plan through her false representations regarding her ability to work.”
Hoffman was hospitalized three times for depression in 2003 and twice more in 2012, the last following an attempted suicide. In his reply, however, Kravitz appears to make light of her long history of mental instability, saying that it was not caused by the numerous head injuries and brain traumas her doctors diagnosed but rather by the stress of the lawsuit she’d filed against the Plan and the death of a pet bird.
“The plain language of the Plan states that an occupational disability pension requires that ‘the disability occur in the course of employment,’” he wrote. “Hoffman’s disability, as described by her treating psychiatrist and the Social Security Administration was ‘severe major depression.’ There is zero evidence in the administrative record that establishes that Hoffman’s severe major depression occurred in the course of her employment. The record does establish, however, that Hoffman has many other circumstances and events in her life that led to her diagnosis of severe major depression. For example, in a later report, one therapist said Hoffman was upset about this lawsuit and the death of her parakeet.”
But despite her long history of head injuries and mental instability, Kravitz claims that she should be able to go out and get a job as a stunt coordinator on a major film or TV show today. Hoffman, he wrote, “was and is able to engage in substantial gainful activity, as evidenced by the fact that Hoffman had been holding herself out as available to work as a stunt coordinator and has been engaged on several projects during the course of her claimed disability.”
But just because a mentally disabled person may have “held herself out” as employable, doesn’t mean that she actually is. In fact, any filmmaker who would hire a stunt coordinator with her undisputed history of mental illness would subject themselves to major legal consequences if a stunt accident were to happen on the set. For not only can she not do the job of designing, choreographing and supervising complex stunt scenes, she cannot and should not be hired to do it.
Kravitz, a former California deputy attorney general who’s currently a partner at Fox Rothschild specializing in copyright, trademark and unfair competition matters, declined comment.