EXCLUSIVE: The SAG Pension & Health Plans are doubling down on their campaign to deny benefits to disabled stuntwoman Leslie Hoffman. First they refused to give her SAG health benefits, even after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that they had violated the law by not giving her a fair hearing. Now they’re taking away her SAG pension on the flimsiest of pretexts. The overriding question becomes whether the Plans are in self-protection mode because of similar potential claims that could come from stunt workers suffering from cumulative injuries.
Last Friday, the day after Deadline reported on her long legal battle with the Plans to get SAG disability health benefits, they sent her a letter informing her that they were taking away her $981.50-a-month SAG disability pension. And then they demanded that she repay $123,827.50 in SAG pension benefits she’s received over the last 11 years, plus another $8,457.72 in interest on those payments.
They want their money back, plus interest, they told her, because “The Plan became aware that you have been holding yourself out as available to work as a stunt coordinator and have been engaged on certain projects as a stunt coordinator during the course of your claimed disability.”
The only proof they offered were smugged printouts from her website and from her IMDB page, with a square drawn around four projects, released when she was receiving SAG disability payments, which listed her as a stunt coordinator. But even a cursory review of their own evidence shows that Frances Dee, the star of one of those projects, a short film called Far as the Eye Can See, had died in March of 2004, three months before Hoffman’s SAG disability hearing – indisputable proof that the work had been completed before she began receiving her pension. And had they bothered to read the letter written by the film’s director, Roy McDonald – and the supporting documentation he sent her attorney – they would have seen that although it had been released in 2006, it had actually been shot in 1999, five full years before she began collecting SAG disability.
McDonald said that he is shocked that the Plan would use his small film to take away Hoffman’s disability pension. “I thought that everyone in Hollywood knows that release dates are not the same as the dates films are shot,” he told Deadline. “This is a shame. She worked hard, tried to do the right thing, and this is what she gets.”
Two of the other projects were “Star Trek” fan videos for which she received no pay. One of them, called “Star Trek: New Voyages” – and misidentified on IMDB as a “TV series” – was filmed near her parents’ home in New York, and she would fly out there at her own expense, stay at her folks’ home, and visit the set and offer some friendly advice. It was not a job and it was anything but work.
Hoffman, who in her heyday had performed stunts in numerous episodes of real Star Trek TV sequels – Voyager and Deep Space Nine – was a welcome guest for the Trekkies making the fan webisodes. “She didn’t work and she wasn’t paid. None of us were. She came and played with us on her own dime,” the fan video’s art director, James Lowe, told Deadline. “She even paid her own air fare. I don’t know where they came up with the idea that she worked.”
Lowe, who had met Hoffman in the mid-1990s, knew that she’d been struggling with depression and thought it might do her some good to be surrounded by people who loved her and admired her work. “I became close friends with Leslie Hoffman and was well aware of the difficulties she was going through,” he wrote in a ‘to whom it may concern’ letter last July. “Knowing how much of a fan of Star Trek she was, I thought if she came and played Star Trek with us, we might be able to help bring her out of her depression. And I believe it did help. She ‘came aboard’ and found people who admired her not for her real work in Trek, but for her kindness, compassion and true friendship.”
It was more compassion than she’s being shown by the Plan trustees and administrators, who are also well aware of her struggles with mental illness. Her records show, and they know, that in 2003, she was admitted for psychiatric treatment on three occasions and was ultimately diagnosed with “severe major depression.” The next year, the Social Security Administration awarded her disability benefits due to her depression. They also know from her medical records show that she suffers from a traumatic brain injury, which she says was caused by the numerous concussions and head injuries she sustained over the course of her career as a stuntwoman: from being dropped on her head nine times until they finally got the right shot for Clue; from one too many stunt car crashes; from falling down too many flights of stairs, and from being too close to one too many powerful special effects explosions.
They know all that, but instead they focus on her webpage, where she described herself as a stunt coordinator on another short Star Trek fan webisode – Starship Farragut – for which she again received no pay. And they focus on an IMDB entry that lists her as the “fight coordinator” for a 12-minute USC student film titled Dead Ballerina, which was written, directed, produced, edited and cast by the same person, who also did the cinematography, production design and sound mixing. And again she received no pay.
That was the evidence they cited as proof that she’d been holding herself out as available to work as a stunt coordinator, and that she had been engaged on “certain projects” as a stunt coordinator during the time of her “claimed disability.” That was the evidence they cited for demanding that she return more than $123,000 in pension benefits, plus interest, down to the penny. And if she doesn’t pay it back, they say, they’ll deduct it from her regular SAG pension when she becomes eligible.
Hoffman’s case, and the slipshod and casual methods the Plan has used in denying her benefits, is one that could affect dozens – and perhaps hundreds – of other stuntmen and women who will, or already have been denied full SAG disability benefits.
A very telling internal email and the minutes of a June 18, 2010, SAG P&H trustee meeting on her disability claim clearly show a prejudicial and cavalier attitude towards her. Those documents, obtained by Deadline, also reveal that Plan officials had another concern, of far greater import than her case: that by granting her claim, they might be opening the flood gates to disability claims from other stuntmen and women who had become disabled by cumulative injuries sustained over the course of their careers.
“What I fear is if you were to grant this to Leslie Hoffman, you would – and if it got out, which I’m sure it would – you would have a lot of claims from a lot of performers who worked a lot more on a regular basis and probably suffered a lot more harmful events than Leslie did,” a trustee said at her SAG disability hearing. “And I think if we were to go down this road, we would be opening ourselves to a lot of claims.”
“My concern is that this could open the door for much of the stunt community to qualify for an occupational disability pension when that was not the case,” wrote Plan COO Christopher Dowdell in a June 4, 2010, email about Hoffman’s case. “I don’t believe in this case that she has proven that her disability is really occupational.”
In that same email, Dowdell, who two years later would become the head of the Plans after its CEO, Bruce Dow, resigned in disgrace amid allegations of nepotism and fraud, wrote that Hoffman should be denied SAG health coverage because the Plans had determined that her disability had nothing to do with her years of stunt work. And he came to that conclusion knowing full well that the Plans’ own medical director had stated that he believed that her disability may have been caused, at least in part, by her years of dangerous stunt work.
“Our basis for denial on this is essentially she has been certified as totally disabled due to her psychiatric illness and not any occupational injury,” Dowdell wrote in the email to Plan attorneys Mark Hess and Michelle Stimson. “We did get some additional information which prompted our medical director to opine that her disability may be partially related to her injuries sustained as a stuntwoman.”
Michael Chavez, who was the director of the Plan’s pension department, alerted the administrators that the Plan’s own rules may have require them to grant her request for health benefits based on an accumulation of injuries over her career, and not just because of one specific career-ending injury.
“I do want to discuss Michael’s question in regards to cumulative injury over the course of a career vs. a specific injury that happened on a specific day and time,” Dowdell wrote in his email. “Does the interpretation of the Pension Plan’s rule include that this could be a result of years of cumulative injuries? That wasn’t how I first read it, but I am thinking that it could be interpreted that way.”
And yet, despite that, and despite the opinion of the Plans’ own medical director, they denied her SAG health coverage on the grounds that her disability was not due to “any occupational injury.”
Hoffman was well known – and not very well liked – by many of the trustees of the SAG benefit plans, who had served with her when she’d been the first stuntwoman ever elected to the SAG and AFTRA boards of directors, where she’d been considered a trouble-maker in her tireless crusade for the rights of women and minority stunt performers. That animus was expressed during her June 2010 SAG benefits hearing when one of the trustees made a Freudian slip that sent the room into gales of laughter.
“I appreciate that she has been damaged,” the female trustee said, “but when I look at her list of all the things that are wrong with her, all those things are wrong with me too, and I don’t claim disability. And not because I have done stunts, but because I have done stupid athletic shit all my life…She is getting a disability pension and she is getting Medicare. So although I would like to hurt her not help her…”
The transcript for the hearing notes that when the trustee said “hurt her not help her,” the “Room breaks out in loud laughter.” And after the laughter subsided, a male trustee chimed in: “I am going to simply agree.”
Hoffman had once been one of Hollywood’s top stuntwomen: she doubled as Queen Elizabeth II in a slide down a 40-foot banquet table with Leslie Nielson on top of her in Naked Gun; she crashed into the back of a truck atop a motorcycle sidecar in John Belushi’s 1941, and she leapt off the Love Boat, falling 78 feet into the cold waters of Los Angeles Harbor.
But by 2002, she couldn’t do it anymore, and the next year suffered a nervous breakdown. In 2004, the Social Security Administration awarded her disability benefits due to her depression, and would later note that she suffered from a “severe” and “degenerative” back injury. Later still, a top expert in the field, Dr. J. Michael Uszler, would conclude that she had sustained a traumatic brain injury “most commonly clinically associated with head injury.”
Dr. Jeffrey Salberg, who she’d been seeing for years, wrote in 2011 that she “remains disabled due to post concussive syndrome as a result of multiple head injuries sustained as a result of her employment of being a stunt woman. She has had ongoing symptoms of the condition since I first began caring for her in 1998 and they have failed to improve after evaluation and treatment by specialists.” In 2012, he diagnosed her with “traumatic brain injury and “severe back, neck, knee and shoulder injuries…due to continuous traumas throughout her stunt career.”
In 2004, the SAG Plan gave her a disability pension, but only for her depression, not for any lasting injuries from her stunt work. In 2009, she applied to convert her SAG disability pension into an occupational disability pension in order to receive the additional benefit of SAG health coverage. And that’s when her legal ordeal began.
In order to qualify for an occupational disability benefit, she had to show that she suffered from a total disability that occurred in the course of employment covered by the Plan. To support her claim, she presented the Plan with a Social Security report that showed that she suffered from a “severe” and “degenerative” back injury – evidence that she says showed that her disability was not only emotional, but physical, as well, and that it had been caused by years of stunt work.
But the Plan trustees determined that none of her ailments were due to work-related injuries, and turned her down for SAG disability health coverage. She filed suit in U.S. District Court, but her case was dismissed. She then appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and ordered plan administrators to reconsider her case because they didn’t follow their own rules – or the law.
“Notably,” the appeals court ruled, “the district court acknowledged that the Plan erred in failing to obtain a second medical opinion in assessing her administrative appeal in violation of Employee Retirement Income Security Act regulations.”
The 9th Circuit, which found that “Hoffman worked as a stunt actress in motion pictures, but ceased work…because of a variety of physical injuries,” determined that she had not been provided a “fair hearing,” and ordered the Plan to allow her to present additional evidence. “We conclude that the district court erred in dismissing Hoffman’s claim on summary judgment because she is entitled to a second medical opinion and a fully developed record resulting therefrom.”
Hoffman then presented the Plan with the results from two brain scan tests that showed that she has a traumatic brain injury, but after two more Plan experts looked at her file – without ever once examining her – the Plan once again concluded that her injuries not the result of job-related injuries, and once again refused to give her SAG health benefits. And because she had asked for SAG health benefits, they reopened her entire case, and began scouring IMDB in an attempt to definitively prove, once and for all, that she had worked while collecting SAG disability payments. And now they want their money back, plus interest.